5 of the best pie crust recipes for a flakier, better-tasting slice

From shortening to sour cream, find out which pie crust recipe is the best

Published August 3, 2021 7:59AM (EDT)

 (Julia Gartland / Food52)
(Julia Gartland / Food52)

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Are you the type who breaks into hives the minute you think about making the perfect pie crust recipe? Or are you the one who stays calm and cool as your pin glides across the pie dough like a Ferrari down the Italian coast? (Or are you the type who's really in it for the eating, not the making? You're welcome here, too. Come one, come all! We've got a slice for you.)

For me, there's no "common" dessert (as in, let's take croquembouche and Baked Alaska out of the running here) that makes me so frantic: The fear is deep-seated; I suspect I was born that way. I will freeze every utensil, every ingredient, that might possibly come in contact with the cantankerous butter; I will stick my hands in an ice bath if I need to! All for the sake of an easy-to-roll, hard-to-flub, guaranteed-flaky-and-buttery pie dough recipe.

But some pie doughs — and my anxiety is primarily dough-related (will it sog? will it shrink? will it altogether implode?) — promise to be more forgiving than others: quick to come together, with minimal guesswork; easy to roll and transfer; and, of course, guaranteed to yield flaky, shattering, crisp results. They call themselves "foolproof," "go-to," "be-all, end-all." Are they?

I've come to favor Rose Levy Beranbaum's cream cheese pie crust (and I crooned its praises last summer), but I was curious about how pie doughs bolstered with other ingredients — like vodka, shortening, vinegar, or sour cream — would compare to a 100-percent-butter classic pie crust recipe.

So I tested five different pie dough recipes to see which one was the best — all-butter, all-butter with the addition of vinegar, butter plus shortening, vodka-spiked, and sour-cream-boosted.

When testing the best pie crust recipe, I wanted to determine:

The ease of assembly and of rolling: How quickly and seamlessly did the dough come together? The flakiness and the flavor: Was this a crust I'd like to munch on sans peach or rhubarb filling?

I cut four small rounds of each type of pie dough, brushed two of every batch with egg wash (those are bottom two rows of the baking sheet — which are across-the-board more appetizing), and baked at 425° F for about 15 minutes, until the dough circles were golden-brown and completely cooked-through. Then, we tasted.

Disclaimer: For my test, I baked the pie crusts as freestanding rounds, but obviously this doesn't take into account how they would have interacted with various fillings — juicy fruits, creamy custards — or, as our resident baking expert Erin McDowell has pointed out, that you might be looking for a mealier, more crumbly crust for a custard pie (pumpkin, lemon cream but flakier, laminated-esque quality for a juicy one. For me, I wanted flaky. It is fruit pie season, after all!

Which is the tastiest—and what happened to that weirdo on the right??? 

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Putting the best pie crust recipes to the test

First, what is the best type of butter to use for pie dough? Unsalted or salted? European or Amish or Irish? That's . . . a complicated question, but luckily one we've happily tackled. The takeaway here is that it doesn't really matter for this test — I just stayed consistent with my brands of butter throughout. (The only criteria? It had to taste good, and be pretty cheap. I was baking a lot.)

1. All-butter (and nearly nothing else):

These all-butter discs rose so much higher than the shortening pucks. (Egg washed, left; naked, right.) 
  • The recipeMelissa Clark's All-Butter Pie Crust
  • What makes it different: There are no "magic" add-ins in this recipe — you need only flour, salt, butter, and ice water. The distinction comes in the technique, as this dough is made entirely in a food processor. Since you use the food processor first to break the butter into lima bean-size pieces and then to incorporate the flour, the butter is ultimately chopped into very small pieces. Would this counteract flakiness? Many pie bakers say you want to see flour-coated butter pockets when you roll out the dough.
  • How easy was it to make and work with?: The dough came together quickly and without issue; since the process happens within a matter of minutes in the food processor, it's easy to keep the temperature of the ingredients cool and to shuttle the finished dough to the refrigerator before the butter has a chance to misbehave. The chilled dough was a bit firmer than some of the other batches pre-roll out but ultimately gave me no trouble at all.
  • Texture and taste: If you use good-tasting butter, you're going to have a good-tasting all-butter pie crust — there are no additional ingredients to mute or overshadow its flavor. Still, I ended up preferring the butter-vinegar dough and the sour cream dough, each of which had a nuance of tang that cut a bit of the richness and was even flakier than the all-butter crust.
  • The verdict: The flavor was good, though the dough fell a bit flat in comparison to the others — perhaps this was because the butter was pulverized by the machine rather than left in larger chunks. I'd be curious to try an all-butter dough that doesn't rely on the food processor, though in the past, I've found these the most difficult to get right.

