ashley englishsmall measures

Small Measures: Making Perfect Pie Dough

by Ashley

I once read a blog where the author asked what culinary practices or ingredient requests invoked the greatest fears in readers. Someone remarked that they turned the page whenever a recipe included a whole vanilla bean in its ingredient list, finding the practice of scraping out the tiny flecks much too time consuming. For me, it’s baker’s yeast. Whenever I see it called for in a recipe, I feel a tiny knot in the pit of my stomach. We’ve been slowly, steadily making our peace with each other, me and yeast, but we’re still a long way from being tight buds.

By far, though, what I’ve read and personally experienced is a profound fear of being able to create a delicious pie crust. Buttery, flaky, much-more-than-a-basin-for-the-filling pie crust seems to spook even the most seasoned of home cooks. For today’s Small Measures, I’m here to help you put that fear to rest once and for all. My recipe for Basic Pie Crust (an all-butter version) will make a confident pie baker out of you, guaranteed. No longer will you feel the need to pick up a package of pre-made dough in order to pull off a perfect pumpkin or sensational apple pie. With the holiday season upon us and Halloween behind us, let’s bid this particular fear adieu and get down to the business of scrumptious pie-baking. — Ashley English

Read the full recipe after the jump . . .

When I was working on my pie book, I made pie dough every which way under the sun. I tried making it in a food processor. I tried making it with vinegar and vodka and shortening. If there was a way to make pie dough, I likely did it. In my numerous pie dough attempts, I noted what worked and what didn’t, until I found what I felt to be the best means of making it. That said, bear in mind that pie dough is highly personal. What follows are the tips and recipe that I really dig. If you prefer working with a food processor, with shortening or lard, or with vinegar, bravo! Kudos to you for finding what works for you. Here’s what works for me, time after time, pie after pie.

My top 3 time-honored, floured-hand-seasoned tips for pie crust success:

1. Keep all of your ingredients cold, even the flour (I keep my flour in the freezer). This simple step helps make the crust flaky after baking.

2. Make it cold, bake it hot. I learned this one from none other than Martha Stewart, who knows a thing or two about making good-looking, delicious-tasting pie crust. Keep your crust cold right up until you’re ready to bake it, then fill it and put it in a hot, preheated oven.

3. Let your pie cool fully before cutting into it. Some pies need more time than others for the filling to set and firm up, so stick with whatever cooling time the recipe indicates.

Basic Pie Dough (printed with permission from A Year of Pies, Lark 2012, an imprint of Sterling Publishing)

This all-butter crust is unrivaled in terms of flavor. It’s also quite flaky, despite having no shortening. The secret is to work with very cold butter. I keep all of my butter in the freezer, transferring it to the refrigerator overnight or several hours before I intend to make pie dough. Work quickly with cold hands on a cool work surface, and you’ll end up with a crust that’s as flaky as it is scrumptious. Makes enough dough for one double-crust pie.


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 3/4 cup ice water



1. Using either a whisk or a fork, mix the flour and salt together in a medium-size bowl.

2. Cut the butter into medium-small cubes. I typically cut a stick of butter lengthwise down the middle, then turn each cut stick on its side and slice it lengthwise down the middle. After that, I line up the sticks and cut about 10 slices through them, creating a number of cubes.

3. Add the cubed butter to the bowl. Using a pastry blender or two knives, work the butter into the dough until pea-size lumps form. It’s good to have a couple “lima bean-size” larger lumps in there, too.

4. Add 1/2 cup cold water to the center of the mixture. Using a metal spoon, stir until the water has fully moistened the dough and becomes completely incorporated. Add the remaining water in 1 tablespoon increments, just until the dough begins to form a ball.

5. Gather the dough with your hands. Using patting movements, incorporate any remaining flour into the moistened dough. I like to avoid the use of plastic wrap, so an alternative I’ve devised is putting the dough disks in a lidded container, separated by a piece of parchment paper or a reusable plastic bag (I simply wash the bag, dry it and reuse it after I use the pie dough). You could even use the wrappers the sticks of butter came in.

6. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before use. It can be kept for up to 3 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator or frozen for up to 3 months. Place the frozen dough in the refrigerator overnight to thaw.

What about you? Planning any pie-baking this holiday season? Got any go-to tips? I’d love to hear them! Also, you might want to check out this giveaway over at Mighty Nest for a copy of A Year of Pies and this one for a pie set that features a glass pie plate from Anchor Hocking, a gorgeous wooden pie server made by Jonathan’s Spoons from sustainably harvested wood and the lovely heirloom-worthy Pie Box, handmade in Chicago from chemical-free raw pine. (It’s seriously awesome. I used it to transport the pie used in the photo, with it’s lovely cavernous middle, to Jen’s house for the photo shoot, and it works like a dream!)

Here’s hoping you’re finally able to conquer your pie-making demons and make 2012 your own year of pies!

Photos and styling by Jen Altman

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    • NT

      i don’t know if it’s a southern thing or not, but i grew up with every woman around me baking things with jewelry and watches on. i’m totally used to it and never had it turn into a problem health or cleanliness wise.


  • I have so much to learn from you, oh wise one. I think I might even tackle a pie for Thanksgiving. My grandmother, Polly would be mightily impressed.

  • What about adding vodka? The alcohol doesn’t promote gluten formation, so it helps the crust stay much flakier and more tender.

  • Quantifying butter in ‘cups’ is not much use? Nor in ‘sticks’. How long is a stick?

    Surely you need to be more precise — the amount of butter is key. Ounces or grammes, please.

  • I was appreciating the fact that the watch shows us how long it takes Ashley to make the crust… Thought that was a nice touch.

    Thanks for this, Ashley. I have a go-to recipe (grandma’s, shortening and butter) but will give yours a try this weekend: always room for a new pie crust on the table.

  • Great post! I’ve just started making my own crust, and have come to Ashley’s same conclusion that butter only (no shortening) is a must…all butter crusts are so much more flavorful and can be equally as flaky as those with shortening. I’m curious what kind of rolling pin you use…wood or marble? I have a wood one and have been trying to decide whether it is worth buying a marble one or if I should stick with what I have. Any opinions?

  • I will have to give this recipe a shot. I’ve had great success with the Cooks Illustrated recipe, which replaces some of the water with vodka as Jody mentioned. That recipe is part butter, part shortening, however.

  • This is almost exactly the way I make my pie crusts, so I can vouch that they will be delicious! ;-) I like to chill them a less though (just 20 minutes to an hour), because I feel that the dough rolls out more easily with less splitting around the edges. But sometimes I do them overnight too, to get a headstart on my piemaking. One thing I’d like to emphasize, which I’ll bet Ashley will agree with, is that forming the dough into disks with neat edges before chilling is really important – it really helps you later when trying to roll the dough out into a nice, circular shape, and helps minimize splitting. I love pies,they are my great weakness!

  • NT-Sorry if the sight of my rings and watch bother you. Like Grace said, in southern kitchens, it’s pretty common. I can assure you, they’re quite clean. Also the pie dough is cooked after its kneaded, so the heat would kill anything that might possibly be there.

    Mark-The measurements, as Grace mentioned, are U.S. standards. In baking, 1 cup, 3/4 cup, 1/2 cup, and 1/4 cup are the measurements used, and sticks of butter are marked out in both Tablespoons and 1/4- or 1/2-cup measurements on the label. Glad Grace was able to give you some clarification in converting a stick to grams! For any further aid in converting to metric, here’s a site you can use: http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/conversions.html

  • Ashley, thank you for the all-butter recipe and the great step-by-step photos. We recently went apple picking and I thought to make my first pie, but after reading a two-page long recipe, with shortening (which I dislike), I went with a crumble instead. However, I will give this one a try for a Thanksgiving dessert.

  • This is exactly how I make my pie crust and it’s amazing every time. Tried to do the food processor once and it just wasn’t the same!

  • thanks for the lovely tutorial! I love the taste of an all butter crust, but I’ve found that incorporating just a little bit of shortening helps a crust keep it’s upright form. And, I too would recommend following recipes in grams, it’s easier to be consistent if you’re measuring all the ingredients down to the last gram.

  • Leigh-I actually use a metal one, from Oxo. It’s not as heavy (or as costly) as a marble one and is easier to clean (I feel) than a wooden one. That said, I also have a wooden one that I’ll sometimes use (although it’s been co-opted by my 2 year-old son, who likes to “roll it out!” with me when I’m making pies!).

    Jodi-They’re ice cubes. When I make pies at home, I have an ice water dispenser in my fridge. Most of my D*S posts are shot at Jen’s house, though, so we put ice cubes in tap water to get it cold.

    Martha-I’ll keep that in mind, thanks. The recipe is excerpted from my book, A Year of Pies, which doesn’t have conversions in each individual recipe, as it’s printed for a domestic audience. I think that the U.K. and Australian versions of the book have metric measurements, though. And, since D*S has such a large international readership, having metric measurements listed could prove helpful for future recipes I post here.

  • I bought the Year of Pies book for my mom’s birthday last month and she has been so happy to bake several of the recipes! I love getting the pictures of her pies and can’t wait to taste the results over Thanksgiving.

    Happy Eating!

  • Thank you for this, Grace + Ashley! I stink at making pie crust and it bothers me like no other culinary failure. I cannot wait to try these techniques! Too bad I’ll have to wait until next summer to try my Nana’s peach pie.

  • I have started using a French method of making pie crusts–keeping butter pieces slightly larger, folding the dough over on itself in 3rds, and letting the dough rest (at room temp) between foldings. This does take longer, if you have the time–but you don’t have to chill the dough. I sometimes have a hard time with chilled dough splitting and falling apart when I roll it. I use all butter too.

  • Bravo! Been cooking/baking for decades and never removed rings, watches or bracelets. Still alive to tell you about it.

  • I am wondering if you have instructions for rolling out the dough. That is what I have the most problems with. I find that it falls apart sometimes when I am rolling it or transferring it to the pie pan.

  • To defend the measurement system used, if the recipe called for ounces or grams, I’d “turn the page.” Canadians use cups as a standard too (although only the fancier butters come in sticks here).

  • Desserts make the holidays in my clan. I’ve always been a cookie/brownie kind of girl, my hubby makes the fudge, and my sister’s the muffin/cake baker, but our pie maven, a long-time family friend, passed away a few years ago and even local orchards can’t compare to her pies. I have been looking to try something new this holiday season, and this is planting the seed to make a new tradition that honors the woman we loved.

  • I could watch my sister-in-law make pie crust any day in the world, because I know it would be the best ever. And, my mom was a true pie wizard- never ate one she made that was not my favorite at that time, that bite, that taste: YUM!

  • This is a great, classic recipe. Mine is almost identical. The only real change is that I make thinner, neater discs to make rolling out easier. And although I do really like the results with a pastry blender, I often make pie crust in mass (like 6 or more at a time) and thus I’ve figured out this weird method using my kitchen aid whip attachment to cut the butter most of the way.

  • I was so excited to see the perfect pie crust post! I am a really good cake baker but pies scare me. I was disappointed that the first comment was some snooty snoot complaining about the rings and watch. Snooty snoots, just keep your comments to yourself.

  • Is this pastry just for sweet pies? I’ve got hot hands so never been successful with anything that has to remain cold! One pastry I’ve found that always works (more for meat pies though) is suet based pastry. Really simple (Flour, suet, salt and a bit of milk to bind it), mix it all together and roll out! Always tastes fab, and really hard to get wrong! I use the Pieminister recipe and never had it fail :)

  • Love that pie box! and the pie looks fantastic too. I always make my pie pastry with lard- I can’t stand the taste of it with shortening and have never tried with butter. My mom taught me and the key for her and I is to not bother with cold ingredients- we even knead it a little and it is still flaky. We just use the recipe on the box of lard and work it quickly- there’s a reason they say “easy as pie”.
    Pie is my ultimate favourite- especially raisin pie. looking forward to trying this recipe- love your posts Ashley.

  • I would love to see a tutorial on rolling out the dough and getting it into the pie pan…that’s the problem I’m always running into.

  • Thanks for your post, Ashley. I’ve been playing around with combos of butter and fresh leaf lard. I’ve long been a cook, but only recently became much of a baker, and I’m definitely still in learning mode.

    Like someone else said, I’d love a post on rolling it out—I keep trying different versions of that, too, and am not sure what works best. One think I read suggested making out with slightly larger disks to get a jump-start on the rolling.

    What I’d REALLY like are more instructions on nice ways to crimp the edges. Mine always look like a 3-year-old did it. Fortunately, when they bake up, no one seems to care, but I sure would like some help with that!

  • I used this recipe exactly as it is written for a Thanksgiving pie and it was perfect. Definitely keeping this and using it in the future. And I kept my rings on too :)

  • My own recipe is almost exactly the same. I add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, though, and if I’m making a tart pie add in a touch of sugar, too.

  • I just discovered this recipe and used it to make mini quiches for Christmas. Everyone LOVED them!