Speak to any home cook about pie crust, and most will wave their hands as if you asked them to explain nuclear fusion. (Not fission … fission is easy.) I’ll confess, I’ve never understood the OMG-look. I saw these same looks from my mother when I asked her to make my favourite pies (I’ve always had a penchant for pastry over sweets). I swear, based on her look, I’d just asked her for permission to take the family car for a cross-country pleasure cruise while knocking over liquor stores. So when I set out in my early 20s on a pie-making/learning blitz that lasted a year and turned a chest freezer into pie storage locker, I had arrived at my destination: I had mastered the pie crust.
Pie crust, like any pastry, bread, or dough-making method is fundamentally simple … once you know what the end (or middle) product looks like. It is very much a feel thing and difficult to teach without trying. But once made, making homemade crust is really as simple as making oatmeal at home … and yes, contrary to Quaker’s rumours, people still do this at home too.
What is a pie crust? It’s a cooking method intended to get gluten and starch into a pan that will support any of a myriad of fillings so you can get it from oven, to table, from fork, to mouth. It’s simply made by combining flour with fat (butter or lard ideally) to produce a flakiness which happens when the fat melts and simultaneously is absorbed by the starch, cooks the flour, and causes separation when heated. The third ingredient, water/liquid, is only added so that you can bind the dough to allow you to work it … and which evaporates during the cooking process to leave a ‘crust.’ The trick is to add the right proportion of fat to the flour to allow for the above process which doesn’t leave it greasy or dry … and just enough water/liquid that allows you to bind the ingredients but not too dry that it crumbles when worked … or too soft that it sticks to everything and makes you wish for a nuclear strike on your kitchen. Simple.
So here’s the kicker. While I rocked a gluten pie crust … I stumbled hard when it came to making a gluten-free pie crust. How hard could it be, I thought? Well, based on my first attempt which made wish for the above mentioned nuclear strike, it was hell. I was a trash-talking redneck in my kitchen swearing at celiacs I’d never met, the idiot who said it was possible, and myself for thinking it would be easy. Truth is, it turned out and was quite edible in the end — but it was royal pain in the ass to create. Anyone who has made a gluten free pie crust for the first time can likely relate to my pain. My kitchen ego took a beating that afternoon but my spirit grew in resolve to figure out a crust and method that didn’t leave pie crust stuck to the rolling pin, my hands, my granite, and my hair … and which didn’t leaving me mashing a dough ball it into a pie pan with my fingers. Because, no matter whether it tasted fine and worked, it was not a flaky crust … because, how could it be if it wasn’t delicately rolled?
And so, I’ve spent a year suffering through humiliation and frustration in a bid to get this right … and make it easy.
So here are the cooking tips that will make this easy for you too — and pictures that follow that will take you through the whole process, step-by-step:
- Use Xanthan gum — a pinch is all you need, but this natural biopolymer will create a thicker, more stable crust that you can work and lift into place.
- Use starch, preferably tapioca starch — it is the starch in conventional wheat flour that creates the ‘lift’ we read as “flaky” — the starch doesn’t have to come from wheat to create this effect. Gluten-free tapioca works amazingly well.
- Chill the pastry, but work it while slightly warmed — I microwave it for about 8-10 second before working with it. This relaxes the fats and allows it roll without breaking … but keeps it chilled enough that that fats haven’t melted.
- Use white rice flour — I know, I prefer brown rice too. But just as whole wheat flour doesn’t work as well in pastry or bread to produce a lighter and fluffier product, the same is true of brown rice. It might taste good, but the product will be denser, less flaky, and gritty.
- Use plastic wrap when rolling — this is the key discovery I’ve made that has negated my wishes for Armageddon. Roll 1-2 sheets on your rolling surface (ideally granite), lay your dough on it, and then cover with another sheet of plastic. The dough not only won’t stick to anything, but you can then perfectly and effortlessly lift the dough from work surface to pan without fail and with ease.
→ This is idiot proof. Just wish this idiot had figured this out decades earlier.
- Freeze the extra dough — this recipe is intended to make 4 crusts with the intention of making 2 pies that include tops. However, even if you’re only making a pie which only needs a single bottom, make the full-recipe. Once you’ve formed the balls, wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in a freezer bag. You now have dough made for whenever you want to make a pie crust. Simply defrost it in the fridge the night before you need it, and, voila, never-fail pie crust … from scratch.
