How to Make a Homemade Pie Crust, According to Science

iStock/bhofack2
iStock/bhofack2

If you've ever flipped through a cookbook, you could be forgiven for thinking that making a homemade pie crust looks easy. After all, the recipe calls for just three ingredients: flour, water, and fat (and a pinch of salt for flavor). What could go wrong?

Well, everything. Make one mistake, and your homemade pie crust could turn into a leathery, brittle, gummy, crumbly, tough, or—worst of all—soggy mess. And that’s because science is standing in the way of that flaky fulfillment.

Homemade Pie Crust: The Basics

Let’s start at the top of the recipe. Most cookbooks recommend “cutting in” (or incorporating) the fat into the flour until the mix resembles a coarsely ground meal. Then, you add cold water in small increments.

The reason? Gluten.

Gluten is a protein formed when two other protein molecules called glutenin and gliadin, found in wheat, interact with water. The more you mix or knead water into dry flour, the more cross-linked bonds between the molecules (and the more gluten) you’ll create, giving the dough strength and structure. Homemade pie crust, however, is delicate. Too little gluten, and your crust won't be strong enough to hold itself together. Too much gluten, and your crust will become tough and chewy [PDF].

And that’s why cutting in the fat properly is so important. If you under-mix the fat, the flour will be too powdery and might require extra water to create a malleable, workable dough. Each extra drop will increase the risk that you'll form too much gluten. On the other hand, if you over-cut the fat, you won’t have enough dry flour available to take in water at all. In that case, you won’t make enough gluten, and your piecrust will crumble.

Chill the Fat

Pie crust recipes universally agree that the fat must be well chilled. That's because, if the fat melts prematurely during mixing, you could introduce unwanted moisture to the flour—thus promoting the overproduction of gluten. (This is especially true if you're using butter, which is 15 percent water. It's less worrisome if you're baking with lard and shortening, which contain little—if any—water at all.)

Gluten-control aside, there's another reason to keep fat chilled. When you eventually roll the crust, layers of cold fat will be flattened and stretched throughout the dough. When this fat finally melts in the oven, it will leave behind air pockets that will expand as water in the dough evaporates. This sudden phase change is the secret to flaky crust—and it'll never occur if your fat melts too early.

While bakers like to bicker over what fat is best, we'll leave that up to you. Butter is praised for its taste. Shortening is praised for its consistency. Whatever you choose, work fast—butter melts around 95℉, lard around 110℉, and shortening at 117℉ [PDF]. And keep in mind that while it's easiest to cut in cold fats with your hands, it’s also the easiest way to accidentally warm the fat. Work quickly!

To ensure that fat stays cold until baking time comes, some bakers recommend refrigerating the rolling pin. Others go so far as to recommend rolling the dough with a chilled bottle of wine. (Frankly, we like this second idea because, after all, you can’t drink a rolling pin while waiting for a pie to bake.)

Pick the Proper Pan

Even if you cut in fat at the ideal consistency and the right temperature, you could still end up with a dreaded soggy bottom. To avoid a flabby pie, the bottom crust must harden before the wet filling above has a chance to seep in—and that means you need heat. We’ll let the folks at Cook’s Illustrated explain:

“In its raw state, pie dough is made up of cold, solid fat distributed among layers of moist flour. These layers are easily permeated by juices from the ... filling, which stay in the dough for the duration of  baking, producing a soggy crust. The key to protecting the dough is to partially liquefy the solid fat as quickly as possible so that it can better fill and coat the spaces among the particles of flour, creating a watertight barrier and preventing the juices from soaking in.”

The quicker the pastry heats, the less likely that juices from your filling will leech into the bottom crust. So when picking a pie tin, consider what conducts heat the quickest: Thick metal pans will heat faster than glass, and glass will generally heat faster than stoneware. (That’s not to say glass or stoneware are bad choices. Glass heats slowly but it will stay intensely hot for longer durations and, as a result, may actually bake something faster. And ceramic is generally agreed as the prettiest for serving, though people have different opinions on it for baking. But if you use either, you many want to place them in the hottest part of the oven for the first few minutes. Better yet, lay them on a pizza stone.)

