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.

15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of The Great British Baking Show

Netflix
Netflix

by Sarah Dobbs

If you’re an American fan of The Great British Bake Off you probably know it better as The Great British Baking Show (though its most devoted fans simply call it GBBO, which saves a lot of time). The show's tenth season recently kicked off on England’s Channel 4, and is streaming for American audiences via Netflix (though only one episode is being rolled out per week).

A bona fide global sensation, the baking competition has the power to cause otherwise rational human beings to immediately run to their nearest supermarket in search of obscure ingredients like psyllium or Amarula cream liqueur. It’s a charming, retro, warming hug of a TV show. But how much do you know about what goes on behind the scenes? Without destroying any of your illusions, here are some secrets about how the producers whip up one of the world's most beloved cooking shows.

1. The reason why it has two different names is simple.

A scene from The Great British Bake Off
Netflix

If you’ve ever wondered why the series is called The Great British Bake Off in England and The Great British Baking Show in America, the answer is simple: Pillsbury. The Pillsbury Bake Off, which kicked off in 1949, is probably America’s most famous baking contest. And the company didn’t want there to be any confusion among viewers, hence The Great British Baking Show.

2. Each oven has to be tested every day.

It’s difficult enough to make a cake that Paul Hollywood won’t declare either under- or over-baked without having to worry about whether your oven is working properly. So for every day of filming, every oven has to be tested. And because this is a baking show, they’re tested with cakes. Yes, every day every oven has a Victoria sponge cake cooked in it, to make sure everything’s working exactly as it should be.

3. Every time someone opens an oven door, there's a camera watching them.

To make sure they catch all the drama, GBBO producers insist that every time a bake is put into or taken out of an oven, the moment must be caught on camera. So whenever a baker wants to put their goodies into an oven, or check if they’re ready to come out, they need to grab someone to make sure the moment gets captured on film. (Which must be a hassle for the first couple of weeks, when there are more than 10 bakers all trying their best to produce a perfect bake at once.)

4. The contestants have to wear the same clothes all weekend.

It’s a minor thing, but have you ever noticed that the bakers wear the same clothes for an entire episode, even though it’s shot over two days? For continuity purposes, the contestants are asked to wear the same outfits for the entire weekend. If you’re the kind of baker who ends up with flour all over your shirt whenever you bake up a loaf of bread, the second day of filming could be a bit of a nightmare.

"Luckily they change the aprons so we don't look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the end of it," 2013 champion Frances Quinn told Cosmopolitan. "I think layers [is the answer], but even then you still have to wear what you had on, on top. Difficult."

5. The contestants don't have a lot of downtime.

Having any time to spare is not something that season seven contestant Jane Beedle remembers happening regularly for the contestants. "Maybe once or twice, and when they did we would just sit and have a cup of tea and chat with the people around us,” she told the Mirror. "They don't like it if you have nothing to do, so they try and make the challenges as difficult as possible to keep you busy."

6. The temperature in the tent can make or break a bake.

Sue Perkins, Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, and Frances Quinn in 'The Great British Bake Off'
BBC

Forget setting the oven to the correct temperature—the temperature inside the tent is just as important to a bake. "It's completely alien to your own kitchen at home,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “The temperature fluctuates—you'd be making a meringue and it would start raining, or we'd try and make pastry and it would be 27 degrees outside. The technical challenges and lack of time and lack of fridge and work space are the enemy on that show."

7. The illustrations are created by Tom Hovey, after the episode has filmed.

You know those fun illustrations of the confections that pop up when each baker explains what they’re going to make that day? Those are all drawn by illustrator Tom Hovey. He was working as a video editor on the first season of GBBO when the producers realized they needed an extra visual element—so he offered his illustration skills. And while we see the illustrations on screen before the bakers attempt to make them a reality, Hovey told the BBC he draws them “a pack of photos of the finished bakes from the set after each episode has been filmed … I sketch out all the bakes quickly in pencil to get the details, form and shape I am after. I then work these up by hand drawing them all in ink, then they’re scanned and colored digitally, and then I add the titles and ingredient arrows. It's a fairly well streamlined process now.”

Even if a bake goes horribly wrong, Hovey said his “illustrations are a representation of what the bakers hope to create. Even if the bakers don't produce what they’ve intended to I have a degree of artistic license to make them look good.”

8. The contestants don't interact with the judges very much.

“They very much tried to keep it unbiased,” Quinn said about how the bakers don’t spend much time interacting with the judges. “We saw a lot more of Mel and Sue. Mary and Paul would purely come in to do what we called the royal tour—where they'd come in and find out what you were making, and then they'd come back in for judging. You're not in the same hotel having sleepovers! You form more of a relationship after the show when you see them at things like BBC Good Food or whatever—but they need to keep their distance [on the show]. They're there as judges."

