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The Totally Hands-Off Pie Dough Method You Haven’t Tried Yet

Food52 logo Food52 1/17/2019 Emma Laperruque

Want to Change the Way You Bake? We do. And no, we’re not talking about adopting eight sourdough starters or making cakes with a sous vide machine. We’re talking about smart, savvy, and totally simple tricks that change everything. Or, you know, at least your next batch of baked goods.

There are endless methods to making American-style pie dough, but they’re all after the same result: a flaky, golden-brown crust. It should be crispy (but tender) and shattering (but sturdy). And all with such a short ingredient list: flour, sugar, salt, and some kind of fat (butter, shortening, lard, or some combo). Compared to something like puff pastry, making pie dough is as easy as—oh, you get it.

But that’s what makes it interesting, right? Every ingredient and every step matters.

The biggest difference between pie dough recipes is how to incorporate the fat into the dry ingredients. Today, we’re focusing on all-butter pie dough—my favorite. The ultimate goal is just-right-sized pieces, still distinct in the rolled-out dough; once it reaches the oven, the butter will dramatically melt, produce steam, puff up the crust, and create those signature flaky layers.

What size is just right, though? Depends on who you ask. “Pea-sized” held a monopoly on pie dough recipes for a long time—but today, more and more bakers are preaching that bigger is better. In The Fearless Baker, our own Baker-at-Large Erin McDowell writes: “If you want a flaky crust, as for most fruit pies, you want the butter in large pieces, the size of walnut halves. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Overworking butter—that is, cutting it into the flour too much, making the pieces too small, and letting them get too soft—leads to a dense, tough crust. Not what we want. So how do you avoid that?

It’s all in the method.

For the record—I don’t believe there’s a best or worst way to make pie dough. There are just different approaches and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Here’s the breakdown on butter-cutting methods:

By hand, literally.

Incorporate with your fingertips. This is what puts the "no stress" in Stella Parks’ No-Stress Super-Flaky Pie Crust (one of my favorite recipes in our newest cookbook, Genius Desserts). She instructs: “Toss the butter cubes in the flour, separating any stuck-together cubes with your fingers, then pinch each cube flat with your fingers”—then stop right there. Other sources tell you to take it further, such as Nancy Silverton in Desserts: “Crumble the butter into the flour…until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.”

Pros: No special equipment needed. Plus, as Lisa Ludwinski writes in Sister Pie: Hands are “your best tools and you will never lose them.” And “dough just tastes better because it’s made by humans with lots of love.”

Cons: Hands are also warm. Butter starts to soften around 50°F and melts around 100°F. Which is to say, if you handle it long enough, it’s not going to stay cold enough.

By hand, with a pastry blender.

Don’t know it? It’s this funky-looking gadget. In The Joy of Cooking, the authors refer to it as the pie dough tool of choice, instructing to cut the fat into the dry ingredients, "usually with a pastry blender.” The Sister Pie pie dough recipe notably uses a combination of a bench scraper, pastry blender, and hands.

Pros: A pastry blender’s unique shape—with a handle and half-moon chopper thingy—means you’re in control. It moves only when you do. And because your hands aren’t coming in direct contact with the dough, the butter is less likely to warm.

Cons: A pastry blender is large, especially next to a single-crust amount of dough. While it’s great for breaking up butter, I’ve personally found it difficult to get consistent butter sizes.

With a food processor.

The darling machine of pie dough recipes—or, as Dorie Greenspan calls it, “a dough genie.” J. Kenji López-Alt swears by this approach in his Foolproof Pie Dough in Cook's Illustrated: “Of all the methods I tried (food processor, stand mixer, pastry blender, and by hand),” he wrote, “the food processor was the fastest and most consistent.” You just combine the dry ingredients in the machine’s bowl, pulse a few times to incorporate, sprinkle butter cubes on top, then pulse more to cut in the butter. Some recipes then tell you to stream in cold water, with the machine still running, until just combined. But this makes it easy to add too much water and/or overwork the dough. For that reason, other recipes tell you to transfer the flour-butter mixture to a bowl, then incorporate the water with a fork, spoon, or your hands.

