To this day, one of the most temperamental items in the kitchen to most cooks is nothing more than four ingredients that make up pie crust. It makes most people who have not baked pies for 40 years shudder. Now, let me talk you down off that stool before you go grab your frozen crust. You can do better than that.
Pie crust is nothing more than four ingredients in its purest form. Flour, salt, fat, and water come together to give flaky goodness and make the entire room happy. However, it's often the ratio and prep technique that causes pie crust to decorate walls of the frustrated chef. If I pour in flour, add some water and butter followed by a sprinkle of salt, I am not going to get happy results. So let's break it down bit by bit, shall we?
First the flour. Using good flour is helpful in getting a good product. Use an all purpose, hopefully an unbleached and un-enriched type for a clean flavor (I like King Arthur). Salt? Well, its salt, but use table and not kosher, it helps meld better into the dough. As for the fat, there are many options. Butter is nice, and brings great flavor to the dough. Lard is also nice (yes, I said lard, its perfectly fine in small amounts, just ask Europe) and brings a lot of flakiness. Shortening (Crisco) is a bit of a blend of both worlds. So which one to use? Well, don't use pure butter or pure lard. You will not be happy. If you want to use one source of fat, use Crisco. I have used it to amazingly successful results. Since they got rid of the trans fat in it though, it has diminished in quality a bit (side note: trans fat is bad for you if you eat a gallon a day, just like anything else. It's simply a different structure of lipid that your body processes in an altered way. If you use 4T of Crisco in a whole pie and then eat 1/8 of that pie, you have better things to do than worry about trans fat). I will say though, that the generic brands of shortening have yet to follow suit, which makes me happy when I make pie. My favorite though, is a split between butter and lard, which provides great flavor and flakiness.
Lastly, it's the water. Ice cold please. I don't even give a measurement because its not worth it. Depending on so many factors, you never know how much your crust will take. Make sure its icy cold (just add some ice cubes to it) because this will help prevent gluten formation, thus keeping your crust from becoming too chewy. Another way to help this is to rest your dough. Pie dough needs to be rested for at least 30 minutes (and can keep up to 2 days) before rolling.
There are many different recipes for pie dough, its almost like biscuits, everyone has a way of doing it. This is an adaptation of the classic Fanny Farmer recipe, though I have been playing around with some others recently (that's another post). For now, I stand by this one as having produced some fantastic pies. Using this recipe will make your crust much easier to work with, taste great, and give you good texture.
for a 9" double crust pie or a 12" single crust pie
2 cups flour
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1/3 cup lard or shortening
1/2 cup butter
1/4-1/3 cup ice water
In a medium bowl sift flour, salt, and sugar. Cut the fat into cubes and add to the flour. Mix with your hands (or pastry blender) and break up the pieces of fat, coating them in flour until you have small clumps left and most flour is collected in the fat. Slowly add the water a few tablespoons at a time, mixing in between. The amount will vary, but the main goal is to just get the pie dough to come together. if you can reach your hand in and press the dough, forming a loose ball, then you are set. Once you reach this stage, form a loose ball and wrap in saran wrap. Place dough in fridge to rest. Make pie.
One last note. In a recent issue of Cooks Illustrated, they used vodka as a tenderizer (don't worry, at a high temperature the alcohol bakes out). I have only tried it once so I have no real conclusion at this point. I will address it at some point. If you choose to use this method, use 1/2 vodka and 1/2 water. Let me know how it turns out.