Look closely and you'll spot butter streaks in the dough on the left—but it's hard to see any in the dough on the right. PHOTO BY MARK WEINBERG

2. Shortening + butter:

The flattest and toughest of the bunch. (Egg washed on the left, and plain on the right.)
  • The recipeKing Arthur Flour's Classic Double Pie Crust
  • What makes it different: A quarter-cup of vegetable shortening is mixed into the flour before you work in the butter using your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a stand mixer. Why shortening? As Erin explains in her pie fats briefing, shortening has a high melting point, which means it's not going to turn to liquid as you work it into the flour — and this should translate into reliably flaky layers. But as Kenji López-Alt writes on Serious Eats, it's actually easy to inadvertently overwork shortening, and end up with a crumbly crust, precisely because shortening remains soft at so many temperatures. (An all-butter crust, on the other hand, will be more blatantly too-far-gone — the butter starts to melt and you have a gooey mess.)
  • How easy was it to make and work with?: I had difficulty forming the dough into cohesive discs when I used my hands to mix it, but when Allison Buford used a stand mixer (and a bit more water), she had more success. (This guessing game with the amount of necessary liquid? I'd rather skip it.) Once the dough was chilled, it was noticeably firmer than the others — I had to bang it more aggressively before rolling it out, but once I got going, I didn't have a hard time rolling it into a large, thin circle.
  • Texture and taste: This was the flattest, toughest dough of the bunch (neither flaky nor particularly tender), and it scored lowest in the flavor category, as well. I was surprised by just how big of an impact only 1/4 cup of shortening could have on the overall taste. I thought the crust had a vaguely artificial flavor — a fake butteriness that might be distracting when paired with a pie's fillings.
  • The verdict: I have no plans to use shortening in future doughs. Since these discs did hold its shape very well, with minimal puffing and spreading, I do wonder if a shortening-butter crust might actually be better for making intricate lattices and decorations, however.

From this angle, you really can see that the sour cream dough was remarkably tall and flaky—the layers are visible! The shortening dough was the clear loser. 

3. All butter + some vinegar:

A winner, in my book. (Egg washed, left; bare, right.) PHOTO BY MARK WEINBERG
  • The recipeFour & Twenty Blackbirds' All-Butter Pie Crust
  • What makes it different: Yes this is called "all-butter pie crust" — but it's the addition of vinegar (2 tablespoons of cider vinegar, to be precise) that I was focused on. Some sources say that acidic vinegar prohibits gluten formation, which makes for an easier-to-roll, more tender crust — and others have cried "myth!"
  • How easy was it to make and work with?: I loved making this dough, even though the recipe does call for dirtying a bench scraper and a pastry blender. While there is value in using your hands to feel the texture of the dough, I find it easier to keep the temperature under control when I'm not warming up the ingredients with my body heat. The dough rolled out easily, cracking in only a few areas.
  • Texture and taste: Again, I was surprised by the impact of a small amount of an ingredient (here, it's vinegar, not shortening) — but this time, pleasantly so! The pie crust had a tang I was not expecting, and was one of the highest-rising doughs in the group: The discs look like biscuits in miniature!
  • The verdict: It might very well be myth that vinegar makes pie dough more tender, but based on these results, if I have vinegar in my pantry, I'll surely be adding it to my pie dough, if only for the very subtle zing it added. The success of this recipe is likely a combination of the ratio of ingredients and the technique. I'd definitely rather fish out my bench scraper and pastry cutter than lug out the food processor — it's nearly as fast, and there's less of a chance of obliterating the butter chunks.