9. Making sure that the technical challenge is actually possible is one person's job.

Sandi Toksvig in 'The Great British Bake Off'
Netflix

Another vital behind-the-scenes role is that of the food researcher. It’s down to them to make sure that the elaborate concoction the judges have decided the bakers have to whip up is actually possible, given the ingredients, instructions, and time the bakers will be allowed.

The tent presents its own challenges, too, because it could be hot or cold, depending on the weather, and it tends to have quite a wobbly floor, which can make delicate decorating work trickier than it might otherwise seem. “The tent is just mocked up, so the floor is really bumpy and bouncy because you’d got so many camera guys running around,” Quinn told the Irish Examiner.

10. The show got into some trouble for its partnership with Smeg.

Part of GBBO’s homey charm has to do with the setup of the tent where the bakers do their cooking, and few appliances spell “retro” as well as a colorful Smeg refrigerator. A viewer fed up with what they described as “blatant product promotion” wrote to the Radio Times to complain, and an investigation was launched into the series’ agreement with Smeg. As BBC guidelines state that a series may "not accept free or reduced cost products" in return for "on-air or online credits, links or off-air marketing,” the broadcaster ended up having to write the company a check for all the times their product got some screen time.

11. There are never any leftovers.

The judges only take a mouthful of every bake, which seems to leave an awful lot of leftover pastries, cakes, and ridiculously complicated bread sculptures. But don’t worry—none of it goes to waste. “The crew eats all the leftovers," Beedle told The Mirror. "We get some brought to us in the green room so we can taste each other's bakes, but it's only slithers."

12. Hundreds of season five viewers wrote in to complain about "sabotage."

Midway through season five, contestant Iain Watters had a bit of an issue with his Baked Alaska. Realizing that his ice cream had not yet set, he threw the entire dish into the trash rather than serve the judges a subpar dessert and was sent home as a result. Footage from the episode made is seem as if fellow contestant Diana Beard had removed his ice cream from the freezer. Beard left the show at just about the same time due to health issues, but some viewers (811, to be exact) smelled sabotage—and wrote in to the show’s producers to complain. Media watchdog group Ofcom looked into the matter, but said that they had assessed viewers’ complaints and “they do not raise issues warranting further investigation under Ofcom’s rules.”

Paul Hollywood took to Twitter to clear up what became known as “bingate,” tweeting: “Ice cream being left out of fridge last night for 40 seconds did not destroy Iain’s chances in the bake off, what did was his decision BIN.”

13. Mary Berry watched Breaking Bad backstage.

Although it looks pretty nonstop on screen, there’s quite a bit of downtime during the show’s filming days. Especially for the show’s judges and hosts. Former judge Mary Berry had one unique way of passing the time: binge-watching Breaking Bad. “It’s shocking,” Berry told The Telegraph. “Then you get into it and you think: ‘Have I seen episode four or five?’ You get hooked. It’s better than motor racing, which [my husband] Paul watches—though I’d prefer Downton Abbey.” She’d apparently rope former hosts Mel and Sue into watching it with her on occasion. What better way to relax during a long day of baking than by watching Walter White, umm, baking?

14. The application form is no joke.

Fancy your chances in the Bake Off tent? If you’ve been inspired by the show and reckon you could nab a couple of Star Baker titles, brace yourself: The application form is a whopping eight pages long, and it’s full of probing questions. As well as giving details of your hobbies, lifestyle, and level of experience with various types of baked goods, it also asks applicants to describe their baking style, and answer a couple of existential-sounding questions.

"It's a long application form. I think it's designed to put some people off, essentially," fourth season contestant Beca Lyne-Pirkis said. "It asks you about everything you have done, good and bad. It's designed to get information about your character, stories, mishaps and successes."

Still fancy applying? Though submissions are not open at the moment, you can keep your eyes open for when the next batch of contestants are being accepted here.

15. The audition process is a grueling one.

If you happen to make it through the application process, the audition process is even more difficult. “Every person who makes it into the marquee has passed a rigorous series of tests,” GBBO creator and executive producer Anna Beattie told The Telegraph. In addition to the application form, The Telegraph reported that there is “a 45-minute telephone call with a researcher, bringing two bakes to an audition in London, a screen test and an interview with a producer. If they get through that, there is a second audition baking two recipes … in front of the cameras, and an interview with the show psychologist to make sure they can cope with being filmed for up to 16 hours a day.”

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port. 

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 Kickstarter goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100-$120 if you pledge fast. You can back the ChopBox here.

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