The Great Pie Crust Debate

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Editor’s note: Tomorrow, 3/14, is the very official Pi(e) Day. In its honor we’re reviving one of our favorite dessert deep dives from a few years back. We originally published it in the fall but most of these crust comments know no season. Got some pie opinions to share? Tweet to @ediblebrooklyn or show us on Instagram with #EBdailypic. 

It’s that time of year, folks: It’s apple season, sweet potato season, pumpkin season, cranberry season, and most importantly, pie season. I grew up in a house where pie was king: it took the place of birthday cake, rarely lasted more than a day and made the day before Thanksgiving a well-floured flurry of sifting, rolling, chopping, crimping.

It’s the fillings we hear about the most, and not without reason. But in the Lange house, it was always the crust that was the make-or-break factor. Controversial, maybe, but I would venture to say that a pie is only as good as its crust. The crust also seems, for many, to be the most stressful part of pie-baking — but it needn’t be. We reached out to a pantheon of pie-bakers for advice on what they do when it’s time to pull out the rolling pin and get to business. The art and practice of the perfect pie crust is as unique as the person wielding the rolling pin. Here are their personal crust strategies.

Our all-star panel:

What kind of fat do you use? Do you use a mixture of fats (e.g. shortening AND butter)? Let us know why you do what you do.

Erin McDowell: I’ve done it all (lard, shortening, a mixture, even olive oil!), but I’m all about the all butter crust. Nothing beats the flavor and if you know how to manipulate it, the result is just as flaky as crusts made with less sensitive fats. The key is keeping it cold, cold, cold. Cold ingredients, chill it after mixing, chill it after you line the pie plate. I love to pop it in the freezer for a few minutes — gets it cold in no time.

Emily & Melissa Elsen: We use all butter and we prefer “high-fat” butter, with 82% or more fat content. Plugra is a good choice for home bakers. Using a richer butter leads to a more tender and flaky crust.

Allison Kave: I always use high-butterfat cultured butter (Plugra is a personal favorite). The higher fat content means less water content, which leads to a flakier, more tender crust. Another way to ensure a really flaky crust is to incorporate a little leaf lard, which is the fine, light lard found around pigs’ kidneys, but it’s a small amount in proportion to the butter (this is good for beginners, who tend to overwork their dough). I never use shortening, as I’m a bit turned off by how highly processed it is, and I find the leaf lard gives the same results. But the key is really good butter: That’s where the flavor is.

Kat Kinsman: My Grandma Kinsman shaped my pie paradigm and I have only varied a little. She went with cold butter, worked down into the flour with a dough blender until it was almost meal. Then cold water, flicked in and stirred with a fork until it started to cohere, then handwork from there. I have added some lard on occasion when I have the good stuff in the house, but I almost always go back to all butter.

Sam Sifton: I change my fat focus all the time, probably not to the benefit of my pies. If I can get good lard, I’ll go all lard, or part lard, part butter. I am not against using a mixture of shortening and butter. An all-butter crust is delicious, particularly if the butter is delicious. But then I remember how just-porky and fantastic the pure lard once was last time and I go back to that. It’s a problem. I think truly great pie makers find a mixture and stick to it.

Hannah Kirshner: I use all butter because it’s delicious, and I always have plenty of it (with back-ups in the freezer in case of a baking emergency). I’d love to make a crust with duck fat or lard, but they’re not things I often have on hand (and I keep company with a lot of vegetarians). Vegetable shortening is just unappealing to me, and unnecessary.

Caroline Lange: My dad is the one who instilled a deep-seated love of pie in me, and the one who taught me to bake them. He’s extremely loyal to the Joy of Cooking basic pie crust recipe, which calls for part butter and part vegetable shortening. Butter for flavor, says Dad, and shortening for flakiness. I’m increasingly suspicious of shortening, though, and these days make my pie crusts with unsalted butter (which I usually take straight from the freezer so that it’s as cold as possible). On the rare occasion I’ll sub in a couple of tablespoons of cold coconut oil. I always refrigerate my dough for a half hour or so before rolling.

Full top crust? Lattice? Crumb? No top crust at all?

Erin McDowell: Depends on the pie. I like to do a full top crust for apple pies. I like lattice (my new favorite is very fat lattice strips aka fattice) for juicy pies like cherry. Crumb crusts are usually reserved for fresh berry pies in summer.