Pie dough carpets. PHOTO BY MARK WEINBERG

4. Vodka:

Drunken pie dough. (Egg washed, left; naked, right.) PHOTO BY MARK WEINBERG
  • The recipeCook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Crust (as featured in Genius Recipes)
  • What makes it different: Instead of adding 4 tablespoons of water, you'll use 2 tablespoons of water and 2 tablespoons of vodka. The vodka inhibits gluten formation — making for a tender, more malleable dough — and it evaporates in the oven, which means it leaves no boozy taste behind. And the technique, not just the ingredient list, is convention-bucking: In a food procesor, you'll blend the butter completely into a portion of the flour; then, you'll break those curds up with some additional flour and use a spatula to press in the liquid. As our Creative Director Kristen Miglore wrote in 2013, "this means that the dough is more predictably tender and flaky (since it's based on a more homogenous flour-butter paste rather than jagged bits of cold butter) and easier to roll out too."
  • How easy was it to make and work with?: This rolled out like a dream ("supremely easy!" according to my notes — the best of the bunch). The dough is a bit tacky — I'd recommend rolling it between sheets of lightly floured parchment paper, and allowing it to chill for the full 45 minutes before attempting that endeavor.
  • Texture and taste: While the addition of vodka made for a dough that was flakier than its all-butter, food processor-made counterpart, I didn't notice a big difference between this crust and the butter-vinegar one. I couldn't detect any vodka (obviously), but I did think these discs had a sort of raw, floury taste — I preferred the flavor of the butter-vinegar and the sour cream pie dough circles.
  • The verdict: I wouldn't rush out to buy a bottle of vodka to make this crust, since I preferred the flavor of the butter-vinegar recipe and found the texture to be nearly the same. But if you are having trouble achieving flakiness, give this a try: Many of our commenters have had great success, even if they had been heartbroken by other pie crust recipes in the past. I think it's likely that this dough will provide flaky results to nervous beginners — it seems less volatile than an all-butter dough, be it made by hand or in a machine. And yet, all-butter doughs still have their advantages.

5. Sour cream:

You can practically count the number of layers. (Egg wash, left; naked, right.) PHOTO BY MARK WEINBERG
  • The recipeSimply Recipes' Sour Cream Pie Crust
  • What makes it different: You don't have to sprinkle in any water or liquid — at all! Instead, you'll cut the butter into the flour using your hands, then stir in 1/4 cup of sour cream with a fork. There's no machine and no uncertainty, and straight-from-the-fridge sour cream can help keep your other ingredients cold.
  • How easy was it to make and work with?: I had to add a couple tablespoons of sour cream (two more than the recipe called for) in order to get the dough to come together, and I used the plastic wrap to help maneuver the mixture into a cohesive ball. After the dough chilled, however, it was much easier to work with and presented no issues during the rolling process. I saw that there were streaks of sour cream in the rolled-out round, which I took to be a sign of flakiness to come. (Spoiler alert: I was correct.)
  • Texture and taste: The sour cream rounds were incredibly flaky — perhaps the highest-rising of the bunch. We also liked their flavor — a distinct, but enjoyable, sourness. The dough rounds, however, were inconsistent. Check out that strangely brown specimen in the third row of the rightmost column: What happened there?
  • The verdict: I love this pie crust — distinct layers and big flavor for such little effort — but it's definitely suited for particular circumstances. Elise of Simply Recipes doesn't recommend par-baking it (the sides will slump and shrink) and the flavor is noticeably tangy — which is something to keep in mind depending on your filling. I'll save this crust recipe for particular circumstances where a bit of tang would contribute to the final result, like cider caramel pie in the fall or a brown sugar peach pie in August.


