The Flakiest Basic Pie Crust Recipe

The French distinguish "pate brisee" (flaky dough) from "pate feuilletee" (puffy dough). The former is flaky, buttery and tender, the latter is layered, buttery and tender. Pate feuilletee with levain gives you croissants, without levain, it makes amazing sugar cookies that can be lightly caramelized. The main difference between the two types of dough is not in the ingredients, they will both have flour, water, salt, baking powder, and butter. Both can benefit from the addition of a small amount of an acid such as apple cider vinegar or white vinegar. What distinguishes these two families of dough is the way that the butter is incorporated in the dough. To learn all about pie dough, keep on reading...

Pate Brisee. This is the dough we will create. A basic pate brisee calls for 1 1/3 cup of flour for 8 tablespoons (half a cup) of unsalted butter. The butter needs to be very cold and divided up into 2/3 (incorporated in small and medium chunks into the dry flour before hydration), and 1/3 (incorporated in large cold chunks after hydration). The first 2/3 of the butter coats a portion of the proteins in the flour, limiting the ability for gluten to form; this keeps the dough soft. When the mixture of dry flour and 2/3 of the butter is hydrated by water, and optionally the acid (highly recommended), the subsequent addition of 1/3 of very cold butter dispersed in the wet dough melts during baking and creates the airy flaky structure we are looking for. Dough without a strong gluten structure tends to be challenging to roll, because many of the hydrophilic and hydrophobic proteins do not bind together. The dough tends to crumble in large chunks of those proteins that had a chance to bind together, without these chunks bound to each other. The addition of the acid helps further inhibit gluten formation, which may sound like a bad idea, but, it does make the dough more pliable and elastic nevertheless, helping keeping it together when rolled. The flakier the dough (i.e., dough with high fat content), the more helpful to add an acid. Fats "shorten" the gluten chains in dough, that is why bakers call any source of fat "shortening." In this recipe, the only source of fat is butter. The reason for exclusively using butter is taste. For a less buttery taste, substitute butter with another shortening (source of fat). Every dough needs some level of kneading, but remember that kneading develops gluten, which we are trying to limit to the minimum amount necessary to have a dough that can be rolled without breaking; never knead a pie dough too long or too hard or you will end up with a tough dough; we want a soft dough. Thus, the incorporation of the butter and kneading are the critical steps to focus on in order to yield the perfect dough. Resting that dough allows the gluten to form after kneading. Never skip that resting step or rush it, or you will not be able to roll your dough. How do you know if your dough is ready to be rolled? After it takes its second rest (in the refrigerator) and is brought back to room temperature, the dough should be relatively soft to the touch, moist without being sticky, and when you push a finger down the dough and remove your finger, the dough should recover its initial shape (elasticity).

So what makes it difficult to succeed at making amazingly flaky pie crusts? It is not the incorporation of the butter and the kneading; learning how to do these properly is easy. The biggest challenge concerns the hydration of the dough. The ratio of water to flour cannot be given with precision. The reason for that is the moisture in the air, the moisture of your hands if you touch the dough, the water content of the butter (which varies from one type of butter to another), and other such factors (including the addition of the acid). Thus, evaluating the proper hydration of the dough requires a visual and touch evaluation; learning how a properly hydrated dough should look like and feel like requires experimentation and experience. Baking in the dry summer heat of Palm Springs, CA requires a whole lot more water addition than baking the same dough in the wet autumn and winter of Chicago, IL. Yet, when properly hydrated, both dough will look and feel very similar. If your dough sticks to the surface you are working on, it is too wet. If your dough crumbles and break, it is not wet enough. The perfectly hydrated dough is somewhat "sticky" but does not stick to surfaces; if that statement makes any sense at all...

Pate Feuilletee. The basic dough is the same as pate brisee up until the dough is hydrated and kneaded. Once rested a first time, it is flattened in a square (or rectangle) and an entire layer of very cold butter rolled and shaped into the same shape as the dough is placed on top of the dough, before the dough is folded and rolled multiple times (fold, roll, repeat). This creates layers upon layers of dough separate by a layer of butter. When baked you obtain the texture you enjoy in a croissant. We will make croissants soon...stay tuned! Now is time to share the perfect recipe for Pate Brisee...

Recipe for Pate Brisee.

  1. Unsalted cold butter: 8 tablespoons (by volume) or 4 ounces (by weight) or 113 grams (by weight);

  2. Unbleached all-purpose flour: 1 1/3 cups (by volume) or 6.5 ounces (by weight) or 184 grams (by weight);

  3. Salt: 1 tea spoon

  4. Baking Powder: 1/4 tea spoon

  5. Apple cider vinegar: 1 1/2 tea spoon or 0.25 ounces (by weight) or 7 grams (by weight)

  6. Ice water: 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 table spoons (by volume) or 1.3 to 1.7 ounces (by weight) or 37 to 52 grams (by weight)

a. In a mixing bowl, mix the flour, the salt, and the baking powder. Mix thoroughly with a spatula or spoon.

b. Transfer to a Ziploc bag and place in the freezer for an hour.

c. At the same time you place the Ziploc bag in the freezer, place another mixing bowl (metal preferably) in the freezer. Divide the cold butter into 2/3 and 1/3. Take the 2/3 portion and cut it in small cubes. Place the cubes in a Ziploc bag and place in the freezer. On parchment paper, trap the 1/3 remaining butter (one layer of paper underneath the butter, one on top on the butter), then roll it into a thin layer. Cut the flat butter layer in 1 inch by 1 inch squares. Collect all these squares on another parchment paper and place in the freezer.

d. When the flour mixture, bowl, and butter are very cold (but not frozen), place the flour mixture in the bowl and disperse the 2/3 butter cubes throughout the flour. Make sure that all the butter is thoroughly coated in flour. Add the apple cider vinegar and mix. You are ready to hydrate your dough.

e. Add 1/2 table spoon of ice cold water, and mix until the flour has absorbed all the water. Keep adding ice cold water 1/2 spoons at a time until the dough hold together. Always make sure that all the water has been absorbed by the flour mixture before adding the next one. You should see at some point "strings" of dough forming (gluten).

f. Flour your working surface and your hand and place the dough on that surface. Punch it to flatten it and add a couple squares of very cold butter (the 1/3 remaining) before folding the dough onto itself. Add another couple squares of butter and fold. Keep doing that until all the squares have been added. Keep dusting flour onto the dough so that it does not stick; butter contains water, you are adding hydration to a dough that was properly hydrated, which means you have to add a little flour to account for that water in the butter.

g. When all the butter has been incorporated, gently knead the dough for a minute to develop a little more gluten. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and rest for two hours (or longer) in the fridge.

Always return the dough to room temperature before attempting to roll it. It is easier to roll a dough that has been "punched down" into a disc on a floured surface.

Your dough is ready.

This recipe is adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum, "The Pie and Pastry Bible", Scribner, Cordon Rose, Inc., 1998. That book needs to be in everyone's pantries. Also check out the Forum for a further discussion of gluten formation in dough concerning a Lemon Meringue Pie...


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