Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Recipe: Pie Dough

This is not my great secret on pie dough. This is simply a collection of information and tips that have helped me gather the courage to make pie dough. If you're intimidated, I hope this helps...because it turns out it's not that bad ;-)

I've always been intimidated at the thought of making pies. Not so much by the filling as by the crust. I've tried some recipes, and as someone who follows a recipe with precision, I was always frustrated when the resulting dough seemed so difficult to work with. I've also been dismayed at the time it takes to get a crust ready for use (i.e., chill in the refrigerator before using). That just requires a lot of patience in my book!

But I've been tempted yet again to try my hand at making pies. In reading various cookbooks, it occurred to me to try making a free form tart because
  • it only requires one rolled out circle of pastry
  • it doesn't require a dish (e.g., pie pan, tart pan)
  • you can put as much or as little fruit (within reason) as you like into the tart and it holds up pretty well
So, I went with Michael Ruhlman's Ratio for a sweet pie dough: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water, plus sugar. I mixed 12 ounces of flour with 2 tablespoons of sugar, then added 8 ounces of very cold cubes of salted butter (or use unsalted butter, but add 1/2 teaspoon salt). A pastry blender would keep the butter from warming at the touch of my hand, but I don't have one so I use my hands. To offset the warmth of my hands, I put the diced butter in the freezer for about 10 minutes, then toss it into the flour and start rubbing the butter to mix. The butter doesn't have to be completely blended in. The best description I've heard for the look of mixture is that it should look like damp sand, though it should contain plenty of chunks of butter. I then add up to 4 ounces of ice water. Since one of the tricks in getting the pastry right is getting the right amount of water in, Ruhlman points out that the amount of water required will vary from pastry to pastry because of the weather, humidity, the kind of fat used in dough, etc. So I pour out 4 ounces of water, and slowly added it to my pastry until I achieve the right texture: sticks together, but isn't too wet. I then cut the mass in half, shape each into a disc, wrap them in cling film, and put them in the refrigerator. Chill for at least 15 minutes, though some sources say as long as 1 hour. Something to consider if you have the time.

That's the tough part, which I've found that after a few attempts, is no longer as tough as it used to be. I chill the dough for 30 minutes, or I wrap it up well, put in a zip top bag, and freeze. When I need it, I leave the frozen disc in the refrigerator overnight, and it's ready to use. Since the above proportions give me enough pastry for two discs, I can use one now, and freeze one for later.

Now, here are some random tips I've picked up from here and there:
  • From Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking: "The secret to flaky pastry is to make the butter believe it is solid. The small pieces of cold butter must be left whole and flattened within the dough. They must not be allowed to combine with the flour but should remain intact."
  • Ruhlman says that too much water or kneading will result in a tough dough. But Yard tells us that having a slightly wet, tacky dough is better than a dry one. As in life, it's all about balance.
  • The addition of a bit of acid (e.g., 1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar) will help inhibit the gluten proteins, which can make rolling easier.
  • If you mix the dough by hand, all you need is a bowl and a scale (for precision). Though some recipes suggest using a food processor, that's a lot of extra cleaning up!
  • You can buy premade dough that can be rolled out at home (e.g., Trader Joe's frozen pastry circles). Since you still have to roll out the dough for your purposes, you're only saving that first step of mixing everything together, about 10 minutes. Yes, you have to chill it. But you would also have to defrost the frozen dough.
  • If you buy a premixed dough, you can't control flavor (e.g., Ruhlan's savory dough: omit sugar, add 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano).
  • Use good butter. We love Kerrygold Irish butter, which we find at a reasonable price at our local Trader Joe's.
  • If you're intimidated, you'll likely find that after a few attempts, it's actually not that difficult or time consuming. And the end result is lovely. It feels good to make something so basic and versatile.
Some other sources that provide some great tips and insight on technique and recipes for their version of the perfect pie dough:

Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Dough @ Serious Eats

Pie Crust 102: All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough @ Smitten Kitchen

Perfect Pie Crust @ Simply Recipes