There are plenty of other techniques to cook the bottom quickly. Some experts recommend placing the pie tin on a preheated baking sheet that has spent 15 minutes in a 400℉ oven. Others swear by using dark, metal tins. (According to the BBC, “black tins will absorb more heat than light-colored shiny tins, which reflect heat.”) You can also coat the pie’s bottom in an egg wash before adding any filling. Heat will cause the egg proteins to thicken and bind, creating an extra barrier between the crust and filling.

As the pie bakes, the filling will create steam within the crust, and you want to avoid trapping moisture. Cut generous slits into the pie’s top lid. Not only do these look attractive, they allow steam to escape.

Finally, the best part about making a homemade pie crust is eating the pie. Pop that bottle of wine/rolling pin and get slicing.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Surprising History of Apple Cider Doughnuts

Apple cider doughnuts have a surprisingly modern history.
Apple cider doughnuts have a surprisingly modern history.
bhofack2/Getty Images

Apple cider doughnuts are synonymous with fall, particularly in New England, where apple orchards from Maine to Connecticut use their own cider to flavor the fluffy, golden rings. Both sweet and savory, and often dusted in finger-licking cinnamon sugar, apple cider doughnuts may seem like a quaint tradition inherited from Colonial times—but the tasty treats have a more modern history that may surprise you.

It all started with Russian immigrant and entrepreneur Adolf Levitt. According to Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, Levitt bought a chain of New York bakeries in 1916. He was impressed by American soldiers’ fondness for the fried loops of flavored dough and began developing a doughnut-making machine to take advantage of troops’ appetites. In one of his early marketing coups, he installed a prototype in the window of his Harlem bakery in 1920. The machine caught the eye—and the cravings—of passersby. Levitt went on to sell his doughnut-making machines and a standardized flour mix to other bakeries.

He spun his marketing prowess into founding the Doughnut Corporation of America. The corporation evangelized doughnuts in marketing campaigns across print media, radio, and TV. A World War II-era party manual the DCA produced noted, “no other food is so heartwarming, so heartily welcomed as the doughnut.” Levitt’s granddaughter Sally L. Steinberg wrote that Levitt, “made doughnuts America's snack, part of office breaks for coffee and doughnuts, of Halloween parties with doughnuts on strings, of doughnut-laden political rallies.”

The DCA launched the first National Doughnut Month in October 1928. In its zeal, the DCA sometimes made dubious recommendations. In 1941, along with surgeon J. Howard Crum, it advocated for the single source “doughnut diet.” Later it marketed “Vitamin Doughnuts” based on an enhanced flour mix it claimed provided more protein and nutrients than made-at-home creations. (The federal government required them to use the name “Enriched Flour Doughnuts,” according to Glazed America.) A skeptical public didn’t gobble up the sales pitch—or the doughnuts.

In 1951, however, the DCA introduced a flavor with staying power. A New York Times article from August 19 of that year observed, “A new type of product, the Sweet Cider Doughnut will be introduced by the Doughnut Corporation of America in its twenty-third annual campaign this fall to increase doughnut sales. The new item is a spicy round cake that is expected to have a natural fall appeal.”

The cider doughnut recipe gives a fall spin to the basic buttermilk doughnut by adding apple cider to the batter, with cinnamon and nutmeg boosting the autumnal flavor. Each orchard typically has its own family recipe and usually serves them paired with mulled apple cider. The doughnuts have caught on well beyond pastoral landscapes and are now seasonal favorites in national chains and home kitchens. Dunkin’ has taken up the mantle, and Smitten Kitchen and The New York Times have recipes for a make-at-home version.

Although the apple cider doughnut has stood the test of time, the DCA didn’t. J. Lyons & Co. bought out Levitt’s DCA in the 1970s, and the entrepreneurs behind Seattle’s Top Pot Doughnuts later bought the DCA trademark. The company distributes its doughnuts nationwide; however, its offerings don’t include a cider doughnut.