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.

7 International Names for American Products

Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Maksym Kozlenko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

While available around the world, American products aren't always called by their red-white-and-blue names. Companies have to adapt to various languages and cultures, and what works stateside doesn't always translate. Here are seven American goods with unfamiliar international names.

1. Hungry Jack's (Burger King in Australia)

A Hungry Jack's drive thru sign
A Hungry Jacks sign in Bathurst, New South Wales

In 1971, Jack Cowin bought the Australian franchise for Burger King from Pillsbury Company (which owned the chain at the time). But because the name was already registered in Australia, he used the name Hungry Jack—originally an American pancake mix—instead. In 1999, Burger King began opening restaurants under its own name in Australia, but they combined with Hungry Jack's in 2003.

2. Doritos Cool American (Doritos Cool Ranch in Europe)

Cool American Doritos on a shelf
Cool American Doritos in Iceland
Funky Tee, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Cool Ranch is one of the most popular Doritos flavors in the United States. However, in many parts of Europe, the flavor is known as Cool American because Europeans often call Ranch sauce "American" sauce. Very cool, indeed.

3. Coca-Cola Light (Diet Coke in Europe)

Diet Coke is called "Coca-Cola Light" throughout Europe. The soft drink is exactly the same as its American counterpart, but the word light is associated more with lower-calorie items in Europe than diet.

4. TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in Ireland)

A TK Maxx in London
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for TK Maxx

The American department store TJ Maxx is known as TK Maxx in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom as well as in Australia and parts of Europe. Its parent company, TJX Companies, re-named it so Irish and British customers wouldn't confuse the store with the established retailer TJ Hughes, which is quite popular in the UK.

5. Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in Canada)

Boxes of Kraft Dinner wrapped in plastic
Alan Levine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Canada, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is known as Kraft Dinner or simply KD. Kraft introduced the product as Kraft Dinner in both Canada and the United States in 1937. However, in the late '50s, Kraft added the words macaroni & cheese to its packaging of Kraft Dinner when the term gained more prominence. It wasn't until the '70s that Kraft Canada started using bilingual labeling (French and English) on all of its packaging. As a result, Canadian Kraft products included the words Kraft Dinner in a bigger and bolder font on one side of the box with Díner Kraft on the other side. The words macaroni & cheese were in a smaller font, so Canadians adopted it as merely Kraft Dinner. (Americans can buy a box of the Canadian version for themselves on Amazon.)

6. Meister Proper (Mr. Clean in Germany)

Bottles of Meister Proper on store shelves
Alf van Beem, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
 

Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean is a global product, so its name has been translated into various languages, including Maestro Limpio in Mexico, Monsieur Propre in France, and Meister Proper in Germany. It’s the same product—with the same sailor mascot—as you can find in the United States.

7. Walkers Potato Crisps (Lay's Potato Chips in the UK)

Walkers potato chips on a shelf
Ben Babcock, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Founded in 1948, Walkers quickly became the United Kingdom’s leading potato crisps snack food company. However, Pepsi acquired Walkers and re-branded it with the Lay’s logo and products in 1989. The snack food is exactly the same, but PepsiCo decided to keep the Walkers name to ensure customer brand loyalty in the United Kingdom. Walkers also has more exotic flavors than its American counterpart, including American Cheeseburger, Lamb & Mint, and South African Sweet Chutney. Adventurous Americans can get some of them, including Prawn Cocktail, Tomato Ketchup, and Worcester Sauce as well as a variety of different meat flavors on Amazon.

A version of this article first ran in 2016.

This 3D-Printed Sushi is Customized For You Based on the Biological Sample You Send In

Open Meals
Open Meals

Many high-end restaurants require guests to make a reservation before they dine. At Sushi Singularity in Tokyo, diners will be asked to send fecal samples to achieve the ideal experience. As designboom reports, the new sushi restaurant from Open Meals creates custom sushi recipes to fit each customer's nutritional needs.

Open Meals is known for its experimental food projects, like the "sushi teleportation" concept, which has robotic arms serving up sushi in the form of 3D-printed cubes. This upcoming venture takes the idea of a futuristic sushi restaurant to new extremes.

Guests who plan on dining at Sushi Singularity will receive a health test kit in the mail, with vials for collecting biological materials like urine, saliva, and feces. After the kit is sent back to the sushi restaurant, the customer's genome and nutritional status will be analyzed and made into a "Health ID." Using that information, Sushi Singularity builds personalized sushi recipes, optimizing ingredients with the nutrients the guest needs most. The restaurant uses a machine to inject raw vitamins and minerals directly into the food.

To make things even more dystopian, all the sushi at Sushi Singularity will be produced by a 3D-printer with giant robotic arms. The menu items make the most of the technology; a cell-cultured tuna in a lattice structure, powdered uni hardened with a CO2 laser, and a highly detailed model of a Japanese castle made from flash-frozen squid are a few of the sushi concepts Open Meals has shared.

The company plans to launch Sushi Singularity in Tokyo some time in 2020. Theirs won't be the first sushi robots to roll out in Japan: The food delivery service Ride On Express debuted sushi delivery robots in the country in 2017.

[h/t designboom]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER