Behind the Recipes

Foolproof All-Butter Pie Dough

How we developed our ultimate pie dough.
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Published Oct. 15, 2017.

Outside the kitchen I'm sometimes a bit of a klutz, but give me a rolling pin and a lump of traditional all-butter pie dough—the kind that's dry and brittle and exhibits an alarming tendency to crack—and I'll dazzle you with my proficiency and grace as I roll it into a flawless circle.

It's a skill that's taken me decades to acquire, and practicing it makes me feel like some sort of high priestess of pastry. Happily, that feeling of accomplishment became accessible to even the most inexperienced bakers in 2010 when we developed our Foolproof Pie Dough, which is soft and moist and a dream to roll out and bakes up flaky and tender. But as great as that recipe is, I've never been 100 percent converted from my traditional ways (for reasons that I'll explain).

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Upending Pie Tradition

The 2010 recipe controls the ability of the flour in the dough to absorb water, and that's important because water bonds with protein in flour to form gluten, the elastic network that gives baked goods their structure. If there's too little water, the dough will be crumbly and impossible to roll and the baked crust will fall apart; too much water and the dough will roll out easily enough, but it may shrink when it bakes and will certainly be tough.

To appreciate just how revolutionary the 2010 recipe is, it's helpful to recall the way that pie dough has been made for centuries: You start by combining the dry ingredients—flour, salt, and sugar—and you cut in cold butter until it's broken into pea-size nuggets. Then you add water and mix until the dough comes together in a crumbly mass with visible bits of butter strewn throughout.

But our 2010 dough spurns tradition: Using a food processor, you mix 1½ cups of flour with some sugar and salt before adding 1½ sticks of cold butter and ½ cup of shortening (often added to pie doughs to increase flakiness); you continue processing until the fat and the dry ingredients form a smooth paste. Next you pulse in the remaining cup of flour until you have a bunch of flour-covered chunks of dough and a small amount of free flour.

Finally, you transfer the dough to a bowl and stir in ¼ cup of water and ¼ cup of vodka to bring it all together. Why vodka? Because it's 60 percent water and 40 percent alcohol, and alcohol doesn't activate gluten. So replacing some of the water with vodka gives you the freedom to add enough liquid to make a moist, supple dough without the risk of forming excess gluten.

Recipe

Foolproof All-Butter Dough for Single-Crust Pie

Our ultimate pie dough. It uses all butter, it’s dead easy to roll, and it bakes up tender, crisp, and shatteringly flaky.
Get the Recipe

Taking the All-Butter Route

I've made plenty of pies with the 2010 dough, but honestly, I'm not crazy about using vodka and shortening. I don't always have spirits on hand and, purist that I am, I prefer the richer flavor and cleaner mouthfeel of an all-butter pie crust. So I was intrigued when food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who developed the original recipe while working at Cook's Illustrated, went on to create a shortening- and vodka-free version of the dough for the website Serious Eats. How could it work without shortening and vodka?

Quite well, actually. The new recipe called for just 6 tablespoons of water—the ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) called for in the original recipe plus 2 additional tablespoons to replicate the water content in ¼ cup of vodka. Even with less water, I found the dough only a little harder to roll out than the original, and it baked up just as tender and flaky.

Turns out that the quirky mixing method was much more important than I'd initially realized. Thoroughly processing a lot of the flour with all the fat effectively waterproofed that portion of the flour, making it difficult for its proteins to hydrate enough to form gluten. Only the remaining cup of flour that was pulsed into the paste was left unprotected and therefore available to be hydrated. The result was a limited gluten network, which produced a very tender crust even without the vodka.

And how did Lopez-Alt's recipe work so well even without shortening? Well, shortening can be valuable in pie dough because it's pliable even when cold, so it flattens into thin sheets under the force of the rolling pin more readily than cold, brittle butter does. But the flour-and-butter paste in this dough also rolls out more easily than butter alone would, so with the paste mixing method there's no shortening required.

