- Flavor and texture enhanced by whole-grain flour
- Tender, flaky crust
- Easy to roll out
I have been making pies for more than three decades but it was only recently, while developing our new pie dough recipe, that I truly understood how pie dough works.
The ideal pie crust is always described as both tender and flaky, but what nobody acknowledges is that those two attributes are contradictory. To produce tender baked goods (think muffins and quick breads), you mix gently to minimize gluten development. But for flaky layers and crisp texture (think croissants and puff pastry), robust gluten development is a must, meaning that it’s impossible for a single dough to bake up both flaky and tender. In an ideal world, properly made pie dough would actually be a combination of two doughs—one high-gluten for flaky layers and one low-gluten for tenderness.
In our new pie dough recipe, we employ an unusual mixing method to achieve this layered effect. We first use the food processor to make a paste with 60 percent of the flour and most of the butter, effectively waterproofing that portion of the flour, which makes it very hard for its proteins to hydrate enough to form gluten. This constitutes the low-gluten portion of our pie dough, and it’s the source of its tenderness and most of its richness.
Then we break that dough into chunks and coat them with the remaining 40 percent of the flour before tossing in the remaining butter, which we have grated and then frozen. Finally, we add the water (and we add quite a bit), which thoroughly hydrates the unprotected portion of flour and allows plenty of gluten to form in that part of the dough. Each nugget of low-gluten dough is now surrounded by a jacket of higher gluten dough. When you roll it out, you get layers of low-gluten dough interspersed with layers of higher-gluten dough. They’re a bit hard to see in this particular pie dough because it’s layers of white on grayish white on creamy white. But when it’s baked, the layers are obvious, and the crust has that ideal—yet contradictory—texture: both tender and flaky.
Our rolled-out Foolproof Whole-Wheat All-Butter Pie Dough looks a lot like an aerial view of the earth: It has wisps of fat and fatty flour strewn across it. A traditionally made dough will be more speckled in appearance.
The butter that’s worked into the initial batch of flour prevents that portion from forming gluten, effectively transforming all-purpose flour into gluten-free flour, which raised an interesting question: Could I use any flour in that paste, regardless of its gluten-forming potential, and still make a perfectly flaky and tender crust?
To find out, I whipped up three batches of my dough: one with gluten-free flour (zero gluten-forming potential), one with higher-protein bread flour (forms more gluten than all-purpose flour), and one with all-purpose flour (as a control). In all three doughs I used all-purpose flour for the remaining 40 percent to ensure I’d have enough gluten development to produce crisp flakiness. I shaped and blind-baked each crust, and then tasted them side-by-side. I was pleased to find that all three crusts turned out equally tender and perfectly flaky, proving my theory correct.
Now that I knew I could use pretty much any flour for the first portion of my pie dough, I was eager to explore some of my favorites: whole grain flours, which would add a nutty complexity to my crust. I want to be clear here: my aim was to boost flavor and texture, not healthfulness. Once you put 2½ sticks of butter in a single recipe, you’ve clearly abandoned all pretense of nutritional piety. But whole grain flours, such as wheat, rye, and buckwheat, offer a wealth of flavors, textures, and colors that standard all-purpose can’t possibly match. Why paint every room in your house Winter White when you have the whole Pantone range at your disposal?
Many bakers shy away from whole-grain flours because they are a bit challenged in the gluten department. Not only do they contain slightly less gluten-forming protein than white flour, but also the bran in whole-grain flours cuts through many of the gluten strands that do form. This lack of structure-forming gluten can lead to disappointingly dense, delicate, or crumbly whole-grain baked goods. But if gluten-free flour posed no problem in my pie dough, then whole-grain flour seemed like a sure bet.
So I made the recipe and substituted whole-wheat flour for that initial 60 percent to create the low-gluten portion of the dough. As before, I stuck with all-purpose flour for the remaining 40 percent. It rolled out easily, and the darker flour brought the benefits of the mixing method into sharp focus.
Unlike many pie doughs that incorporate whole wheat, ours bakes up with plenty of shattery, crisp layers and is tender without being overly crumbly or fragile. It works just as well as a blind-baked single crust as it does a double-crust pie.
The whole-wheat version baked up as beautifully tender and flaky as the original recipe. It had an enticing tawny color and a faintly nutty aroma that would pair equally well with tart rhubarb and traditional apple fillings. Encouraged, I made a rye version, which baked to a handsome, dusky hue and had a hint of sweet, grassy flavor that would make a perfect match for sour cherries or a cheesey, oniony quiche.
Now that I know I can use any whole-grain flour in my dough, I have plenty of options to see me through the next 30 years of pie making.
Flavor and texture enhanced by whole-grain flour
The bran and germ in the whole-grain flour give this pastry a pleasantly rustic appearance and a mildly nutty taste.
Tender, flaky texture
We combine the tender, butter-rich whole-wheat portion of the dough with a leaner, gluten-rich portion made with all-purpose flour, which produces the perfect balance of tenderness and flakiness.
Easy to roll out
The whole-wheat flour in our recipe is coated with butter, which makes the mixture pliable and resistant to absorbing moisture. That means that the ½ cup of water in our recipe needs to hydrate only the remaining 1 cup of all-purpose flour, leaving that pliable as well. These two components combine to form a supple dough that is a breeze to roll out.