The Alchemy of Pie Dough

Feb 12, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Contributors, Food Fun, Margaret Mendel

by Margaret Mendel

Why not bake a pie for your sweetheart for Valentine’s Day? Margaret shares the secrets of pie dough & a delicious recipe for Apple Pie! And before the pie treat, them to lunch at Valentino’s in Reedley using the coupon below!

Fresh baked pies with the aroma of butter, sugar and luscious juicy fruit cooking reaches back into a primal pleasure zone in the brain promising a mouthwatering treat.

Unfortunately, many people, even some good cooks, think pie baking is difficult. I, too, once thought making pies was a daunting task. It’s the crust that’s intimidating. But my love for pies helped me overcome this fear and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about piecrust.

Pie dough is made up of four ingredients: butter, flour, a small amount of salt and water. Once you understand a few principles associated with pie crusts, the process is simple: flour is a natural building block in constructing a piecrust and has the ability to make gluten; butter acts as an agent to tenderize the gluten; salt is a flavor enhancer; the small amount of water produces steam which interrupts the formation of gluten.

PIE CRUST (This recipe makes two crusts.)
1½ sticks butter
2 cups all-purpose flour (Do not use self-rising or cake flour.)
¼ teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons cold water

Cut the butter into small chunks and place in a mixing bowl. Add the flour and salt to the butter. (The flour is the source that produces the gluten, and adds strength and structure to the crust.) Using a hand held wire pastry blender or two knives held parallel together in one hand, cut across the butter and flour repeatedly until the ingredients are blended thoroughly and resembles small peas and lumpy sand. The flour should be a light lemony shade and no longer white.

When the butter and flour are blended together, drizzle the three (3) Tablespoons of water onto the mixture. (The butter acts as a barrier between the water and flour, preventing long strands of gluten from forming. The water holds the butter and flour together and assists in the formation of the pastry dough.) Continue blending the dough until it develops large lumps. (DO NOT over blend at any point while making pie dough or too much gluten will form and the dough will become tough and hard.)

When the lumps begin to adhere to one another, it is time to get your hands into the mixture and knead the dough, folding it over onto itself five or six times, pressing the lumps together. Squeeze the dough into one large ball. Divide the dough into two equal sized balls and with your hands flatten them slightly forming two fat disks. Cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate for at least one hour to allow the gluten to relax.

Pie pans are typically 9 inches in diameter. If you like pies with rich, brown crusts use glass or dark metal pie pans. These pans absorb and hold the heat. Shiny pans reflect the heat giving crusts a lighter color.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place one of the flat disks of dough between two 12-inch square sheets of plastic wrap. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to the edge of the plastic wrap. Remove one layer of plastic wrap and place the exposed dough side down into the pie pan, and then remove the remaining layer of plastic wrap. Gently press the dough into the bottom and sides of the pie pan.

An even easier, no-fuss way of getting the pie dough into a pan is to break the dough into small chunks and press the dough into the pan until the mixture is evenly distributed across the bottom and up the sides of the pan.

To prepare a pie shell for a pudding pie or a no-bake pie, line a pan with the pie dough and place another pie pan, one that is the same size, over the top of the pie dough. Turn the two pie pans, still together, upside down and bake as required. This will insure that the crust will not puff up or become uneven in the baking. With the pans still together cool pie curst upside down.

The chemistry of pie dough is simple. As the pastry bakes, the fat melts forming pockets in the dough. Moisture from the water turns to steam, holding these little pockets in place, which then becomes the characteristically flaky pastry.

It might take a few tries but I believe that with only an ounce of determination you too will be able to make a fine piecrust and boast, as in the song “Where Have You Been Billy Boy, Billy Boy,” that you can bake a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink an eye.


5 Granny Smith apples, (Any combination or variety of apple will work.) peeled, cored and thinly sliced
4 to 5 Tablespoons sugar (depending on how sweet or tart you like your pies)
3 Tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Combined together the sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg and then add to the sliced apples mixing well to coat all the apples. Pour apples into the pastry lined pie pan.
NOTE: For extra flavor and interest to an apple pie add a handful or two of fresh cranberries if available. Dried cranberries, cranaisins and dried cherries also add a nice flavor to the apple pie as well.


1 stick of butter, chilled, unsalted, cut into ¼ inch slices
½ cup sugar (brown or white, or a combination)
1 cup flour

Combined all ingredients and then using a pastry blender work the mixture until it resembles a coarse meal. Carefully spoon the crumb topping mixture over the apples and pat crumbs light to keep the mixture from falling off the edges.

Treat your hunny to lunch this week at Valentino’s–specials are listed on their Facebook page. Check out this special coupon for KRL’s readers!

Margaret Mendel was born in San Jose and has a Master’s degree in Counseling from the University of San Francisco & a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Currently residing in New York, she has had several short stories and articles published.


  1. M. Mendel’s apple pie recipe makes me so hungry! Terrific job!!!

  2. My mom and I both have apple trees on our property. Hers is so loaded it nearly canopies to the ground! Mine…not so much because our goats keep it the lower leaves and fruit all pruned to their reach-height 🙂

    We’ll have TONS of fresh apples. I can’t wait to try this apple pie recipe. I’ve got it tacked up on my bulletin board…ready to go.



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