Pros: Like the pastry blender, the food processor method takes your hands out of the equation. It’s also quicker than either method listed above—especially if you add the water directly to the machine.

Cons: The food processor lid is clear, sure, but have you ever tried to look through it while pulsing a bunch of flour and butter together? Pretty hard to tell what’s going on. Which means in between cautiously pulsing, you have to remove the lid and check on the butter’s progress.

So which method is my favorite right now? None of these.

a close up of food: Cider Caramel Apple Pie © Provided by Food52 Cider Caramel Apple Pie Cider Caramel Apple Pie by Erin McDowell a plate of food on a table: Coconuttiest Coconut Cream Pie © Provided by Food52 Coconuttiest Coconut Cream Pie Coconuttiest Coconut Cream Pie by Emma Laperruque

I worked as a baker in a pie shop for almost three years. Smack dab in the middle of my tenure, we changed our pie dough method and realized: Holy cow, it works!

The original method had two steps: First, we incorporated the butter into the dry ingredients with a food processor. We stored these “dry kits” in the freezer, pulled one whenever we needed to make pie dough, dumped it in a big bowl, added water bit by bit, and tossed by hand. I don’t need to tell you that this took a lot of time.

Then, one day, my boss came up with a “Why not try it?” idea. Instead of stirring in the water by hand, we used a stand mixer (a giant Hobart model that could double as a kiddie pool) fitted with the paddle attachment. Because the paddle is doing all the work, the butter is less likely to melt. And because the mixer has no lid, all you have to do is watch over the dough as it becomes its best self.

With one easy swap, our pie dough production became loads more efficient—and our crust stayed just as flaky.

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: Why isn’t anyone else doing this?

Well, some are. While most pie dough recipes use one of the popular methods described above, turns out there are stand-mixer rebels out there, starting again with The Joy of Cooking: In its "Pies and Pastries" chapter introduction, there’s a paragraph about "mixing pastry dough using an electric mixer.” After combining the dry ingredients and butter, you “beat at medium speed until the mixture is the consistency of coarse crumbs.”

a close up of food © Provided by Food52

a close up of food © Provided by Food52

One flaky bite converted our recipe developer Ella Quittner into a stand mixer pie dough convert. Photos by Ella Quittner

In BakeWise—highly recommended for anyone who loves the hows and whys of baking—Shirley Corriher has a recipe for Flakey Butter Crust in a Mixer. Using the paddle attachment, you “cut the butter into the flour using the lowest speed, mixing until the butter resembles flakes of oatmeal.” She adapted the recipe for this “wonderfully flakey crust” from Jim Stacy, founder of Tarts Bakery in San Francisco, explaining that this method is “prized by caterers and those who have to produce numerous crusts.”

Which turned out to be quite the pattern—stand mixer pie dough recipes developed in professional kitchens.

When I asked our resident Genius—and Genius Desserts author—Kristen Miglore if she’s ever heard of the stand-mixer pastry method, she answered without pause: “Thomas Keller.” Or, one of the most famous chefs in the world.

Keller’s pâte brisée—think of this like the French answer to American-pie dough, but for tarts—calls for a stand mixer:

With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter a small handful at a time. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium-low and mix for about 1 minute, until the butter is thoroughly blended.

In 2007, Russ Parsons raved about Keller’s recipe in the Los Angeles Times, writing: “Keller's recipe calls for a stand mixer—and I do think that slow motion does yield the most tender crust.”

And writer, stylist, and recipe developer Sarah Jampel pointed me toward these crostatas from Che Fico in San Francisco. The recipe, published in Bon Appétit's 2018 restaurant issue, uses a stand mixer, paddle attachment, and low speed "until butter is in flat pieces the size of a nickel or smaller (mixture should look slightly sandy)."

Because of their larger-than-life size, professional stand mixers are a dream for making great pie dough while streamlining production. But if a big mixer works so well for the chef—yielding flaky crusts with way less effort—why can't little mixers do the same for the home cook? They can. It's just that most home cook–minded books haven't been talking about it.

a cake sitting on top of a table: Stand mixer pie dough tests: hanging out in the test kitchen, showing off all their flaky layers. © Provided by Food52 Stand mixer pie dough tests: hanging out in the test kitchen, showing off all their flaky layers. Stand mixer pie dough tests: hanging out in the test kitchen, showing off all their flaky layers. Photo by Emma Laperruque

Of course I couldn’t resist developing my own version.

