November 16, 2012
For the past two months I have been on a quest. A quest to develop a really good gluten free pie crust that is easy to make and tastes great. A gluten free pie crust that is hard to mess up. A gluten free pie crust that is not finicky and temperamental. After numerous trials, I finally figured out gluten free pie crust! Along the way I learned a lot, and that’s what this post is all about.
Whenever I start developing a new recipe I start by looking at the basic, essential ingredients in the recipe, so let’s start there too. What makes a pie crust a pie crust, and not a cookie or a cake?
A pie crust has three essential ingredients: flour, fat, and a little bit of water. In some ways it is similar to a cookie, which is made of flour, fat, sugar and sometimes egg. Cookies and pie crust both contain very little water and in a low-water recipe the amount and type of other ingredients becomes much more important. There’s just less room for error.(1)
Let’s start off with flour. The chief struggle that I had with developing a really good gluten free pie crust was in choosing the flours to use. I tried everything from my all purpose gluten free flour mix, to a more simple mix of brown rice flour and cornstarch, and then finally ended up with a mix that is mainly cornstarch and tapioca starch with a relatively small amount of brown rice flour.
I don’t love using lots of starch flours in my baking, but it works. After I finalized my recipe I compared it to a few others and found that, for the most part, those recipes also use a good amount of starch. I’ve tried the recipe with a mixture of tapioca starch and cornstarch, and then with only cornstarch. Both seemed to work equally well. Later in this article i will refer to starch flours, and by that I mean any combination of tapioca starch and corn starch.
The second ingredient in a pie crust is fat, and you have a lot of choices as to which fat to use. Butter, shortening, and lard are all traditional options and you can use any one of these, or a combination. When choosing a fat, first of all consider what food allergies/intolerances that you need to work around. There are many allergen friendly options out there, such as Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, Spectrum Shortening, or animal lard that you render at home. As always, be sure to check the labels of the products that you buy and due your due diligence. Neither Crisco or Spectrum shortenings are labeled gluten free despite the fact that neither contain ingredients that would clearly contain wheat, barley or rye. You’ll have to make a judgment call as to whether that means those products are unsafe or not
The melting point of the fat should be your second consideration when choosing a fat. The fat that you work into the pie crust needs to stay solid until a certain point in the baking process if you are making a flaky, or partially flaky, crust. Butter and lard began to soften at a lower temperature than shortening. Therefore, if you choose to use butter or lard in your pastry you must be much more careful about keeping the ingredients, bowls, and rolling surfaces chilled as you work on the dough. Commercial shortenings, because they ate hydrogenated, are stable at higher temperatures and thus easier to work with for pastries. Since butter and lard are more flavorful, each baker has to decide for himself whether flavor or ease of use wins out.
By the way, if you’re don’t care whether your crust is flaky, then the temperature of the fat becomes much less important. If you’re happy with a non-flaky crust, then the only reason to chill the dough would be if that made the dough more workable.
Water is the third ingredient in a pie crust amd my personal bugaboo when it comes to making a pie crust. It seems that every pie crust recipe I’ve ever read goes to great lengths to warn you not to use too much water. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has taken that warning to heart and then ruined a pie crust by not using enough water. I was very happy when I read in my copy of Joy of Cooking that it’s better for new pie bakers to err on the side of a bit too much water, rather than to little. After all, the reason that water is bad in traditional recipes is that it activates the gluten in the wheat flour. We don’t have to worry about that so we might as well make sure that our dough is easy to roll out. You don’t want it to be sticky, but it should be easily malleable.
A warning first: This section is somewhat technical. If you’re rather skip on over this part, just scroll down to the Frequently Asked Questions section.
Now that we’ve looked at all the ingredients individually, let’s take a second look at how they work together. The main ingredients, by weight, in my Easy Peasy Gluten Free Pie Crust are as follows:
250 g. starch flours
80 g. grain flour
192 g. shortening (or 226 g. butter)
113 g. water
These may seem like random numbers to you, but they actually match up very well with the 3-2-1 pie crust ratio that bakers have been using for centuries.
330 g. flour
220 g. fat
110 g. water
This amount of ingredients will make enough dough for two single-crust pies (think pumpkin pie) or one double crust pie (think apple pie). If you want more dough you can easily scale up the recipe using the basic ratio. My recipe uses 110 g. as the base unit and that is multiplied by 3, 2, and 1 to get the amounts, by weight, of each of the ingredients. To scale the recipe up, just increase the base unit from 110 grams to something more.
If you use the 3-2-1 ratio to develop or troubleshoot your own gluten free pie crust recipe, there is still some work to be done. As I mentioned above, gluten free pie crusts need a specific mix of gluten free flours. I’ve found that a mixture that is 75% starch flours and 25% grain flour, by weight, works very well. Another way of saying that is to use 3 parts starch flours and 1 part grain flour. If you can’t use brown rice flour, just subtitute another gluten free grain or bean flour that has a neutral flavor profile and absorbs liquids similarly (i.e. that means don’t use almond meal or coconut flour if you want to get the same results that I do!!!).
