Perfect pies

In the run-up to the holidays I can happily look forward to a few things.  One is knitting (and I will share about that this autumn) and the other is baking. I make the usual things that people who are addicted to carbs like, but pies above all.  It is funny too because, as much as I shun cooking now, I still love to make all kinds of breads and desserts. I have a theory that either you are a baker or you are a cook.  Most people only master one.  I showed the SO how to make all the things I like for meals and he does them now, loves it, and is darn good at cooking.  Yay!!

Anyway, this is the time of year that I start my baking,  at least here in Valencia, since the temperatures usually (not always) start to decline by October. When it is 100F+ outside, even with the AC full blast (which I try to avoid), the kitchen becomes an inferno when the oven is on.

I want to give you my cannot-fail standard pie dough formula.  If you follow the indications carefully, it will be flawless every time. One thing you will want to do is decide if you are going to use butter or vegan margarine.  Classic French baking always calls for pure butter. But, butter is a dairy product and for ethical reasons, many people are now avoiding dairy.  Obviously there are also health issues where butter is concerned.  But it does impart a particular flavor and mouth feel, so it is a matter of preference. There are other choices: lard, Crisco and oil.  I would recommend against all three, for various reasons.

One of my favorite shows now on PBS is the Jazzy Vegetarian with Laura Theodore.  She has great ideas on vegan alternatives to use in every area of cooking and has devised baking formulas that use vegan ingredients and still turn out perfectly. You can substitute vegan margarine as Laura Theodore does for butter, if you prefer.  Since my pie dough also uses flour, I also want to point you to Laura’s exceptional flourless sweet pie dough which you can find under her Winter Celebration Episode #313 by scrolling to the bottom quarter of the page. She puts it in a pecan pie that is absolutely fantastic (although I think putting chocolate in a nut pie is gilding the lily – but that is a small truth).  In fact, along the way, I came up with  a  flourless chocolate cake formula that is fabulous and fairly easy, which I will share in a future post, too.

I have been baking my entire life, inspired by my grandmother, who was an expert baker and made perfect pies, among other things.  She used lard in her dough, so of course I cannot follow her old recipe. Being obsessive, I did an apprenticeship in a bakery for awhile some years back, so I could learn to do these things properly.  I started with those formulas and have accumulated a set of master instructions over the years that  I plan to put in an online PDF someday.  For now, I freely share my formulas with people whenever the occasion arises.

Baking is a science and heavily employs math, chemistry and biology.  The reason so many people fail to produce consistent, accurate, professional results is that they don’t realize there are basic formulas for every baked product under the sun.  Most of them were formalized in France (who knows where and why the French got them), but the Cordon Bleu School of baking is the official one, the world over and can be found in just about every country.

If you follow the basic formula, chemistry-math-biology-wise, you will produce a professional product every single time.  When I realized this and got the textbooks for the Cordon Bleu system (in English), I stopped buying baking books altogether and started making my own set of standard formulas, putting them on a formula sheet and a ring-set of index cards, the way the pros do.

Now, when I walk into a book store or see a baking book online, I just look at the formulas for the proportions – usually they are off.  If you know the proper proportions or percentages of a baked product, you can instantly spot a likely flawed formula that will result in a failed baked product.  What I find them useful for is decorative or flavoring ideas, embellishments, particulates to add, things like that.  I don’t even need to buy them, I just look at them and get ideas, then I incorporate those details in one or another master formula.

The formula below may look intimidating, but believe me, once you have used it a couple of times, you will be able to make a perfect, flaky pie dough in fifteen minutes.  Once made, each half can be frozen, and thawed just before you want to use it.

Don’t let the length and details of the instructions scare you off. It requires explaining the first time and after that it is simple: everything must be very cold, and the proportion for pie dough is:  4:2:1 plus a pinch of salt.  So 4 parts flour to 2 parts butter (or vegan margarine) to 1 part water (ice cold).  It is based on weight, not volume, measurements for accuracy and is scalable.  So you can make one crust, or six crusts using proportions/percentages. That’s it!  I can land in any kitchen in America and make this pie dough before I finish my second cup of coffee, and you can too.


Master Formula No. 23: Basic Pie Dough (for sweet or savory pies)


 Pie dough for one 8-10” two crust pie


Material Grams Ounces Percentage Note




AP or Pastry




Very cold unsalted butter




Ice water



Kosher salt


1 lb 12 oz



Water should be ice cold; all other components should be cold (pre-refrigerated).

