Flakiness and Crunch
Pie was a way a life where I grew up in central Illinois. Pie making abilities were the measuring stick of life. My father, who had trouble boiling water, was not bashful when it came to being a pie critic. After returning from many a Sunday dinner at a neighbor’s house, it was not uncommon for my Dad to critique the pie that had of course been served for dessert. Interestingly enough if the pie did not meet his expectations, his complaint was seldom about the pie filling, but rather the crust. The statement that he commonly made was “Boy, that pie crust sure was tough”. What he was really identifying was the end result of the qualities of flakiness and crunch coming together, or not. “Tough” refers to the fact that the crust is devoid of both flakiness and crunch. You can instantly tell whether or not a crust is “tough” when you cut the first piece.
So how do you achieve flakiness and crunch without creating a tough crust? Let’s start with the factors that contribute to a tough crust. Firstly, too much or too little liquid will definitely create tough results. Only enough liquid should be sprinkled into the flour shortening mix. What’s enough? Start with the proportions that are listed in the recipes. The dough should be moist enough to hold together when lightly compacted into a ball with your hands. A dough that is too moist will certainly hold together better, but will require a good deal more flour dusted into it when rolling out. Conversely, a dough that is dry will crumble when rolling out. Ultimately it will be about feel. After several attempts you will begin to develop a feel for just the right ratio of liquid to dry ingredients.
Although seemingly unrelated, one factor that determines how much liquid that needs to be mixed into the dough, is the flour to shortening ratio. Too little shortening will require you to mix in too much liquid to create the right dough consistency, with too much shortening not allowing you to add enough liquid.
In my opinion the correct mix of shortening to flour mixture is ultimately the key to a successful crust. Considering that the ratio of shortening to flour will vary each time you make a crust due to identifiable variables such as the moisture of the flour to more random and unidentifiable elements that the pie crust gods inflict upon your crust, would lead one to believe that making that perfect crust is unattainable. What you should be looking for in the finished product is a mixture that has a pebbly consistency to it. In addition, the mixture should begin loosely sticking together. If you are using a pastry blender, you will notice that as you cut the shortening into the flour, the mixture will begin compacting slightly on the upper part of the cutter’s tine. It is my belief that erring on the side of too much shortening will create better results than erring on the side of too much liquid.
Creating the right mix of flour to shortening will never be about exact measurement, rather it is about feel and visual consistency. A good crust will have a specific feel as well as a visual representation to it as you mix it together. Again start with the proportions that are listed in the recipes. As you are mixing the ingredients together observe both visually and tactilely the results, then compare them to the results of the finished product. It the crust tastes like a cardboard box and requires a chef’s knife too cut, alter the proportions till you get it right. Over time you will begin to see a pattern which will bring you closer to being able to create consistent desired results.
While it may not seem so, creating that perfect crust is not as arbitrary as it may sound. It will only seem arbitrary if you are a slave to recipes. Using your hands to mix and feel the dough you will soon learn to alter flour, shortening, and liquid proportions to create a dough that will yield consistent results. Stay with one crust recipe, repeating it until you get it right. To some extent this is what makes the exercise rewarding and challenging all at the same time. Because when it all comes together, you will know that it is a magic moment.
If you have actually managed to read this far, you really should seek professional help