Crustology, Or The Art of Making Pie Crust
Crustology is the science of making pie crust. Understanding what makes up the the basics of crustology will inform you on your journey to pie crust perfection. You can have a fancy schmancy filling, but if you have a poor crust, forget about it. So what is the goal that we are trying to reach? What distinguishes a great crust from a B flat effort? I propose that there are three simple criteria that should be used to judge a crust. In fact I am so committed to this criteria that I have started a World Wide Pie Crust Consortium (WWPC) where I anticipate that these standards will become globalized
Flaky means that when looking at a cross section of baked crust you see tiny, thin layers of dough. If the crust is solid or the consistency is one of crumbs, your have not arrived at crust nirvana. A flaky texture will be light on the palette while providing a sense of substance and crunch. Flakiness and crunchiness will vary depending if you are using vegetable shortening or butter or a combination of both. Keeping the fat cold when assembling the crust is key to obtaining a flaky crust. When cold shortening/butter is introduced to a the high heat of the oven, the shortning wrapped flour explodes into delicate layers..
Crunch also relates to texture, but in a non-visual way. As you bite into the crust, there must be an immediate discovery that there are levels of complexity all wrapped into one taste package. In a bite of the perfect apple pie you should have, a feathery, slightly resistant upper crust, followed by the saucier inside filling, finished off with a firm, slightly crisp bottom crust. Degrees of crunch are what create that complexity and thus offer a unique textural experience. Crunch and its many subtle levels, is the feel that combines with the taste to create a total taste experience.
When tasted alone and without filling, crust should actually taste like something other than a dough version of tofu. If when tasting your crust while wearing a blindfold, you can not distinguish between your crust and a cardboard box, don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred dollars.
If you have read any books on making pie crust, you know that most focus on ingredients being cold and the use of butter for shortening. Some recipes would have you running to the refrigerator or freezer after every step in the recipe process, turning a rather simple exercise into a daunting task. Many recipes also would have you believe that by not using butter for shortening you will be set up for an immanent disaster.
I am here to tell you that shortening as in vegetable shortening (Crisco as an example) produces a flaky, tender crust. Using cold milk as the liquid, keeps the crust mixture at just the right temperature to roll out. And best of all, it is probably the easiest crust to initially work with while not sacrificing the overall quality of the results.
Using butter produces different results that cannot be compared apples to apples to a shortening crust. Cold does come into play with this crust, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it. A crust with butter will assuredly be flaky and also will have a bit more crunch than a shortening crust. But I can assure you that whether you use shortening or butter, if done correctly both will taste great.
On this website, there are several available pie crust recipes. My recommendation would be to start with the recipes that use shortening as they are a bit more forgiving in assembly as well as consistent results. I also highly recommend browsing through the Pie Crust Tips page. It will lead you step by step through a fool proof process of building that perfect crust.
Now go bake.