The One Ingredient You’re Not Adding to Pie Crust (but You Really Should)
Making a pie with a flaky and tender crust is no easy feat — even for those who bake on the regular (that would be me). Ideally your dough is assembled with ice-cold ingredients and a gentle hand. And for the purists in the room (kind of me?), said ingredients include nothing more than butter, flour, water, and salt. Moreover, gentle hand means just that: Use your hands and/or a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon to assemble the ingredients with the lightest of touches. Seems pretty doable, right? Yes, yes it does. But what makes assembling flaky and tender pie dough so difficult, even when using the most perfect recipes as your guide, is its temperamental nature.
The temp in your kitchen is always a factor when you bake. When the kitchen is too hot and humid, dry ingredients like sugar tend to absorb the moisture in the air, making macarons or pavlova, for instance, challenging. And when it is too cold, bringing eggs and butter and cream cheese to room temperature can take forever — and shortcuts are often problematic. For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve decided to save myself a little time by placing that ice-cold butter or cream cheese in the microwave briefly, you know, to take the chill off, and — inevitably — a minute later I’ve got a bowl of butter soup or a plate of droopy, structureless cream cheese. Not fun.
And pie dough is no exception. Maybe those (not quite pea-sized, but not quite walnut-sized) cold chunks of butter that you work so carefully and quickly to knead into your flour begin to melt due to the warm weather or your warm hands. Or maybe your kitchen is cool, and so you leave the dough to rest on the counter before rolling it out, and by the time you remember it’s soft and the butter is melty (been there, done that). Either way, I hate to say it: A flaky, tender crust is unlikely in your future. Unless, however, you throw purity to the wind and add just the tiniest bit of another ingredient to the mix — an ingredient that you unquestionably have in your pantry. With this addition, perfect pie crust is all but guaranteed.
Baking Powder Is the Secret to the Flakiest Pie Dough
Baking powder, everyone’s favorite chemical leavening agent, is magic when it comes to flaky pie dough — no joke. And a smidge is all you need. It lightens and expands your crust, providing a texture not unlike flakiness. The crust is softer, too, from the baking powder — but not in a soggy-bottom kind of way, but in a light and airy kind of way. Thus, if the kitchen is too warm (or too cold) or you overworked your dough and inadvertently incorporated the butter into the flour a bit too aggressively, baking powder can rescue you (and your pie). Moreover, because the leavening causes the dough to rise slightly, it prevents the crust from shrinking while baking (this happens to be baking guru Nick Malgieri’s favorite reason for using it). Letting your dough rest overnight before rolling it out and freezing your crust before baking can help with this too, but a little baking powder is legit insurance.
And lest you think Nick and I are the only two singing the praises of chemically leavened pie dough, I’d like to point out that the grande dame of pies, Rose Levy Berenbaum, has a “basic flaky pie crust” recipe from her epic Pie and Pastry Bible that calls for baking powder because of the lift, tenderness, and strength it imparts. And if me, Nick, and Rose are not enough to convince you that a little baking powder makes for a flaky and tender pie crust (despite less-than-ideal kitchen temps and/or man-handling) my pal and fellow Kitchn contributor Shauna Sever also adds baking powder to her “favorite pie crust” for lift and — yes — for a flaky and tender guarantee every time.
So, when that the pie-making urge next hits, don’t give the weather or your anxiety about your lack of a “gentle touch” a second thought. Instead reach for your trusty can of baking powder and add about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon to 1 1/4 cup or so of flour. I highly recommend it.