Prep time: 15-30 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 60-90 minutes
Servings: 4 pie crusts (2 tops/2 bottoms)
Gluten-Free Pie Crust … made easy
- 2 cups white rice flour
- 1¼ cups + 2 tablespoons tapioca starch (aka “tapioca starch flour”)
- 1/2 cup sorghum flour
- 1/4 cup chickpea (aka garbanzo bean) flour
- 1/4 cup quinoa/millet flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons xanthan gum
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1½ tablespoons white sugar (omit if making a savoury pie)
- 1 cup (7-8 ounces) ‘fat’ — e.g. 1/3 cup (2 ounces) of lard and 2/3 cup (5 ounces) butter
→ Note: the weight of butter and lard are different with butter weighing more
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- Measure out the flours in a large mixing bowl or combine in a food processor. Mix in the baking powder, salt, and xanthan gum. Add sugar if making a ‘sweet’ crust vs. one for a savoury filling (e.g. quiche). Well mix all ingredients together with a whisk.
- Cube in the fat — I prefer lard and butter for their inherent qualities of flakiness and flavour, but if you’re vegan, use something else.
- If using a food processor, gently pulse until all ingredients are a fine pea meal. Personally, I prefer to do this by hand because I get a sense of proportions from feeling my ingredients. (And, I know: I’m too young to be this old-fashioned.) I will use a pastry blender to ‘cut in’ the fat and then finish it off by hand by lightly rolling flour and fat between palms until evenly and finely blended.
- In a 1-cup graduated measuring cup, beat in the egg. Add 1-tablespoon of vinegar. Top off the measuring cup with ice-cold water until it measures an even 1-cup.
- Evenly drizzle with 1/2 cup of the egg/water mixture and stir with a wooden spoon. Continue to add 1-tablespoon at a time of more egg/water mixture, stirring with spoon. ONLY add enough water until flour easily forms together when pressed together with fingers.
Remember, you’re just adding enough so that the pastry easily forms together — but isn’t crumbly and isn’t sticky. You can complete this part of the process in the food processor too. If doing so, drizzle in liquid until just a ball forms … typically with a smaller ball as well.
→ DO NOT overwork the dough. This isn’t bread. The less work, the more ‘tender’ the crust.
- Form the dough into 4 balls: 2 slightly larger (the bottoms) and two slightly smaller (the tops) … or 4 all the same size if making all bottoms. Ideally, place dough in fridge for about 20 minutes before rolling.
→ Freeze any ball(s) of dough you won’t be using (see cooking tips above).
- When ready to make pie, preheat oven to 425ºF … or follow your recipe instructions. Prepare your pie pans by lightly greasing them as well.
- Prepare work surface by laying 1-2 sheets of plastic wrap flat on the surface.
Remove a dough ball from fridge and, if necessary, microwave it for 8-10 seconds, just enough so you can smoosh it flat with your hands without it breaking.
Layer another sheet of plastic wrap over the dough.
Using a rolling pin, now roll dough out evenly in all directions until it is uniform and about 1/4-inch (1/2cm) thick — and about 2-inches bigger than the circumference of your pie pan. If you make a mistake, move the plastic and fix it. This is very forgiving as long as you keep the dough between plastic.
Here’s where it gets cool. Remove the top layer of plastic and by evenly lifting the plastic off the work surface, in one motion, lift it over you pie pan…
… and flip it over the pan. Alternatively, and less fun, once you’ve lifted the rolled crust from the surface, lay it down again and then lay pan on top and, then, turn crust and pan together.
Remove plastic and gentle fit crust into place … working from bottom up the sides to make sure no air bubbles are beneath. If you tear the pie crust, don’t panic. Use an extra piece from the edges to repair the tear.
And voila, you have a bottom pie crust.
- Either fill this now and follow pie instructions (e.g. pumpkin pie); par bake it for 10 minutes (e.g. quiche); or fill it and then cover with top following same instructions as above.
Press edges of bottom and top together to create an ‘edge’ and a strong seal … and remove any extra crust not needed. You don’t want the edge too thick or it won’t cook and will come out raw.
Gently cut vents into the top to prevent uneven cooking, bubbling, and spilling from edges.
Optional: use an “egg wash” if you want a dark brown and sheen to your pie crust, sprinkle with sugar (e.g. apple pie), or bake as is.
- Bake for 10 minutes at 425º and then reduce to 350ºF and bake for an additional 35-40 minutes, until just golden brown. Remove and let cool before serving.