If you follow these four steps, you'll get a perfect pie crust every single time

James Beard nominee Cathy Barrow is famous for her pies. She recently shared her secrets for flaky crust with Salon

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published December 21, 2019 5:30PM (EST)

Spiced Apple Strudel (Skyhorse Publishing)
Spiced Apple Strudel (Skyhorse Publishing)

Nothing really says the holidays quite like a good pie. And with Christmas around the corner, pie season is in full bloom.

One of the foremost pie makers in America is Cathy Barrow, whose Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet & Savory Slab Pies, was nominated for a 2019 James Beard Award for Best Cookbook: Baking and Desserts. After spending hours upon hours in the kitchen developing new pies, Barrow knows a thing or two about flaky crust.

When you follow these four instructions from Barrow, you'll achieve a perfect pastry crust every single time:

1. Use a scale to weigh all of your ingredients.

"Weighing your ingredients when you bake is a guarantee of consistency, and consistency is going to make you better at this," Barrow tells Salon. "You know, not always fighting with the different amounts of water, or flour or whatever."

2. Keep all your ingredients very, very cold.

Work quickly to ensure that your ingredients do not become too warm.

3. Stop worrying about perfection. Ask yourself this: "Is this pie going to be delicious?"

"We're so bombarded with pictures of beautiful pies on Instagram. And I admire those people, and they make incredibly gorgeous pies," Barrow says. "But I don't want anybody to feel incapable of doing this simply because they see that. You know, I've never in my life prepared a pie and had someone say, 'That's just not pretty enough for me to eat.'"

4. There's a lot of opportunity to use really good European butter in the kitchen, but it doesn't have to be in your pie. 

"Our pie crust was developed not with the European butter, which has less water in it. And the water is actually really useful in the whole flaky crust program, because your nice, beautiful cold pastry goes into a super hot oven, and the water in that butter and in the pastry bursts and steams in the heat," Barrow tells Salon. "And it lifts up the butter, and the flour. And so that water is really an important part of creating a flaky crust, and American butter just has a higher water concentrate."


[caption id="attachment_15012168" align="aligncenter" width="300"]When Pies Fly; Cathy Barrow When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries from Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes to Knishes by Cathy Barrow[/caption]

Recipe: Cathy Barrow's Spiced Apple Strudel

Serves 8 to 10

Apple strudel is a heavenly pastry to serve to a crowd. It smells like autumn should. Once the sugar hits the apples, they will begin to get juicy, which makes strudeling a little more challenging, so work quickly and with purpose. Feel free to omit the nuts, or substitute pecans or walnuts, according to your particular tastes. I like this just as much with firm, slightly under-ripe pears as I do with apples. Or try substituting quince for some or all of the apples for a heavenly, slightly pink delight.

  • 1 recipe Pulled Dough for Strudel (recipe below)
  • 4 tablespoons (55 g) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup (60 g) dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup (43 g) sliced or slivered almonds
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 1/2 pounds (680 g) firm apples like Granny Smith, Pink Lady, or Pink Pearl
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) spiced dark rum
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 tablespoons (42 g) unsalted butter, melted
  • Powdered sugar for decorating

Bring the strudel dough to room temperature for 1 hour before stretching, keeping it wrapped until ready to use so it will not dry out. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the bread crumbs, stir well to coat with the butter, and toast until scented and golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape the bread crumbs into a small bowl and wipe out the pan. Place the almonds in the pan, shaking and turning them over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges. Stir the almonds into the bread crumbs.

Juice the lemon into a large bowl. Peel the apples, slice in half, and core (I use a melon baller); then slice into half moons no more than 1/8 inch thick. Add the apple slices to the bowl and gently stir around in the lemon juice so they will not brown. Add only ½ cup of the sugar, the rum, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the apples and gently stir together. I use my hands.

Prepare the work surface and stretch the strudel dough to 20 by 24 inches, until it’s possible to “read a newspaper through it” or some close approximation of that idea. The whole process doesn’t take long at all, just 5 minutes or so, once you’ve done it a few times.

Pat the stretched dough into shape and then, using scissors or your fingertips, tear or cut away the thick edges and discard.

Spread the bread crumb mixture generously over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Scatter the remaining ¼ cup sugar over the bread crumbs. Transfer the apple filling to the dough, using your hands and leaving any liquid behind in the bowl. Shape the filling into a log about 2 inches from a shorter edge.

Begin rolling by lifting and pulling the bare 2-inch edge of the dough over the apple log. Tuck in the sides and, using the strudel cloth, lift and roll the strudel into a tight log with the thin layers of strudel dough encasing the filling. The goal is to make this log firm and tight, not loose and sloppy.

Use the cloth to transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet, seam side down.

Brush the top and sides of the strudel with the remaining melted butter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, shower with powdered sugar, and slice and serve.

If serving later, reheat for a few minutes in a 350°F oven.


That beautiful aromatic liquid remaining in the apple filling bowl should not be wasted. Place the liquid in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook briskly until syrupy and thickened, just 2 or 3 minutes. This is glorious spooned over a slice of strudel, particularly when vanilla ice cream is nearby.

How to Make Pulled Dough for Strudel

Makes 1 strudel sheet, about 20 by 24 inches when pulled

Strudel dough is not rolled out with a pin, but stretched. Because of this, the dough needs to be very elastic, requiring well-developed gluten which means active, extensive kneading. Kneading can be tiresome, so do as generations of Germans, Austrians, and Alsatians have done, and slap the dough on the counter with vigor instead. Just lift it up and slap it down, turn, fold, and do it again. And again. In fact, most classic strudel dough recipes include the direction to lift and slap the dough on the counter 100 or more times. It’s a great way to get out that daily grr, and a good workout for the arms. But if you aren’t feeling the slapping, you can knead in the usual way, folding and pushing the dough away from you, and then turning it 90 degrees and continuing the fold and push and turn action for 10 minutes. Alternatively, put the organized dough ball in the stand mixer and let the machine do the work for 10 full minutes.

  • 1 1/4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) cool water

In a wide bowl, using a table fork, stir together the flour and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil. Gather the flour into the oil with the fork. Pour in the water slowly, continuing to use the fork to incorporate the flour, until the dough is shaggy and wet. It will look impossible and you will be unhappy with me, but please persist.

Let go of the fork, lightly flour your hands, and work inside the bowl to gather the dough (which, admittedly, is more like batter). Just lift and turn, fold and lift, and unbelievably the dough will begin to feel silky and smooth and come together after 5 minutes or so. It’s a miracle.

Move the dough ball onto a very lightly floured counter and knead for 10 minutes; or slap it vigorously 100 times (see headnote); or place the dough ball in the stand mixer and, with the dough hook in place, let the mixer knead the dough for 10 minutes.

Lightly coat the inside of a ziptop bag with cooking spray and place the dough in the bag. After a 30-minute rest on the counter, seal the bag and refrigerate overnight before stretching the dough. Strudel dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days and cannot be successfully frozen.

Excerpted from When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries from Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes by Cathy Barrow (copyright © 2019 by Cathy Barrow).  Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing.  All rights reserved.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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