Emily & Melissa Elsen: We like all styles – it depends on the pie and what you like yourself! For Thanksgiving, we do our Salted Caramel Apple with a lattice, our Brown Butter Pumpkin is a custard, so it goes into a pre-baked crust, and our Bittersweet Chocolate Pecan and Salty Honey go right into a fresh rolled bottom crust, no top at all.

Allison Kave: The type of topping is entirely dependent on the pie. I like crumbles or full crusts for apple pies, lattice crusts for berry pies, and no crust (but usually some ice cream or whipped cream!) for custard pies.

Kat Kinsman: I tend toward nut pies and meringues (I take an inordinate amount of pride in my glossy peaks) so I don’t often go with a top crust, but I look forward to the cook’s treat almost as much as the pie itself. I take the scraps of rolled dough, brush with butter, sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and a teeny bit of salt and bake. There is no chance on earth that I won’t burn my mouth from straight-up greed, grabbing one right off the sheet when it comes out.

Sam Sifton: Full-top crust, full stop. Lattice is beautiful but too crafty for me. Crumb is too bed-and-breakfasty. No top crust is a problem. It’s not a pie.

Hannah Kirshner: It depends on the kind of pie. I want the beautiful colors of berries to peak through, so they get lattice. Apple pie should be overstuffed and blanketed by a full top crust, with a couple of decorative cut-outs. A custard pie is always left open.

Caroline Lange: I didn’t have a crumb-topped pie until I came to college. Crumbs, in my opinion, are for crisps or cobblers. Custards, of course, skip the top crust; and most of my fruit pies get a full top crust. Sometimes, though, especially for blueberry or cherry pies, I’ll do a lattice (and I’m totally charmed by Erin McDowell’s fattice).

What’s your go-to crimping technique?

Erin McDowell: The traditional points are nice for traditional pies, like pumpkin. Sometimes I make many, small crimps and other times I space them out generously for a more rustic, imperfect look. One of my favorites for a quick, easy finish is to use a fork, pressing at an angle, then turning the fork and pressing at an angle the other way. It makes sort of a chevron pattern around the outside – easy and always looks good.

Emily & Melissa Elsen: It depends if you are crimping for a custard or for a fruit pie with a top. For the custard, we roll the dough outward and under, creating a substantial dough edge that can then be crimped all around using your thumbs and and index finger. For fruit pies with lattice or full time, we roll the down inward to seal the top and bottom together and create a substantial dough edge. Again, crimp all the way around using thumb and index finger. Dusting your fingers with a bit of flour makes for easier crimping and dough that does not stick to your fingers!

Allison Kave: I generally do a classic crimp using my thumb and index finger on one hand, and the index finger of my other hand. I can do it in my sleep by now! But once in awhile I like to get fancy and use cookie cutters to create shapes that I lay along the rim of the pie. An easy trick for beginners is to use a fork and press it all around the pie, or to snip the edge of the dough with scissors every inch or so.

Kat Kinsman: In college, I double-majored in painting and sculpture and I get my ya-yas out with pie edges. I appreciate the precisions and aesthetics of the fork crimp, but I like getting my hands in there, so I press in two fingers and pinch up a peak between them. I’ll usually just rotate the plate, but if I’m feeling very fussy, I’ll do the 12 o’clock spot, then the six o’clock, then the three then the nine, and inward from there, just to make sure it all matches up. No one will notice or care, but I like touching dough. I’m just gonna own it.

Sam Sifton: Fork!

Hannah Kirshner: I make my crusts so buttery that they don’t hold fussy decorative shapes well. They’re going to be flaky and tender and crisp all at once, which is much more important to me than a neat appearance. In fact, I don’t trust a perfect-looking pie. I don’t trim, because I can’t stand to waste that precious dough; I just roll and twist the excess crust under, and maybe crimp it using a knuckle on my right hand and the thumb and forefinger of the left.

Caroline Lange: Crimping is my downfall — I can never seem to get the hand motion right. Lately I’ve made a lot of galettes, which require no crimping at all, only big practical folds. I also like to circle pies with a braid of extra pie dough, rolled long, plaited, and adhered to the bottom crust with a little water.

Do you brush your crust with anything before baking?

Erin McDowell: I always brush my pies with a little egg wash (1 egg + 1 tablespoon water + small pinch of salt) and I always finish them with turbinado sugar — I love the texture, plus it makes a deliciously caramel flavor to my crust (my crust has no sugar in it, so a little on the exterior is a nice balance).

Emily & Melissa Elsen: We brush the top with an egg wash, simply made from one whole egg.

