It was embarrassing. I loved to make pies—bountiful apple and pumpkin for Thanksgiving, juicy boysenberry-raspberry for my sister’s birthday in July—but if truth be told, my all-butter crusts were like leather.
Now, I could make a perfectly acceptable piecrust using vegetable shortening. In my mind, though, a shattering crisp yet tender, deeply flavorful all-butter crust was the pinnacle of pie. Plus, my pride was at stake.
So I kept trying, and falling short, until this year, when I took a deep dive into pie for Pie Season in the November Sunset. Working with some of the West’s top pastry chefs, I learned that a great all-butter crust is not so difficult. Here are the top 5 secrets they taught me.
1. Use unsalted butter. Its sweet, rich flavor makes swoon-worthy pies. While salted butter can also create beautiful flakiness, unsalted lets you precisely control the level of salt in the crust.
2. Try fraisage. This French technique for smearing butter into flour creates long leaves of fat and ultra-flaky results. After three different chefs (Michelle Vernier, Zoe Nathan, and Michelle McKenzie) raved about fraisage, I had to give it a go, and it’s a game-changer. Check out the method in this short video.
3. Don’t overwork the pastry, or it will get tough and you’ll warm the streaks and pieces of cold fat that create the flaky texture. Which brings me to the next two points.
4. Keep the pastry cold until the pie goes into the oven. The pastry chefs taught me to chill the dough after mixing and again after rolling it out.
5. Give it a rest. While you’re chilling the pastry in the fridge (or in some cases, the freezer), you’ll also be relaxing any gluten that developed during mixing, which causes toughness. A good rule of thumb is to chill the dough at least 2 hours before rolling it out.
Bonus: Of course primo pastry also depends on getting the proportions right. Spoon flour into measuring cups and level it off; if you scoop with the measuring cup or tap to level it, you’ll pack in extra flour.