Dough Part 1: Crusts

Most home cooks I talk to will tell me they are most afraid of doughs. Whether it be yeasted or flaky, pie or loaves, they want nothing to do with these substances that have finicky reputations. Cookie dough and cake batter, not a problem. But when it comes to breads, pies, tartes, even biscuits, many home cooks want nothing to do with it.

That is where we come in. We want to move you past this irrational fear and into the wonderful world of these treats. Today, we will start with crusts, that is pie dough, tart dough, puff pastry, hot water crust, and graham cracker crust. Let’s look at their similarities and difference.

Pie Dough
We have already talked about pie dough but is worth revisiting as it is the fundamental crust. To make pie dough, we rub cubes of cold butter into flour until they resemble little pea sized pebbles. Then add just enough cold water to bring it together before refrigerating. Pie dough is made with a very simple ratio by weight: 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter (or other fat) and one part water. I also include a little salt and sugar if it is for a sweet application.

Keys to pie dough will prove the same for tart dough and puff pastry. It is important that we refrigerate it at least an hour before rolling it out. If we feel it getting too warm or it starts to stick, we want to cool it down again. We also want it to be cold before it goes into the over, weather blind baking or filling. Cold dough is the key to flaky pastry.

Tart Dough
You may think that tart dough and pie dough are one and the same, but that is far from the truth. Pie dough is flakier and more buttery, while tarts require a more crumbly, stiff crust to support what are generally cold and dense fillings. The process of making tart dough is very similar to pie dough but the ratios are different. We use the same 3:2 by weight ratio of flour to butter. However, when it comes to adding the liquid, we cut it in half. We also supplement the dough with one egg yolk per 6 oz of flour, to give it some richness. Often tart doughs will replace one third of the flour with almond flour.

Once refrigerated, you will find that this dough is far too dense to roll out. Instead, we treat it like play dough. Traditionally, one may cut the dough into little strips and use it to line the pan. I actually like to grate the dough into the pan and then press the strands together equally around the tart shell with my knuckles. Then chill and blind bake, being sure to weigh it down or dock it for the first portion of blind baking (see the other pie article).

Puff Pastry
Puff pastry is usually used not to line things but to wrap things, like hot dogs, or top things, like a crustless pot pie. However, I want to include it here because it is made similarly to the other doughs. Puff pastry is like a lighter, more airy pie dough. It is so flaky, that you can see the distinct layers. To achieve this, we up the ratio of ingredients a little, by weight, to 4 parts flour, 3 parts cold butter, and 2 parts cold water. Instead of cubing the butter, I like to freeze it, then grate it into the flour and mix it before adding the water. To get those layers, we need to laminate the dough. This means folding it over and over and over again. Here is how it its done.

After the dough comes together, form it into a square, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least an hour. Pull it out and roll it into a long rectangle. Then fold like a business letter, pulling one end two-thirds of the way up then folding the other side over that to form a square again. Rotate the dough 90 degrees then roll it out again into a long rectangle. Keep folding and rolling three times. Then refrigerate for 30 minutes. Repeat this process two more times to create many layers.

Hot Water Crust
Dating back centuries, hot water crust takes a very different approach than the previous three. Instead of using cold butter, we use melted. Instead of cold water, we use boiling. This creates a really sturdy, crisp crust that can hold its shape and handle heavy fillings. That is why it is popular for savory meat and potato pies in England. Here is how it works. We are still using three parts flour by weight, but we use two parts boiling water with one part of butter melted into it. We then add the hot water-butter mixture into the flour, mixing with a fork until it is cool enough to handle, then kneading until it comes together. Hot water prevents the formation of gluten which gives the dough some tenderness. This is the same reason why dumpling dough is made with hot water. Unlike pie dough, we want to work with this dough while it is warm so that the butter does not solidify again. Quickly roll it out, press into the cooking vessel, and then fill and bake. Like pie dough, if using as a topping, be sure to score it to allow steam to escape.

Graham Cracker Crust
This crust starts with an already made product that is broken down and rearranged. This is most often achieved with graham crackers but can also be done with many other cookies and biscuits. The result is a buttery, crisp, textured crust that complements specifically custards. Like the hot water dough, we take advantage of melted butter but use it as a binder to hold together the crumbs of our chosen cracker. We use four parts of the cracker crumbs to two parts melted butter and one part powdered sugar, mixing until it resembles wet sand. Powdered sugar is key as granulated sugar will not mix as well. Then we take this wet sand mixture and press it into our shell (I use the back of a measuring cup for this). Finally, we must prebake it just until it is set, dry, and slightly golden. I do this at a lower temperature, like 325 degrees F, to avoid burning, for 10-15 minutes.