The Path of Pie II: Tools Without Tears

In my quest for perfect pie, I discovered that there are tools which are essential to the journey, and tools which do not so much help the baker as hinder her. Some gadgets are nothing but gimcrack fantasies with fatal design flaws which render them worthless in the pursuit of pastry excellence.

These paltry bits of kitchen tomfoolery I have cast aside, while the tools which have proven over time to be worthy additions to my ever-growing culinary arsenal, I will now explicate, hopefully to the edification and entertainment of all.

The first steps of making good an exemplary pastry crust involve measuring and mixing.

I went to culinary school, and was forced to take several pastry and baking classes, though it was somewhat against my will, I do admit. In these classes I was taught to measure all ingredients by -weight- not -volume-. To measure anything other than the tiniest amount by volume was the mark of an amateur cook, a housewife or a drudge, and was not only distinctly frowned upon, it was openly derided.

So, it should be surprising for the reader to see that I do not have a scale pictured as I discuss the indispensible tools for successful pastry making. I do own a scale–a very nice digital Salter, in fact, and have used it to make pie crust, but I decided not to measure my master recipes by weight, and instead measured, re-measured, tested and re-tested by using volume measures instead.

Why? Why should someone who is professionally trained do this?

I’ll tell you why–because I believe that it is perfectly possible to make very good pie crust using volume measurements, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. I am not writing for a professional audience–I am writing for cooking enthusiasts who are overwhelmingly home cooks. And not all home cooks are serious foodies who run out and buy baking scales.

So, I wanted my master recipes to be accessible to all–including those who do not own, nor are going out to buy, scales.

Besides–the recipes I started with–my grandmothers’–were measured by volume. And their pie crusts were to die for–so to heck with those culinary purists who would look down their noses at volume measurements.

So–the first items on the list of necessary tools are some really good dry measures, in cups and in teaspoons and tablespoons. I like the scoop-like ones from OXO that I use the “swoosh-dunk/sweep” method with. That method requires a straight-edged tool like my icing spatula to work. A straight edged table-knife or chef’s knife will do as well.

The next items are mixing bowls. For pie crusts mixed in the summer, I highly suggest wide, shallow metal bowls–the metal conducts temperature very well, so you can stick it in the freezer before using it, in order to keep your fat as chilled as possible while working with it. In the winter, when ambient room temperature isn’t such a problem, a wide, shallow ceramic bowl works just as well. The wide, shallow shape allows you to easily reach into the bowl and work your wrist while cutting in the flour.

Ah, yes–cutting in the flour. I know a lot of people like using food processors to make pastry, but I think inexperienced people risk making tougher pastry by using the machine. Food processors create heat from friction, and while some may say that it doesn’t generate enough to matter, I beg to differ. When we made bread dough in professional baking classes, we had a formula which we used to figure out what the optimum temperature of the water would be to get the yeast to become lively in the shortest time possible. Factored into this equation was the room temperature and the temperature rise from the friction generated by the mixer. I say that if bread bakers are so concerned with it–it must be important.

And it is. I cannot count how many pastry doughs I have mutilated using a food processor. So, I gave up on it and do it by hand, to much better effect.

Some people use a fork to cut the fat into the flour. I find that to be uncomfortable, unwieldy and messy. Others use two table knives, but I never could get the knack of that; I always flung so much flour hither and yon that I ended up looking as if I was made up for kabuki theatre.

The answer, of course, is the pastry cutter.

Ah, but which pastry cutter?

One that -cuts- the fat into the flour.

In other words, one that is sharp. That has blades. Not wires–they are rounded and they -mush- the fat into the flour and they are flimsy and bend and spring and work my nerves. Not odd looking things that look vaguely like potato mashers, though they do work better than those wire hoopy-doopies. Work though it does, it is slow and clumsy; the potato masher still cannot compare to the ones that have four curved blades brought together with a handle. That model makes short work of chilled fat and cold flour. With a firm grip and quick, practiced motions of the wrist, the fat is cut in, and all is well.

One must simply scrape accumulated fat out of the blades once or twice with the straight-edged spatula or table knife, and then go on until the fat and flour mixture looks like a bunch of powdery pale, shaggy peas.

The next most harrowing step in making pie crusts involves rolling and shaping. This is a perilous step, which if done improperly can result in tough, mealy, greasy pie crust, and as we all know, no one really wants to eat that.

So–what tools are required to avoid the cardboardy crusts we are all familiar with?

First–a marble slab really does help, particularly in keeping the dough cold. Get one and hours before you roll the dough out, make room for it in your freezer and stick it in. Or, failing that–I know some of us feel the need to stuff every weird thing we can find in our freezers, like chicken feet, quarts of stock, half a carcass of a pig and vanilla beans, that we can never find space for a big hunk of rock–put a bunch of ice in a ziplock bag and set it on the slab to chill it. That doesn’t work as well, but it does work. Just be certain to wipe any condensation off the slab before using it.

While a marble slab will keep the dough chilled, it will do nothing to affect the stickiness of the dough, which is affected more by the amount of liquid and the type of fat than it is by ambient temperature.

A silicone mat, known by the tradename Silpat, will go far in allowing a baker to successfully roll out pastry dough into a thin, round sheet without having it stick to the rolling surface. Some of them, like the one pictured above, are made specifically as rolling surfaces, and thus have helpful markings to show how round a 12 inch circle of dough should be. I picked mine up at Sur La Table, and have loved every minute I have used it.

You still need to flour your silicone rolling surface–that is where that weird looking wire contraption comes in. It is called a flour wand, and while it is not necessary, it is fun. You squeeze the handle and the spring opens. You dunk it headfirst into flour, then release the handle and the spring closes, trapping flour inside. Then you take it out and with a gentle shake, you can evenly sprinkle flour (or powdered sugar) over any surface without getting flour all over yourself and everything else. It only goes where you want it.

Rolling pins. You can use marble ones–I have, and I do like them–they are heavy and chillable. However, having also had one go rolling away and drop on the floor and crack–they can be dangerous. A plain wooden one like the one pictured, also does an admirable job, but my favorite is the silicone coated metal one. It is chillable, it has ball bearings inside it for a smooth roll, and the silicone, once coated with flour, makes for nonstick rolling, even of lard crusts, except in the hottest of weather.

In the case of hot August weather and lard crusts–even the silicone rolling pin cannot guarantee that there will be no sticking–in which case I suggest you use the greatest weapon in the pie-makers’ arsenal, but which is not pictured–Saran Wrap.

Yes. Plastic wrap. When it was hot in the kitchen, and Grandma had no patience, she resorted to rolling her dough out between sheets of plastic wrap. I do the same, and it works like a charm every time. I flour the silicone rolling sheet, and lay the chilled dough disc on top of it, then sprinkle flour on top of it, and then lay a sheet of plastic wrap over it and commence to rolling.

When the dough is the desired size and thickness, peel the wrap off and lay it in the pan.

There are a couple of necessary items for playing with fillings. If you are going to use fresh sour or sweet cherries in your fillings, invest in a cherry pitter, please. It will make short work of the thankless and irritating task of pitting cherries, and as a bonus, it will pit olives as well. The one pictured is simple to use and easy to clean.

A Microplane grater makes short work of zesting lemons; it reduces the vibrant yellow skin to whisper-thin shavings in no time. I find that lemon or lime zest is a very good addition to many fruit fillings, so I have found the Microplane to be invaluable. And, finally, for grinding spices, a few almonds or lavender petals, I like my plain old marble mortar and pestle. It is perfect for grinding up small amounts of anything that is grindable, and in making flavor enhancements for pie fillings–it is always a small amount, so there is no sense in dragging out a food processor or spice grinder. Besides, the mortar and pestle are much easier to clean up and they look neat on the counter.

Finally, we have the shaping and baking–and a handful of tools I have found to be perfect for the job.

I like my unglazed stoneware pie pan–it bakes more evenly than metal, and it looks nicer and makes a drier bottom crust than glass, though glass is my second choice.

The little clay spheres are pie weights–they are used when I bake a pie crust “blind” or unfilled. You can use beans instead, but I had the pie weights, and figured I should use them. The scissors are for trimming the edges of the pie crust in order to make prettier, more even flutes.

Trimming with a knife is clumsy and sometimes dangerous–I find that a pair of dedicated kitchen shears work a hundred times better and are easier to use.

Finally, that chakram-looking thing isn’t a leftover from my Xena, Warrior Princess days–it is meant to cover the edges of the pie in order to keep them from browning too much. The fluted edges brown before any of the rest of the crust, so once it has browned to your liking–usually after the first thirty minutes of baking, you set this contraption over the pie, and it shields the edges and lets the center brown, which results in a prettier, more evenly-browned pie.

The only other tool I use, which I forgot to photograph, is the pastry brush. I don’t go for the weird silicone ones that look like squid, or anything like that. I just use a nice paintbrush that is dedicated to the task of pastry. It washes in the dish washer, and is perfect for brushing the top crust with egg or milk to make a pretty finish.

That is the roundup of tools–it isn’t a huge amount of equipment, because I tried to pare it down to the essentials. Other folks may have other things they cherish–please post and let me know what you have used that works for you. These are just the things which have helped me master the art of pie baking so that I can stand up proudly as a worthy successor to my grandmothers, both expert bakers in their own rights.


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  1. Barbara no wonder my pie crusts are less than perfect. I have the pastry cutter, the rolling pin, a lovely granite stone and thats all. Now I am dying to get the flour wand, the chakram,the Silpat and the beads.
    By the way I’ve tagged you for th Childhood Food Memories Meme. Would love to read what you have to say.