Allison Kave: I always use egg wash, which is just an egg mixed up with about 1/4 cup of water. It gives the crust a burnished, golden color and nice shine. You can also use milk, cream, or butter.

Kat Kinsman: I don’t necessarily, but I do get a little wacky with the fork vents.

Sam Sifton: I like an egg wash.

Hannah Kirshner: Sometimes I use a little egg wash to make it shine, or to make cinnamon sugar stick. I’m more likely to take the time, and sacrifice an egg, if I’m making multiple pies.

Caroline Lange: My father always does an egg wash; I usually do a little milk. Sometimes I sprinkle sugar over the top so that it sparkles.

Do you parbake?

Erin McDowell: Totally depends on the pie. My biggest pet peeve is a soggy bottom crust, so I’m an advocate of parbaking in general. But if you use a glass pie plate (this helps because the bottom is exposed to the heat more directly), and bake at a high temperature, parbaking can (generally) be unnecessary.

Emily & Melissa Elsen: Yes, for more “wet” fillings such as custards we definitely “parbake” and we actually call them “pre-bakes.”

Allison Kave: I parbake (also known as blind-baking) all of my custard pies. The custard fillings bake much more quickly than the dough, so if you don’t parbake the crust first, you wind up with either an overcooked filling or an underbaked crust.

Kat Kinsman: I live in fear of serving raw dough, so I do. I have fantasies of being the sort of person who owns and implements pie weights, but then again, I also fantasize about owning more pairs of tights that don’t have holes in them and making it the gym before work. In another life, perhaps.

Sam Sifton: I didn’t use to, thinking it overly fussy. I was wrong. The pie is much improved by a parbaked crust.

Hannah Kirshner: I love to parbake when it’s appropriate. If you partially cook the filling too, you get a lot of control over the final product. And it gives you an advantage in your battle against sogginess.

Caroline Lange: Not as often as I should!

Will you be making a pie for Thanksgiving this year? What kind?

Erin McDowell: I make the pies for Thanksgiving with my family every year. It’s a dream because my mother’s Kansas kitchen is GIGANTIC by NYC standards. Generally, we make four pies: an apple, a pumpkin, a pecan, and then one with a special twist. Last year, it was sweet potato pie with toasted honey marshmallow topping. It was a big hit.

Emily & Melissa Elsen: In the shop we make Salted Caramel Apple, Brown Butter Pumpkin, Bittersweet Chocolate Pecan and Salty Honey for Thanksgiving, but we also like to do our Sweet Potato Apple Crumble and Maple Buttermilk Custard on the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes we’ll make an apple galette or two as well, just for something different!

Allison Kave: I’ll be making hundreds of pies for Thanksgiving this year! Every year at Butter & Scotch we bake S’mores, Bourbon Ginger Pecan, Caramel Apple, and Pumpkin Spice pies for Thanksgiving orders. I bring one of each to my family’s celebration, pour myself a big glass of wine, and do my best to stay awake through dinner.

Kat Kinsman: I just started at Tasting Table this week, but at my last job, I worked almost every single Thanksgiving and never got a chance to bake. I’ve inevitably been on booze duty and my go-to is Lynchburg Lemonade and various sparkling wines. If asked to pie, I shall serve, but I also respect the art of being a good guest and if they’re full up on pies, I have to go with that. And truth be told, I am actually more about banana pudding on Thanksgiving, but that’s just a weird personal tradition.

Sam Sifton: If I don’t collapse from Thanksgiving exhaustion in the days approaching the holiday, I’ll make an apple pie. But I may leave that to others and save my pie strength for December, when I intend to make a lot of meat pies for Christmas.

Hannah Kirshner: Salty Caramel Apple with a Bourbon Crust, and Honey Cardamom Squash Pie, of course! I won’t stray too far from tradition, but I do like to make the classic recipes my own. I might make a berry pie too — I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where summers are spent picking berries, and winters are spent baking from the frozen harvest. Blackberry would be nice and nostalgic for me, and I like adding something tart and bright to the mix of desserts (nothing but pie, though!)

Caroline Lange: It’s my favorite part of being home for the holidays. In addition to our two apples, two pumpkins and one mincemeat, I always make a pecan pie (the one from The Silver Palate Cookbook) and fuss over laying the nuts out in concentric circles.

Want Erin McDowell’s recipe for Concord Grape Pie? You’re in luck.

Photos: Instagram/carolinelange13

This story was originally published on November 17, 2014.