Unlike my alma-mater bakery's method, I wanted it to be one-appliance and one-bowl, which the examples above are. But their visual cues gave me pause—“coarse crumbs,” “flakes of oatmeal,” and "size of a nickel or smaller." My own experiences have led me to believe all of these are too small. And the same holds true for Keller’s “thoroughly blended” version, which checks out for a crumbly pâte brisée, but goes against our ultra-flaky pie goals.

Like Stella Parks’ and Erin McDowell’s recipes, my own stand-mixer recipe is Team Big Butter. Less effort, more flake. The obvious con of this method is, well, you need a stand mixer. But from there, the benefits are huge:

These days, the stand mixer is a familiar appliance to many bakers (a friend!). Like the food processor, you don’t have to worry about the butter melting. But unlike the food processor, there’s no lid hiding your pie dough. Using the lowest speed possible means you can observe every little change. You might not be turning the paddle yourself, but you are in control.

When it comes to pie dough, visual cues are everything. So I snapped some shots for reference:

a close up of food: Hello, butter! Chopped up, added to the dry ingredients, and ready to become something amazing. © Provided by Food52 Hello, butter! Chopped up, added to the dry ingredients, and ready to become something amazing. Hello, butter! Chopped up, added to the dry ingredients, and ready to become something amazing. Photo by Emma Laperruque

a close up of food: This is the "cut in" butter. If you’re thinking it looks pretty unchanged, you’re right. The goals here are: coating the butter in flour and not overworking it. After a few turns of the paddle, most of the pieces should be slightly deformed, but still quite large. © Provided by Food52 This is the "cut in" butter. If you’re thinking it looks pretty unchanged, you’re right. The goals here are: coating the butter in flour and not overworking it. After a few turns of the paddle, most of the pieces should be slightly deformed, but still quite large. This is the "cut in" butter. If you’re thinking it looks pretty unchanged, you’re right. The goals here are: coating the butter in flour and not overworking it. After a few turns of the paddle, most of the pieces should be slightly deformed, but still quite large. Photo by Emma Laperruque

a close up of food: After about 1/4 cup water has been mixed in. It's close, but not quite there. See the floury sides of the bowl and all those dry patches in the dough? © Provided by Food52 After about 1/4 cup water has been mixed in. It's close, but not quite there. See the floury sides of the bowl and all those dry patches in the dough? After about 1/4 cup water has been mixed in. It's close, but not quite there. See the floury sides of the bowl and all those dry patches in the dough? Photo by Emma Laperruque

a close up of a bowl of food: Another 1 to 2 tablespoons of water did the trick. The dough still looks super shaggy, but it’s starting to grab onto the paddle attachment. The dryness is gone and, once squeezed, the dough easily holds together. © Provided by Food52 Another 1 to 2 tablespoons of water did the trick. The dough still looks super shaggy, but it’s starting to grab onto the paddle attachment. The dryness is gone and, once squeezed, the dough easily holds together. Another 1 to 2 tablespoons of water did the trick. The dough still looks super shaggy, but it’s starting to grab onto the paddle attachment. The dryness is gone and, once squeezed, the dough easily holds together. Photo by Emma Laperruque

I baked some of the dough into crispy rounds (egg-washed and raw sugar–coated, of course) and brought them to the toughest taste testers I know: my coworkers.

To my delight, they were almost all gone by the end of the day, and the main feedback was: So flaky! Oh, and: How did you do it?

A stand mixer, I told them. It’s easy—you should try it.

0391ffae 9c0f 4136 b1b1 6c9903db25aa pie dough 2 © Provided by Food52 0391ffae 9c0f 4136 b1b1 6c9903db25aa pie dough 2

Stand Mixer Pie Dough

By Emma Laperruque

  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, refrigerated until right before you use it
  • 1 1/2 cups (192 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup very cold water (see headnote), plus more as needed

View Full Recipe

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How do you make the flakiest pie dough? Tell us about the method in the comments!

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