Have ready: Cuisinart® or equivalent food processor fitted with sharp blade; bench scraper (to keep counter surface smooth and free of particulates); waxed paper; French rolling pin; very sharp 9 – 10” professional chef’s knife; very sharp paring knife or bakers lame. Aluminum foil cut into 2” wide strips, pre-curved, to cover edges during latter part of baking.  Extra batch of dough for top decorations.  Kitchen should be cold.

Put flour in food processor fitted with blade; process flour with spout covered, for a minute.

Cut very cold butter into chunks the size of larger walnuts and with food processer on, drop one by one through spout until all of the butter has been added.  Spin for another minute or so only, to blend.

Pouring steadily and in a thin stream, begin to add the water to the bowl with flour/butter mixture, with the processor on.  You should use up all the water.  Continue to spin the mixture just until a clear and neat ball forms in the bowl.  Stop the machine.

Carefully remove the ball of dough with cold, clean hands – its structure should be well held together and still cold.

On a smooth, cold surface, with cold hands (rinsed in cold water and dried just before handling the dough), form the ball into a thick, even disk (several inches thickness and about 4-5” diameter), flattening top and bottom evenly and gently against the counter or with rolling pin.

With the chef’s knife, identifying the middle of the disk, laterally, carefully slice the disk into two thinner disks, in one clean motion.  Quickly smooth and flatten each disk and wrap each half in a piece of waxed paper to cover.  Place two seam-sides together and refrigerate for >one hour and up to two days.  If the dough is to be refrigerated for more than a few hours, carefully place the two waxed paper covered disks, seam to seam, in a clean Ziploc bag, seal and return to refrigerator.

When you are ready to roll out the dough:

Rinse hands in coldest possible water and dry thoroughly.  Make sure you are working in a cold room.

Remove one disk and have rolling pin and clear, clean, cold rolling surface ready.

Quickly begin rolling in one direction (away from you), rotating the disk a quarter turn in one direction and continuing to roll until the disk is the desired size plus 1 to 2”.

Gently fold the thin circle of dough once, and once again, to form a four-fold triangle of dough.  Place the point of this triangle in the center of the pie pan (or center of the pie for the top crust) and carefully unfold over the surface being covered, so that it is even.

Note:  as a rule, do not add flour to surfaces when rolling.  If the dough is to be used for sweet products, you may lightly dust all surfaces with 10X or confectioners sugar, sifted.

For two-crust pie, evenly pinch edges of two circles (top and bottom) together and fold under carefully and evenly, rotating the pie as above.  With two cold hands, rotate the pie edge between your hands to create a smooth and even outer edge and then decorate as desired (pinch, fork, fluted, or top-decorated with dough cutouts in shapes such as hearts, leaves, flowers or stars etc.  There will be no scraps so cutouts should be made from another batch of dough made for this purpose).  Make steam vents by taking a very sharp paring knife/lame and cutting decorative shapes or slits in four spots, evenly divided and in center (see illustration).

It is important to work quickly so the dough remains cold.

The pie can be refrigerated before baking to return it to its coldest state before placement in the oven.  If refrigerating for more than an hour, carefully cover with parchment and wrap in large Ziploc sealed bag.

Place rack in center of oven.

Pre-heat the oven and place the cold pie on the rack.  Bake according to the type of product made, covering edges with pre-curved aluminum foil strips at half way point to avoid burning.

*Pastry flour will add flake to the dough; AP flour will be produce dough that is easier to handle.

†For best results, do not substitute anything else for pure butter, except vegans may want to use vegan margarine.

©2005 – Text-only excerpt from unpublished manuscript Chapter 9, “Pie and tart doughs”, 50 Fool-proof Master Formulas and Techniques ™.  All rights reserved – Beth Byrnes


4 Comments on “Perfect pies”

  1. Oh I so agree! Always hated cooking but loved to bake, and was pretty good at it too, until I quit being able to eat wheat and never figured out what other flour would be good to use. It seems to me to be a completely different type of cooking, not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s just the consistency of all the ingredients – everything is so soft and creamy and easy to work with rather than all the cutting and dicing cooking requires. Or something.


    • Exactly! Just so much more elegant a process. It is a bummer about the wheat allergy. It is a good thing it isn’t cool all year long here, because I tend to eat what I bake and I would be 200 lbs in no time!


  2. Pingback: Mad about maple | Beth Byrnes

  3. Pingback: Festive autumn fruits galette | Beth Byrnes

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