And in the end?

The butter-vinegar crust, for its ingredients and its technique, is my winner. It produced consistently tall, flaky results, and I liked the subtle zip that the vinegar lent to the final crust. It's also easy to turn to this as my go-to: I almost always have apple cider vinegar around. Vodka, sour cream, or my beloved cream cheese? That would probably require a special trip to the store. I'm also inclined to skip the food processor — it's so much harder to control the chunks of butter (and so much easier to take the dough just one pulse too far) when you're involving a powerful machine. My preference is for a combination of tools (they stay cool! they provide more coverage!) and hands.

If I do happen to have sour cream — or I'm baking for a special occasion — I'll make Simply Recipes' version. Shortening, see you never (though commenters, if you'd like to make the case otherwise, my ears are open!). And vodka? I'd suggest that recipe and technique to those who have struggled with all-butter pies in the past. The Genius recipe will enable you to use a food processor without overworking the dough — perfect for those looking for a hands-off, very reliable method.

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Best pie recipes

Now that we've tested the best pie crust recipes, it's time to bake a pie! For Thanksgiving, make a classic like pecan pie, pumpkin custard, spiced apple, or sweet potato using our favorite pie crust made with a combination of butter and vinegar. Come the Fourth of July, make a fruit pie recipe filled with berries (strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries), stone fruit like peaches and nectarines, or even a light and creamy lemon meringue pie.

Of course, you can feel free to use the pie crust recipe included with each of these fruity pies. Or conduct your own test and determine which is the best pie crust recipe based on your taste preferences.

1. Heda's Mostly Blackberry Pie with Hazelnut Crumb Crust

This pie's base is a take on the butter and vinegar crust we talked about above, but with a secret ingredients to give it crunch and a ton of flavor: ground hazelnuts! The filling is a simple, age-old combo of blackberry and blueberry, and on top goes some more hazelnutty pie dough crumbled up with rolled oats.

2. Third-Generation Peach Pie

Flaky, buttery pie crust is laden with mounds of spiced fresh peaches, then scattered with a nutty, oaty crumble topping. The recipe's been in community member Rhonda35's for three generations, so you know it's gotta be good.

3. Rose Levy Beranbaum's Fresh Blueberry Pie

Cookbook author and baking expert Rose Levy Beranbaum's done it again — this time, with a dead-simple and highly impactful blueberry pie. The crust is a vinegar–butter number we all know and love, and the filling is pretty much just fresh summer blueberries.

4. Cider Caramel Apple Pie

When autumn rolls around, you obviously need a go-to pie recipe — so why not this cider caramel rendition? It's got tart-sweet Honeycrisp apples, just a hint of sugar, and plenty of butter to add creaminess to the filling as it bakes. All this gets swaddled in a double-crust of all-buttah pie dough — yes, even more butter.

5. Cranberry Sage Pie

Puckery cranberries and woody, earthy sage are paired in this wintertime wonder, and a sweet apple (like a Northern Spy) joins the party, too. An all-butter crust lays the perfect groundwork.

6. Meta Given's Pumpkin Pie

Start with fresh cooked pumpkin purée or the good stuff from a can, then dress it up by caramelizing it in a pan on the stovetop. Add ground cinnamon, ground ginger, and sugar for sugar, spice, and everything nice, plus an ultra-silky mixture of eggs, cream, and milk. Pour the filling into your chosen favorite pie crust and bake.

7. Chocolate Cream Pie

Chocolate lovers will adore this over-the-top pie. Recipe developer Kenneth Temple prefers using egg yolks exclusively, rather than eggs, for a silky-smooth pudding to fill the chocolate graham cracker crust. Don't forget the light and airy whipped cream topping!

8. Craig and Kathleen Claiborne's Mississippi Pecan Pie

Our editors call this pecan pie "sweet but not too sweet" and note that it has a "less jiggly filling than most." The combination of dark corn syrup and dark brown sugar ensures that the filling will have rich caramelly notes.

By Sarah Jampel

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