Now, now, don’t be hard on yourself. There are people who churn out pie crusts like there’s no tomorrow and there are others who are working for world peace. Both groups are important. Really.
Seriously, a pie crust is not as simple as it seems. Shirley Corriher devotes almost 5 percent of her hefty book Cookwise (Canada, UK) to the subject. It might be asking a bit to suggest you buy the book, but it really does answer all the questions you might have. The recipes she includes are called: Flaky Crisp Crust, Simple Flaky Crust, Flaky Butter Crust, Very Tender Flaky Crust, you get the idea.
There are many variables in the pie crust equation, and some of them are at odds. If you want a tender crust, the fat should be warm; if you want a flaky crust, the fat should be cold. Most people are looking for a combination of the two qualities.
One problem caused by an awful lot of beginning bakers is overmixing the ingredients. The more you work the flour, the tougher the crust will be. The mixture does not need to be homogeneous – having visible bits of fat in your crust will produce the desired flakiness.
You also want a low-protein flour (the protein creates gluten, which makes a crust tough). Fats isolate the proteins in the flour, and so inhibit the formation of gluten. They also create spaces between layers of dough, producing the sought-after flakiness. If you can’t get a pastry flour or a brand like White Lily, use two parts all-purpose flour to one part instant flour (Wondra, Shake & Blend, etc.).
The type and temperature of the fats you’re using has an awful lot to do with the texture of your finished crust – and, of course, the taste. Butter, which imparts a lovely taste, makes a crust relatively hard to work with, because it melts at such a low temperature. Shortening is easier to work with, but disappointing in taste. Lard produces the flakiest pastries of all, but some people can’t deal with the idea of using lard, and it can be hard to find lard that has not been on the shelf a little too long. Many people use a combination of butter and vegetable shortening, generally in a ratio of five or six to one.
We’ll give you the condensed version of Shirley Corriher’s Simple Flaky Crust, and if it comes out nearly right, you should get the book and try her other recipes. It includes a surprise element – sour cream – that helps maintain flakiness (because it is cold), tenderizes (because it is acidic, because it contains sugar (lactose), and because the fat in it replaces water), adds flavor, and produces a browner crust.
Mix 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup instant flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cut 2 sticks of cold butter into 1/2-inch cubes, add to the flour, and toss to coat. Put it in the freezer for 10 minutes. Dump the mixture onto the counter and roll it with a rolling pin to flatten the lumps. Scrape it together and repeat the process twice, then put it back in the bowl and freeze it for 5 minutes. Repeat the rolling/scraping process three more times and freeze for 10 minutes. Then gently mix in 1 cup of sour cream. The dough should be moist enough to hold together in a ball, Corriher says, but add 1 to 2 tablespoons of milk, if necessary. Shape it into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, before dividing it in two and rolling it out.