Pie crust: to chill or not to chill? (Also, strawberry pie!)
I’ve made a decent number of pies in my life – some better than others – but until a year or so ago, I never paid that much attention to the crust or the technique behind it. See, I’m not so picky about pie crust. It’s a flaky, light and crispy crust: “It’s so flaky and crispy! I love it!” It’s a chewier, doughier, denser crust: “It’s so chewy and dense! I love it!” I’ve generally made whatever crust recipe comes along with the pie recipe I want to make, and while I’ve sometimes cursed the dough for not rolling out easily or for completely falling apart when confronted with baked filling, I’ve left it up to fate.
However, in the last year or so I’ve generally settled on a particular recipe – it’s easy to make and to work with, hearty and perfectly suited for a sweet or savory pie (no sugar in the dough), and with a great buttery taste and flakiness. I use it for pies, tarts, quiches, and any other time a similar sort of dough is needed. There’s just one thing: the original recipe asks for two chilling periods – one before and one after rolling out the dough. A little bit of a hassle, yes, but I’ve followed those two chilling periods to the letter every time I’ve used it.
But then I visited my friend Tawny this spring, and she made meat pies. She also uses this dough recipe pretty religiously, but I was surprised to see that she makes hers with not just one, but neither of the chilling periods. Straight from the bowl to the rolling pin to the dish to the oven. And the crust on those meat pies she made was absolutely, drop-dead amazing. A perfect, buttery, flaky pastry case for a delectable stew-like filling.
So. What then?
Let’s back up a bit. There are a few generally agreed upon reasons for chilling pie dough:
- Keeping the dough cold while rolling out keeps distinct bits of butter that are not absorbed as easily by the flour, which creates the layered flakiness you’re generally looking for.
- Chilling the dough allows time for the gluten strands in the flour to relax, which makes the dough easier to roll out and keeps it from shrinking while baking.
- Chilling helps moisture work throughout the dough, making it smoother and easier to roll out.
If there’s one thing I hate in cooking it’s taking time to do steps that are unnecessary, so I knew I needed figure this out head-on. So for the Fourth of July, I made two pies. Two strawberry pies, to be more specific, but we’ll get to that later. One pie was made with chilled crust (only one chilling period, not both) and one was made with crust that went right from the bowl to the rolling pin to the dish to the oven. I honestly suspected we wouldn’t be able to tell much of a difference, but from beginning to end the crusts behaved and turned out differently. Both quite good, but noticeably different.
With a bit more follow-up research, here’s what I’ve determined:
- Chilled crust keeps together better and is noticeably smoother and easier to deal with when rolling out, but is much harder to patch when torn or when a hole forms because it’s much firmer and less doughy. Chilled crust is better for making designs on top, because the dough is smoother and can be cut more cleanly. It takes a bit longer for the crust to get golden brown, which means a slightly longer baking time, but the final product is much flakier and crispier.
- Non-chilled crust is fairly crumbly and less smooth, which makes it harder to roll out and means it may not look as polished. It will brown more quickly and the final product will likely be tougher, heavier, and more doughy – none of those in a bad way. It will likely have a more intense, butter flavor.
The room was pretty much split on which pie they liked better, but I can definitely see the benefits of both. The heavier, non-chilled dough will stand up to heavy or extra-flavorful fillings – like the meat pie – much better, both in structure and in flavor, where the chilled dough would be more fitting for more subtle fillings like fruit or mousse. That said, the chilled dough is a little harder to cut through on the bottom of the pie because it’s crispier and flakier – so the non-chilled dough might work well when your filling is delicate and you don’t want to have to work the knife too much to get through each slice.
I’m definitely not ready to say one is better than the other, but it’s good to know that either work perfectly fine when I might not have time for a chilling period (or two).
Also – let’s all start making more pie, okay? Okay. It’s decided.
Note: Strawberry pies are notoriously juicy and at risk for filling collapse and soaking through the bottom crust, but a few precautions keep the pie stable and unsoggy.
- Crust of your choice – enough for a double-layer crust
- 2 Tbsp. cream cheese, softened (you can microwave for 30 seconds to soften quickly)
- 5 cups quartered strawberries (de-stemmed, of course)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 Tbsp. butter, softened
– You can decide whether you want to chill your dough before rolling out. You recipe will probably say to chill the dough, but as I’ve told you above you can decide what you want to do. If you chill it, make it before the following steps. If you don’t chill it, make the dough while the strawberries are draining.
– Preheat your oven to 450F.
– Mix together the strawberries and sugar in a large bowl, then pour into a colander and drain for 15-30 minutes (you can deal with your crust while the berries are draining). The sugar will soften the berries and make them let off some juice, which will help keep the filling together.
– Roll out your dough and placing it in the pie pan using your preferred method (you can Google “making a pie crust” or “rolling out a pie crust” to see many tutorials for getting your dough into the pan – I prefer the “rolling pin drape” method).
– Spread the softened cream cheese in the bottom of the dough. This helps to create a barrier between the bottom crust and the strawberry juices, warding against sogginess.
– After draining the berries, discard the juice (or drink it, ahem) and mix in the cornstarch.
– Pour the berry mixture into the dough.
– Pinch off bits of the softened butter and scatter these small pieces on top of the filling (maybe 8-10 pieces, but it doesn’t really matter how many). If you forget to soften the butter, you can easily cut it into small pieces and scatter those.
– Top the pie with the second crust. Decorate as you like, using milk to “paste” pieces of dough on top of the top crust. Make sure you pinch or otherwise press together the outer edges and that you cut at least a couple of vents on top.
– Brush (or spread with you fingers, if the only brush in the kitchen is being used to baste ribs outside …) milk on top of your crust, then sprinkle with sugar.
– Bake the pie at 450 for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 and bake for another 40-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. The thicker the decorations, the longer it might take for the top crust to cook through. You can lightly press on your decorations to tell if they seem baked through or still doughy.
– Very important for a pie like this: You want to let it cool substantially before eating – likely for at least an hour – so that the wet filling can congeal a bit. A few hours of rest time would be best, but an hour is probably okay.