All American Pie Dough

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We are still a nation, right?  Maybe we can help hold it together through January with food–what do ya say?

Ain’t nothing more American than a pie. There are a number great pies that epitomize American culinary history.  Apple, of course, is used as the standard of Americana.  But ours is hardly the only country making apple pie.  (See Tarte Tatin)  Consider the Shoofly Pie, from Pennsylvania Dutch country.  Or the sublime Chess Pie, from the South.  Georgia Peaches, Washington Cherries, Oregon Blackberries, Maine Blueberries, California Apricots–any and all of the above are excellent choices to celebrate your family.

Of course, they all require that you know how to make Pie Crust.  So here it is, my  basic primer on Pie dough. If you are already an expert, I challenge you to come up with a unique, personal twist on this recipe. Add nuts, spice, zest, or herbs, and surprise your guests with something different.

For those of you that struggle with pie dough, now is the time to start perfecting it. If you work on it over the summer, you’ll be totally ready when November pie season hits.

A Few Pie Dough Tips:
Keep the dough cold. From the time you begin making the dough until it hits the oven, everything about it must remain cold. Cold butter, cold lard, cold flour, cold water, cold room, cold hands. The thing that sets pie dough apart from tart dough, cookie dough, or bread dough is its flakiness, and cold is what makes flakiness possible. (See the Cut-in Technique.)

Remember that fat gets soft and sticky as it warms. Think about the way butter feels directly out of the fridge, versus how it feels after it’s been allowed to sit out for a while. If you keep the dough cold while you are working with it, it will be easy to roll out. The warmer it gets, through room temperature or over-handling, the harder it is to roll. It sticks to the counter, the pin, your hands, and it becomes the source of much frustration. To combat the problem, work only with what you need, and work quickly. As soon as the dough shows signs of warming, throw it in the fridge.

Once the dough is in the pan, and the pie is ready to bake, the fat is still there, and it can still melt. Keep it very cold, before baking to ensure that your decorative crimping keeps its shape. Better yet, freeze it solid and bake it directly from the freezer. If the fat is frozen, the protein in the dough will solidify before the fat has a chance to melt.


1/2 cup ice water
1 TB. cider vinegar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 TB. sugar
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, diced and chilled


  1. Combine water, vinegar and set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, salt, sugar and mix well. Add diced butter and cut-in to pea-sized pieces. Add half the water, and stir with a fork to moisten. Add enough additional water to just hold the dough together. Press it into a disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour. The dough should look marbled, with visible patches of butter and flour. Dough can be refrigerated for 2 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.
  2. To roll out dough, divide into 3 even pieces. Work with only one piece of dough at a time, keeping the remaining dough refrigerated. Knead the dough briefly to soften, and form into a disc. Place on a floured surface and, with a rolling pin, roll over the center of the dough in one direction. Turn the dough 90˚ and roll in the center again. Turn again, and repeat this pattern until the dough is an 8-inch circle. Turning the dough in this manner keeps it round, and alerts you right away if it starts sticking to the counter. Spread flour under the dough as necessary to prevent sticking. Work quickly to prevent the dough from warming up.
  3. Transfer dough to pie pan by rolling it up onto the pin or folding it in half. Place the lined pie shells in the refrigerator while rolling out remaining dough and preparing filling.

The Cut-in Technique

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cut in
Streusel, scones, biscuits, and pie dough are all made using the cut-in technique. This is a method of incorporating fat and flour together not by beating or creaming, but by crumbling. The butter and flour do not actually combine, but remain separate, the butter in small chunks floating within the flour. It should never look like a paste. This peaceful coexistence of fat and flour is the key to tender, flaky baked goods. In the oven the moisture contained within the fat evaporates into steam, pushing up the dough, and leaving little pockets of air that our mouth reads as flakiness.

I like to keep the butter in what I call pea-sized pieces. While they do not have to be round, they should be approximately that small. To get your butter small, but keep it from melting and joining with the flour into a paste, keep you ingredients cold. I like to freeze the diced butter before adding it, and if the temperature in my kitchen is particularly warm I’ll even freeze the flour for 10-15 minutes.

I prefer using my fingers to break down the butter because I can better monitor the butter size. Many bakers like to keep their hands out of it entirely, preferring to use a pastry blender, a couple of knives or forks, or even a food processor (a technique that requires mastery). When I use my hands I am careful to pinch the chunks with my fingertips, and not my big, hot hands.

(The pastry blender is a groovy little tool used to break fat into flour. It’s been used for decades, and I bet if you don’t have one, your grandma does. It consists of a bow of a few wires connected to a handle.)
pastry knife(1)