    Comment by dedccanheffalump — August 5, 2005 #

  2. Why thank you for tagging me, dedccanheffalump! I read your post, and loved the story about fishing–and you are right, the illustration is just wonderful.

    I will definately participate–look for a post tomorrow, along with my usual weekly cat-blogging extravaganza!

    The flour wand seems silly, but it really does sprinkle flour or sugar evenly, precisely and without being messy. I remember feeling like such a clumsy doof when I was in my baking classes, and our chefs would take up about a tablespoon of flour in their fingers and with a practiced flick of their wrists spew a perfect, even spray of flour on the work surface. No clumps, no lumps. Just a perfect sprinkling.

    Every time I tried to do it, I made a hideous mess.

    The chakram you can improvise with foil–but I like having a permanent one–I don’t like using foil once and then having to throw it away or stick it in the recycling. It seems utterly wasteful.

    Okay, gotta go start writing the post about making the lard-butter crust.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 5, 2005 #

  3. I’m so glad to see the part about measuring by volume vs weight. Especially for pastry. Pastry is so dependant(sp??) on humidity that it really doesn’t matter if the measurements are exactly the same. I have a scale and use it for bread making (although I confess that I usually measure by volume for bread too – same thing about humidity counts for bread making, don’t you think?) but I would LOVE to have a scale like the one that I see Nigella Lawson using on her TV show “Nigella Bites”. I’ve never seen anything like that here. I’ve enquired at some of the high-end kitchen supplies but to no avail.

    So THAT’S what those little springy things are for! I think I too neeeeeed a flour wand.

    We could really have used the chakram for yesterday’s pie! Next time….


    Comment by ejm — August 5, 2005 #

  4. I just think that some of the emphasis on baking by weight is overblown, especially for most home cooks. It isn’t necessary to be that precise all the time–and in fact, can lead to more neurosis and nervousness in the baking process as people become even more nervous that they must get everything perfect or else the world will explode.

    So, eh–why bother all the time?

    Now the chakram–that critter is very useful. Very, very useful, and I will probably get a second one tomorrow while we are out in the big city (ooh–Columbus) doing school shopping for our own resident Cat Girl. Too bad the chakram doesn’t come back if I should fling it while practicing my Xena war cry (which is quite impressive–well, it scares the cats, anyway)–it just flies and hits a wall most usually.

    Oh, well. Not many baking impliments are also useful as a weapon that also returns to its bearer. That truly would be a special baking tool, and would probably cost a whole lot more than the one I have.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 6, 2005 #

  5. The whole ‘measure by weight rather than volume’ thing seems to be more important for people who are cooking for the masses (commercial operations) For little old lowly me, it really doesn’t matter if one loaf of our bread is slightly larger than another.

    Ooooh, that would be cool if the chakram were like a boomerang! We forgot (!!) to look for one when we went into a kitchen supply store to get a two piece fluted quiche/pie pan. I wonder if one could use the sides of the quiche pan as a makeshift chakram?


    Comment by ejm — August 7, 2005 #

  6. I agree utterly on the weight vs. volume thing, Elizabeth.

    And yes–you should be able to use the top edge of the fluted tart pan dealybob as a chakram. It is quite ingenious to think of it. The only problem is it might be too heavy and might crack your crust. Tart tins can be made of very heavy metal–my chakram thingie is quite light by comparison.

    As I said before, you can fashion them out of strips of foil, and use them once. They work just as well, but are just wasteful of foil.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 7, 2005 #

  7. The fluted tart pan that we just bought is quite light weight – we’re a little concerned that we may have made a mistake to get such a lightweight one – haven’t tried baking with it yet – we had to finish eating the most recently made pie first.

    I just don’t think I could use the strips of foil method. As you say, it’s just wasteful of foil (not to mention that it goes against my grain to use foil at all.)


    Comment by ejm — August 8, 2005 #

  8. The strips of foil thing is also just purely annoying–they fall off and are fiddly and irritating. The chakram, you just pop it on and off and all is well. Throw it in the sink or dishwasher and all is ready to go for the next time.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 8, 2005 #

  9. I have to ask…who makes the pastry blender you show above? I realize it’s 4+ years after your original post, but I’d really like to try the one you show. However…I’ve done a search and can’t seem to find one that looks like yours.



    Comment by Marsha — January 21, 2010 #

  10. Addendum to my previous post. I have found one by Cuisipro that resembles yours, but the blades look more like mashers than cutters! I’ve always been a 2 knife pastry cutter/blender, and about a year ago, I decided it was time to try one of the wire blenders. About halfway through, I tossed it into the sink and grabbed two dinner knives. At 72, I don’t think I’m too old to learn new ways of doing things, but…

    Comment by Marsha — January 21, 2010 #

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