How do I make a beautiful pre-baked pie crust?
November 28, 2008 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Why is my pie crust melting?!

This is so aggravating. I am trying to pre-bake a pie crust for pumpkin pie, pecan pie, whatever. I follow the directions to the tee - the crust is in the freezer for 30 minutes, so it is rock hard when I take it out of the freezer and stick it in the 425 degree oven. I've used pie weights (beans), and I haven't used pie weights, and I still get the same result. The nice crimped edge sluffs down the side of the pie pan and I end up with this bubbling blob of dough in the base of the pie plate.

I have tried all butter and butter/shortening recipes.

So the dough is cold and weighted, and it still melts.

What am I doing wrong here? What is the trick to getting a beautiful pre-baked crust?
posted by eirelander to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I fought this myself yesterday, and finally won by doing the weights (lentils, in my case), and then nestling a second pie plate inside the beans. I have no idea why this happens, and so consistently, but I really do feel your pain. As does the fabulous woman behind smitten kitchen, who chronicled her recent triumph over the problem here. It's a tart shell recipe, rather than a pie crust, but it should be fine as a pie crust. Though, no, I've not tried it myself.
posted by amelioration at 12:42 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

This can happen if the dough is overprocessed, so that rather than little pockets of flour-coated butter flecking the dough you've got a homogenous flour/butter paste. The butter melts too fast and there's no flour/water dough structure to hold it up. Are you using a food processor? If so, make sure not to overprocess - the flour/butter mixture should range from pea-size butter lumps to grains like coarse cornmeal, depending on the texture you want. There should be no unincorporated flour. Or if you cut in the butter by hand, make sure the butter never warms up - to the point of putting the half-worked mixture in the fridge from time to time to cool it down.

It can also happen sometimes if your dough is too wet overall - always add just enough (cold!) water to make the flour/butter mix barely hold together. The amount will differ depending on the humidity that day. If you've added all the water and it still seem dry, let the dough rest for a little while and see if it's more workable then, rather than adding more water straightaway. Most finished doughs should feel like play doh, dry to the touch.
posted by peachfuzz at 12:52 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

what directions are you using?

it's generally a good idea to let pie crust dough sit around for awhile (15 mins) at room temperature before putting it in a hot oven - keep it wrapped in plastic or covered, tho, so you don't lose to much moisture
posted by jammy at 12:55 PM on November 28, 2008

Are you putting a store-bought crust from a box into your own nonstick pan? Perhaps try something that isn't nonstick.

Have you calibrated your oven temperature? Do you have an electric oven with poor heat cycling? I think I recall Dorie Greenspan suggesting preheating to a higher temperature (say 450) and turning it down once you put the shell in the oven--that way the first 10 minutes of your bake time won't be at a low point in the heat cycle.
posted by bcwinters at 1:06 PM on November 28, 2008

Wow, weird, don't know how I missed that you were making your own from scratch. My reading skills aren't up to par today. So anyway ignore my first sentence, but do still think about the nonstick pan issue.
posted by bcwinters at 1:06 PM on November 28, 2008

Try not putting your dough in the freezer before you bake it. I roll mine out and put it in the pie plate right before going in the oven and don't have any problems.

Also, what's your flour:butter ratio? I make my pie crusts with 1.5c flour and 1.5 sticks of butter.
posted by mkultra at 1:30 PM on November 28, 2008

Here is how my wife does it. She has baked for many years.

She does not know about putting a pastry shell in the freezer.

She makes from scratch only and the pastry dough is at room temperature. She puts the crust in the pie pan and takes a dinner fork and perforates the crust all over the bottom and the sides. The punctures are close together.

She bakes in a preheated oven at 450º for 12 to 15 minutes. The time is based upon when the crust is golden brown. Never a failure. Crust is tasty and flaky.
posted by JayRwv at 1:32 PM on November 28, 2008

Are you crimping on top of the edge of the pie plate or over it? I thinking you've got larger problems with the recipe/process, but making sure to crimp over the edge of the pan so the crust can't shrink away from it might help.

Also, do you have an oven thermometer? Is your oven really 425? If I were to set my oven to 425, by the time the oven thought it had reach that temperature, it would be at 600 or more, temps usually reserved for cleaning the oven. Most people's ovens aren't out quite as much as mine, but it helps to check the temperature against another thermometer rather than trusting your oven.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:36 PM on November 28, 2008

I have never used a non-stick pie pan, always Pyrex.

Further, I have been baking pies for 20 years, and after years of pretty good but nothing spectacular crusts, I have seen the light. Behold, the Foolproof Pie Crust from Cooks Illustrated. The key ingredient is vodka, which makes your dough much easier to work with (I initially thought it so wet as to be 'gloppy') but evaporates off during cooking.

Best. Pie. Crust. Ever.

Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor—do not substitute. This dough will be moister and more supple than most standard pie doughs and will require more flour to roll out (up to 1/4 cup).

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening , cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup vodka , cold
1/4 cup cold water

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

I made this in my Kitchenaid Mixer using the paddle attachment rather than a food processor. Also, I used Plugra, European butter that has a slightly higher fat content than American butter.

Roll chilled dough straight out of the fridge between two sheets of well-floured (~1/4c) parchment. I refrigerated the dough between each step. Rolled it out, fridge 15 minutes, draped in pie plate, fridge, crimp edges, fridge. Put plate on rimmed baking sheet, lined bottom of dough with foil weighted with pennies, baked at 400C for 15 minutes, remove foil/pennies, and bake an additional 5-10 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

posted by Seppaku at 1:51 PM on November 28, 2008 [14 favorites]

Oh, if you use your Kitchenaid to make this, use room temperature shortening and butter. If your fats are too hard, you will have flour EVERYWHERE when you turn on your mixer.
posted by Seppaku at 1:53 PM on November 28, 2008

Just a note, all the pumpkin pies I've ever baked were baked in a raw pie shell, so you shouldn't have this problem with those.
posted by rikschell at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unlike other people, I think that freezing is the way to go. You are trying to set the flour before the fat melts too much. After you cut the fat into the flour, and before you add the water, what does the mixture look like? You may be cutting the fat into the flour too much.

In pie dough, you are trying to find the magic moment where there is gluten formation from the flour and water interacting but not too much. The fat will coat the flour, preventing gluten from hooking up. Perhaps you are preventing almost all gluten development. This would happen in two ways. Your fat may be too warm when you cut it into the flour OR you cut in too vigorously.

Here are some signs you are coating the flour with fat a little too effectively:

Your flour/fat mixture is almost smooth. I find mine works best when the lumps are in between lentils and quick-cooking oatmeal.

Your pie dough will fall apart very easily, like a masa tortilla. It doesn't seem to want to hold together at all.

Your baked pastry is crumbly like a shortbread cookie instead of coming apart in flaky shards.

I find that the instructions that Julia Child gives in her The Way to Cook are wonderful. There are a lot of pictures to get you through and she talks about pie pastry in one large chunk, including the various uses and methods. including blind baking. The Cook's Illustrated recipe is also very good and can help those who are too timid with the liquid, like me.

All that said, I have never blind baked a crust for any cooked custard pie like pumpkin or pecan. A blind bake crust is typical of cold pies like banana cream or the various meringues.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:18 PM on November 28, 2008

Freezing the crust before putting it in the oven? I have never heard of this. Maybe ice crystals are forming in your dough and melting as it heats?

When you're making your pie dough, cube your fat and chill it in the refrigerator for a while. Use very cold water. Then roll it out and proceed as normal. I use Alton Brown's pie crust recipe -- dead easy and the results are beautiful.
posted by trunk muffins at 5:05 PM on November 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, all. I could cook a half dozen more crusts trying all of these techniques.

I've tried a few recipes - Dorie Greenspan most recently. Bittman has provided good results, but I haven't tried his for prebaking yet. The fats are frozen before cutting them in. I use a food processor, too. And I'm using pyrex. Gotta check the oven temp though...
posted by eirelander at 6:59 PM on November 28, 2008

My process, which never fails, uses the Joy of Cooking recipe. I use half frozen butter, half chilled shortening for the fats. I do all the mixing by hand. I refrigerate before rolling out, freeze after it's in the pan. It goes straight from freezer to oven, and I use either beans or glass marbles as weights. I have a million pie plates of various materials; I don't think that's your problem. I'm going to agree with the posters above that say you're either doing too good of a job combining your fat and flour, or using too much water, and I'm banking on the former. It should look rough, kind of sandy, not at all smooth before you add the water. You should see some bigger, pea-sized chunks of flour-coated fat.

Try using the recipe that worked best, but do it by hand, cutting in the fat with two knives, or a pastry cutter if you have one. Do the butter first, then the shortening, if you use a combination, because the shortening needs less coaxing.
posted by donnagirl at 7:23 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

It really sounds to me like your dough is overworked. The thing is, putting your dough in the freezer after shaping won't be helpful if your butter has gotten too warm in the mixing and rolling out process. Once it warms up, you've lost the structure of the crust, because the butter can no longer create a little pocket for the flakey bits to form around. You also need to use a flour with enough gluten for structure, so if you are already using an all purpose flour, try mixing in a little bread flour to increase gluten content. Make sure that your pie crust is well pricked on the sides to let moisture escape.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:37 AM on November 29, 2008

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