I would argue that pie crust is more difficult than making bread.
There were years of trial and error before I got my pie crust method down. Growing up, I loved making lemon meringue pie. I would religiously make it every time I went to Popo's house but I'd always leave the crust to her. Something about the ingredients being cold, never knowing how much water was enough, and getting my hands dirty. So for years, I steered clear of making pie crust.
Then, there was the chicken pot pie phase. I mean, you can't have chicken pot pie without the crust. Albeit, my family only does a top layer of crust and we eat our pot pie with rice. Yea I know, weird Chinese things. So, I figured it was time I learned how to make pie crust.
It was rough. A lot of the time my dough was too sticky or too dry. I started out with all butter but I didn't like the texture. It was, well, too buttery and not flaky enough. I then switched to half butter and half shortening. Is shortening really that much worse for you? It's all fat in the end.
The half butter and half shortening is my personal preference though. Feel free to use all butter if you prefer. The rest of the method is exactly the same.
So here are some tips and tricks:
Be hot on your toes and keep everything cold. The great Californian winter has finally struck so this is not so much of a worry now but if you're making crust in the summer, under photography lights or the humidity of Hawaii, work fast and keep everything cold. I would go as far as assembling everything and sticking it in the freezer or fridge until it is chilled through. This may sound crazy but the result is extra rewarding.
A knife is your best friend. I really hate getting my hands dirty so my trick to avoid this is to use a knife to blend the butter/shortening and flour mixture in with the ice water. Just keep stirring with it until the dough comes together. A fork, spoon, or spatula would work as well but the knife is out of habit.
A fork isn't going to cut it. Have you ever successfully mashed anything solid with a fork? Me neither. Either invest in a pastry blender, use a food processor or even your fingertips (if they aren't overly warm enough to melt the butter) to blend the butter and flour together.
Pea-sized is an approximation. I tried to help one of my roommates in college make pie crust and I told her to make sure her butter was pea-sized. I left her alone of a few minutes and when I came back, she was shaping her butter into little balls. Totally unnecessary. The butter and shortening only needs to be approximately that size so that you're able to get flakiness without pools of butter or shortening in your crust.
Vinegar and vodka for tenderness. I started to incorporate apple cider vinegar into my crust after reading that it improves the tenderness of the crust. It may be in my head or an inaccurate science experiment but I've found that it has helped. After all, I'm a designer not a scientist. Vodka has a similar effect.
Pre-tear your plastic wrap. There have been numerous times when I'm trying to assemble the dough into disks and I realize that my hands are dirty and I suddenly need a piece of plastic wrap. So, do it ahead of time and you'll thank your past self for being so smart.
Pie crust dough can be an excellent stress reliever. Unsure if your dough is coming together? Take a small handful and squeeze it together. If it sticks, it's ready to be formed in a disk. If it falls apart, it needs more water.
Take it in chunks. I've often found that I'm unable to get all the dough to come together at once. Since I usually make a double pie crust, I'll form half of it in a disk and then continue to add the necessary water to the second half until that comes together.
The freezer is your second best friend. For one, if you're rolling out your dough into your pie pan and you find the butter is starting to melt, pop the crust in the pan in your freezer until it firms up again. The freezer is also helpful for storing pie crust disks for future use. Just wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and then in a ziploc bag. It'll keep for several months.
And here's a (hopefully) helpful video on how to make pie crust.
Can't view it? Here's the link to the video on Vimeo.
To making our Thanksgiving pies (and all pies really) the best they can be!
Yields: Two pie crusts (enough for two 9-in. pies)
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar (omit if making a savory pie)
½ cup butter, chilled
½ cup shortening, chilled
1½ teaspoons apple cider vinegar
8 tablespoons or more iced water
Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Cut butter into cubes and place in a medium bowl with the shortening. Place the dry ingredients and the butter/shortening in the freezer for 30 minutes or the fridge for 1 hour.
In the meantime, tear two pieces of plastic wrap and set aside.
Remove both bowls from the freezer. Add the butter to the flour and blend together with a pastry blender or food processor until the butter/shortening is approximately pea-sized.
Assemble ice water and set aside. Pour apple cider vinegar in the flour/butter/shortening and stir to combine. Continue to add the iced water one tablespoon at a time until the flour is moistened and the dough comes together. To test if it has come together, take a small handful and squeeze it together in the palm of your hand. If it holds it's shape, it's ready to be wrapped. If it falls apart, it needs more water.
Form half the dough in a disk and place on a piece of plastic wrap. Repeat with the other half. Wrap both tightly.
Chill in the fridge for an hour, overnight or in the freezer for several months.