For reasons I will never fully understand, the only part of pie-making that anyone tries to hack is by far the easiest. Mixing pastry dough could not be simpler; all you’re doing is barely binding cold fat and flour together with a little water. It is not a process that needs hacking.
Making pie, on the other hand—that’s a tricky business. But nobody’s bringing the same magic, science-y hack energy to the truly annoying parts. Rolling your dough into a perfect circle and waiting—for your freezer to do its thing, for your pie to bake, then for it to cool completely—are the nuts and bolts of making a pie, and you cannot speed them up. Once your dough hits the counter, your fate is in the hands of God and the laws of thermodynamics. Maybe that’s why there are so many tips and tricks for mixing the dough itself; we all crave a sense of control, even if it’s just an illusion.
I’m not saying that your favourite pie recipe is wrong if it relies on any of these hacks. Pie is 90% experience and 10% luck, and if you already know what works, you’re set for life. This one goes out to the newbies, the aspiring pie geniuses who sift through zillions of Google results for crust recipes once or twice a year before giving up and buying frozen instead. (I say this with zero judgment, by the way; frozen crusts are a genuine life hack.) You don’t need a food processor or vodka or even a box grater to make a great pie crust—in fact, those things may end up making your life harder than it needs to be.
Pastry blenders kind of suck
Pastry blenders—sometimes called pastry cutters—are the OG pie crust hack, and I hate them. I used one for years because I thought it was the right thing to do, but it never saved me any time or made my life easier in any appreciable way. The blades always seemed to bend around the cubes of butter rather than actually cutting into them, which means I ended up finishing the job with my hands. With that said, I am a reasonable person capable of self-reflection and therefore recognise that this probably reflects more on the tools I chose than all pastry blenders. If you love yours, ignore me—but if you’re considering buying one, I just don’t think they’re necessary.
Grated butter is more trouble than it’s worth
A neat trick that’s gained traction in the past few years is grating frozen sticks of butter with a box grater rather than rubbing it into the flour with your fingers. I see two problems with this.
First, it takes a while to grate a stick of butter, which gives you plenty of time to melt or soften the end you’re holding. Second, grated shards of butter melt much faster than big fat chunks, so you’ll have to be more precious with the finished dough to avoid smearing it everywhere. I’m just not sure what you’re gaining with this one.
Vodka is for drinking, not pie dough
Vodka crust has to be the most popular hack out there, and the pitch is persuasive. Since gluten molecules only link up in the presence of water, the theory goes that replacing some of the water with vodka creates a pliable dough with minimal gluten development. Then, once your pie is in the oven, the vodka evaporates completely, leaving behind a shatteringly crisp crust. Nice.
Here’s the thing. As with all butter-laden doughs and batters, the absolute risk of developing too much gluten is vanishingly small, especially if you mix the dough by hand. Accidentally underworking the dough for fear of overworking it is far more common—and I’d argue it’s worse. Pastries need a little bit of gluten development because that’s where they get their structure. Underworked crust may be flaky, but good luck getting it to hold together. Stick to water for the crust and save your vodka for martinis or a fancy infusion, where you’ll actually appreciate it.
Put away the food processor
A lot of people love making pie dough in the food processor: You just dump your ingredients in, pulse, and go. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s that it’s nowhere near as efficient as it’s made out to be. The most time intensive parts of making pie dough are chilling the dough and rolling it out—mixing and kneading should take, like, one whole minute. Once you’ve lugged out the food processor and pulsed the dough together, you haven’t saved yourself much time or effort.
Then there’s the other food processor hack: blitzing the absolute bejesus out of your butter with some of the flour to create a paste, then incorporating the paste into the dough in larger chunks. This is supposed to create a super-flexible dough that still bakes up flaky and tender, and it very well may—but I’m not sold.
Food processors are incredibly powerful and heat up very quickly; depending on your particular machine and the size of your batch, it seems too easy to accidentally melt that butter paste. Plus, you have to scrape it into a bowl and fold it into the rest of the ingredients, which just sounds like extra dishes to me.
There is a secret—and it’s very simple
I speak from experience when I say there is exactly one secret to perfect pie crust: Rely on the kneading step, not the initial mixing, to incorporate the fat. Rather than spend a couple minutes painstakingly cutting your butter into the flour with your fingertips, toss cold butter cubes into the dry ingredients and gently smush them flat. Mix in the water, dump the whole crumbly, shaggy mess onto a counter, and use the heel of your hand to kind of smear the dough a few times until it holds together, like this:
The French call this technique fraisage, but I call it common sense: cold fat makes flaky pastry, and your hands are the warmest thing the dough touches. The less time you spend touching naked butter (or lard or shortening) with those hot little fingers, the less likely it is to melt. Once it’s thoroughly coated in flour, you don’t have to be as careful—hence the fraisage.
That’s really all you have to do. The pie-making process is rich with opportunities to overthink and second-guess; don’t complicate the simplest part. You have enough to worry about.