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Why the Mixing Method Matters

Many of the pie dough recipes we consulted during the recipe development process call for a range of added water—which can create anxiety, especially in novice bakers, about adding too much and turning the crust tough. Our recipe reduces the potential anxiety by calling for a specific amount. Here’s why we don’t need a range: “Waterproofing” two-thirds of the flour by thoroughly mixing it with butter in the food processor ensures that the ½ cup of water we call for goes only toward amply hydrating the remaining flour, consistently producing a dough that is moist and workable. When we used the same quantities of ingredients to create a dough mixed in the traditional way—pulsing the butter into the flour until pea-size pieces form and then folding in the water—the result was dry and crumbly.

A Grate Solution

There's no denying that the mixing method is a real game changer, but the crust it produces has a couple of faults that offend my perfectionist sensibilities. When I make pie dough the old-fashioned way I always get a nice sharp edge and a shatteringly flaky crust, but the edges of crusts made using the paste method usually slump a bit in the oven, even when I'm hypervigilant about chilling and even freezing the formed crust. And that flakiness, which looks so impressive when you break the crust apart, doesn't hold up when you eat it. The crust is a bit too tender, so the flakes disintegrate too readily on the palate.

Luckily, I thought I might know a way to fix both problems with one solution: I made a dough with a full ½ cup of water. My hope was that it would actually produce a little more gluten, thus giving the baked crust more structure and true crispness.

With all that water, the dough was as easy to roll as the vodka crust had been, and the slightly increased gluten gave the baked crust a more defined edge. But the crust was still a bit too tender for my taste. Perhaps there was simply too much fat in the mix. Maybe the best way to decrease the tenderizing effect of the butter was simply to decrease the butter.

I had been using two-and-a-half sticks of butter to equal the amount of fat in the vodka pie crust. For my next batch I cut back to an even two sticks of butter, but that crust baked up hard and tough, especially at the edge. It felt stale right out of the oven. It was just too lean; I'd have to bring the butter back up to two-and-a-half sticks.

But something was bugging me: Over the years I'd made plenty of traditionally mixed all-butter pie crusts with an equally high proportion of fat, and though these doughs were challenging to roll out, the finished crusts always boasted just the right balance of crispness and tenderness. Why was this one so infuriatingly delicate?

And then I realized: In the traditional method much of the butter is left in discrete pieces that enrich the dough without compromising gluten development, but in my new crust, every bit of the butter was worked in. Perhaps the answer was to use the same amount of butter overall but to use less butter in the paste and to make sure that some of the butter remained in pieces.

photo of the Earth next to a photo of rolled-out pie dough

Our rolled-out Foolproof 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.

Cutting the butter into very small pieces wasn't feasible, but what if I grated it? I gave it a try, shredding 4 tablespoons of butter on a box grater. To ensure that those pieces stayed firm enough not to mix with the flour, I froze them. Meanwhile, I processed the remaining two sticks into the dry ingredients. After breaking up the paste, I pulsed in the remaining flour, transferred the mixture to a bowl, and tossed in the grated butter. Finally, I folded in ½ cup of ice water, which was absorbed by the dry flour that coated the dough chunks and the grated butter.

After a 2-hour chill, the dough rolled out beautifully, and it looked beautiful, too. The fat-rich paste and the shredded butter–flour mixture swirled together, making a subtly variegated dough overlaid with thin wisps of pure butter. Once baked, the crust held a perfect, crisp edge and was rich-tasting while being both tender and truly flaky.

Now that I have an all-butter pie dough that's a cinch to roll out, I'm ready to adopt a new tradition.

Recipe

Foolproof All-Butter Dough for Double-Crust Pie

Our ultimate pie dough, designed for a top and bottom crust.
Get the Recipe
Recipe

Foolproof All-Butter Dough for Single-Crust Pie

Our ultimate pie dough. It uses all butter, it’s dead easy to roll, and it bakes up tender, crisp, and shatteringly flaky.
Get the Recipe

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