Here’s an example of the calculation:
330 g. total flour = (330 g.)(75%) starch flours + (330 g.)(25%) grain/bean flour
330 g. total flour = 247.5 g. starch flours + 82.5 g. grain/bean flour
You also need to calculate the amount of xanthan gum. This is pretty easy! Just divide the total weight of the flour (in grams) by 100 to determine the weight of the xanthan gum in grams. Round to the nearest gram.
330 g. total flour / 100 = 3.3 g. Xanthan gum
One teaspoon of xanthan gum weighs 3 grams, so I’ll need 1 tsp. of xanthan gum for this particular weight of flour.
This recipe also needs salt. If you are using volume measurements, then add 1 tsp. of salt for a double crust recipe. If you’re measuring by weight, add 10 to 12 grams of salt.
Is it worth it to make your own? For many years, I did not make my own pie crust. I was perfectly happy with the frozen gluten free pie crusts that I could get at the Whole Foods near my house. But, now that I’ve discovered how to make an easy gluten free pie crust, I’m definitely a convert to making my own crust. If you want to make a double-crusted pie, then making your own crust it really the only way to go. I’ve tried to make an apple pie by turning a Whole Foods crust upside down on top of the heap of apples, but that wasn’t pretty at all! Tasted good, but not pretty.
Should you use a mix or make the crust from scratch?
I would vote strongly for making your pie crust from scratch. Pie crust mixes are extremely expensive, and you don’t know what you’re getting (really) until you try it out. Some of the gluten free pie mixes that I researched cost $4.99 – and that’s just for a single crust. Making your own crust is much less expensive.
Another factor to consider is that you can’t judge how the pie crust will turn out just by reading the information on the box. If you make a pie crust from scratch, then you can use the ratio information earlier in this post to judge the quality of the recipe before you measure out an ounce of flour. When you buy a pie crust mix, you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer. I’m sure there must be some good gluten free pie crust mixes available, but I’m not willing to try them all to find the good ones now that I know how to make a great pie crust myself.
How hard is it to make a pie crust from scratch? Making a pie crust from scratch can be very hard or very easy. It really depends on the recipe that you’re using. A good recipe will handle nicely and not break all to pieces on you.
The kind of pie crust that you’re making is important too. If you want a flaky crust and want to use butter or a non-hydrogenated lard, then you have to take extra care to keep your ingredients, bowls, and cutting board chilled.
You do also have to plan to make a pie crust. The mixing up part does not take long, but the pie crust dough needs to be refrigerated for a minimum of two hours after it is mixed. You may also need to prebake your crust before you add the filling. Baking the pie can often take the greater part of an hour and you also need to plan to leave the pie out to cool for a few hours. This can quickly turn into an all day affair! (Or, without hyperbole 6+ hours.) I like to make a double or triple batch of pie crust dough and then separate the dough into single-crust sized portions before freezing. I put the pie crust into the refrigerator to thaw the day before I want to bake the pie, so that I can go straight to the rolling out the crust step the next day.
What are the steps in making a pie crust?
This seems like a good time to review the steps in making a pie crust. Growing up I never saw my mother or grandmother make a pie crust from scratch. They were both perfectly happy with store-bought crusts (and reasonably so since they generally only made single-crust pies) Since I didn’t have that visual reference point for pie making, the first hurdle in my pie baking experiments was to wrap my ahead around these steps was. For those of you who are beginning pie makers, here is a quick run-down of the steps.
1. Make the Dough
a. measure out the dry ingredients
b. cut in the fat
c. add the water and combine everything into a ball of dough
2. Refrigerate the Dough for at least two hours. This allows the flour to thoroughly absorb the water.
3. Roll out the bottom piecrust and place it in the pie pan.
4. Prebake the bottom crust, if called for in the pie recipe
5. Prepare the pie filling and add it on top of the bottom crust.
6. Roll out the top crust and place it on top of the pie filling.
7. Bake the pie.
8. Let the pie cool before cutting.
What special equipment do you need to make a pie crust?
Thankfully you do not need a lot of special equipment to make a good pie crust. You’ll probably already have most everything that you need.
Basic Pie Making Equipment:
1. a rolling pin – I have a very light-weight plastic rolling pin, but most any basic pin would work
2. a pie plate – I use a deep dish Pyrex pie pan, but I’ve also made good pies in the disposable pie tins you can buy at most any grocery
‘It Would Be Nice To Have’ Pie Making Equipment
1. a pastry mat with measurements – This is actually on my personal Amazon wish list, but I did see one for about half this price at Walmart yesterday. If you’ve not made pie crusts before this mat is useful because you can easily see when you’ve rolled out the pie crust to the correct size for your pan. You’ll also be able to tell how well you’re doing at rolling out a circle, rather than a square. And to top it off, having a silicone mat should make it much easier to get the top crust off the counter and on to the pie without tearing.
2. rolling pin rings – Rolling pin rings fit onto the ends of your rolling pin and help you to roll out your dough evenly so that it’s the same thickness at every point. While not an essential tool, I would very much like a set so that even my youngest helpers can roll out the dough.
Are you all ready to make a gluten free pie crust? Great! Start with my Easy Peasy Gluten Free Pie Crust If you have questions about gluten free pie crusts that I haven’t answered, please do ask! You might also like to try this gluten free pumpkin pie recipe.
(1) For more on that read BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes