The Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Handle the Heat

The Ultimate Pie Crust Guide

November 11th, 2013

The Ultimate Pie Crust Guide breaks down small ingredient and technique changes to discover what makes a pie crust flaky, buttery, tender, hard, crunchy, or crumbly!

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It’s easy to tell the difference between homemade pie crust and store-bought. The latter usually lacks the buttery flavor and ultra flaky texture that you can achieve by making pie crust yourself. Yet, most people are intimidated by that idea even though pie crust relies on the most basic ingredients and equipment you likely already have on hand and is actually fairly easy to make. It just requires some patience. If you know anything about making pie crust, you know the ingredients need to be very cold. Cold ingredients mean flaky texture. Also, you should avoid overworking the dough and making it tough.

The Ultimate Pie Crust Guide breaks down small ingredient and technique changes to discover which pie crust recipe is the best!

Beyond those little baking rules, there are some variations in pie crust recipes that lend different results. Whether the crust is buttery, flaky, tender, hard, firm, or crumbly all depends on a few key ingredients and methods. Some recipes make quick work of pie crust whereas others are more hands-on. Should you use butter or shortening? Make the crust by hand or with a food processor? Should you add a tenderizing ingredient, such as sour cream or vodka? I went to work testing out these various ingredients and techniques to find out how they affect the final pie crust. I started with a very basic, all-butter and food processor based pie crust and made small experimental changes. I used the same ingredients, utensils, and bakeware when applicable to ensure consistent results. Instead of baking a whole pie, I rolled out each dough into about an eighth-inch thickness and cut out small circles with a cookie cutter. I brushed each circle very lightly with egg wash then baked in a 350°F oven for about 13 minutes, until golden. This allowed me to really compare the shape, texture, and taste of each batch. Take a look at the results, I hope they help you discover the tricks to making your version of the perfect pie crust!

Control Recipe:

Yield: 1 9-inch single pie
Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Control


1 1/4 cups (5.3 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water


In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, salt, and sugar until combined. Add the butter, and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with larger chunks of butter remaining. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of ice water over the mixture and pulse until it just comes together without being wet, sticky, or crumbly. Do not over mix. If the dough doesn’t hold together when pinched between your fingers, add another tablespoon of water and pulse.

Place the dough on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap well in the plastic, and chill in the fridge until firm, at least 1 hour or up to 3 days. Make ahead and freeze, well wrapped in plastic, for up to 2 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight. The dough is now ready to be rolled out and baked.


Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Shortening
I wanted to determine the differences between using butter versus shortening in this experiment so I substituted all of the butter with 1/2 cup well chilled and cubed vegetable shortening, proceeding with mixing in the food processor. This dough was very easy to work with since shortening has a higher melting temperature than butter. However, this also means that unlike the very hard chunks of cold butter that remain in the control dough, shortening is soft enough that it is easily overworked, resulting in a crumbly dough instead of a flakey dough. All-shortening dough doesn’t require as much chilling time and is very soft and malleable. As you can see in the photograph, this all-shortening dough ended up being flat, tender, and fairly crumbly. The texture was actually reminiscent of shortbread and it was completely lacking in flavor. In fact, the flavor reminded me of store-bought dough. Using a ratio of shortening and butter would produce better results, or mixing the shortening dough by hand instead of using the food processor to avoid over mixing.


Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Vodka
The kitchen scientists over at Cook’s Illustrated magazine claim that by substituting a portion of the water with vodka in a pie crust recipe, you prohibit gluten development and therefor ensure a tender, flaky crust. I wanted to see if they were right so from the control recipe I added 2 tablespoons of cold vodka and reduced the water to 2 tablespoons. The texture of the dough was surprisingly crumbly but still easy to work with. It baked up flakey but also very tender, though I didn’t find the difference to be revolutionary by any means. I would probably skip the vodka trick altogether next time I make pie crust.

By Hand:

Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - By Hand
In this trial I used the same exact ingredients but made the dough by hand, not in the food processor. I used a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembled coarse meal then gently stirred in ice cold water until the dough came together. This method was much more time-consuming and messy than the food processor method. The dough was more difficult to bring together into a cohesive disk because the chunks of butter were so irregular. However, those irregular chunks of butter produced the flakiest results of all my pie crust experiments. If you don’t have a food processor (or don’t want to lug it out) or if you want the flakiest possible crust, this is definitely the method to use.

Sour Cream:

Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Sour Cream
Sour cream acts as a tenderizer in baked goods and I was curious to see if it would significantly affect the texture of pie crust. I added 2 tablespoons of sour cream to the control recipe along with the butter, keeping everything else the same. The dough itself was very soft and slightly sticky, but easy enough to work with. My circles of sour cream pie crust puffed up to a surprising height. The texture was ultra light, puffy, and flaky, almost like puff pastry. The flavor was also fantastic. Beyond the classic control and by hand recipes, this was my favorite pie crust.


Ultimate Pie Crust Guide - Eggs
Adding an egg to pie crust is something I first saw from The Pioneer Woman, though many recipes for tart dough call for an egg. I wanted to know how the extra fat and liquid would affect the pie crust, so I added a whole beaten egg along with the water to the control recipe, keeping everything else the same. The dough came together in a more cohesive ball, which was not surprising since egg acts as a binding agent. The baked crust was rich and firm but tender. The flaky layers seemed heavier than the by hand crust and overall this bordered on being slightly greasy.

Final Comparison:

Ultimate Pie Crust Guide breaks down small ingredient and technique changes to discover what makes a pie crust flaky, buttery, tender, hard, crunchy, or crumbly!

The article The Ultimate Cupcake Guide was originally posted at

Also be sure to check out these ultimate guide posts:
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies
The Ultimate Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies Part II
The Ultimate Brownie Guide
The Ultimate Cupcake Guide

Check out my video tutorial post on How to Make Pie Dough!

Tessa Arias
Author: Tessa Arias

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Tessa Arias

About Tessa...

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Find Tessa on  

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  1. #
    audra — February 11, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    Try duck fat in a pie crust. You will never go back. it creates the most delicate crust and the flavor is divine.

  2. #
    Nancy — November 15, 2021 at 12:07 am


    Do you recommend freezing pie dough for later use? I searched the website but didn’t find anything. I would like to make the dough and have it ready in my metal/aluminum pie pans. I would be making it about 2-3 days ahead of time.

    If it isn’t recommended to freeze in the pan, is it okay to freeze in a disk?

    I would love some instruction in how to do either of these methods since I need to speed up the pie-making process.


    • #
      Emily — November 15, 2021 at 2:06 pm

      Hi Nancy, sure you can freeze pie dough! Check out our Best Ever Pie Crust, we detail how to make pie crust ahead of time above the recipe 🙂

      • #
        Nancy — November 15, 2021 at 8:20 pm

        I have already looked through the recipe and the notes above the recipe as well as the troubleshooting guide. I don’t see any instructions or tips for freezing at all.

        I do see many details on how to roll it out, side-by-side comparisons for butter versus shortening, etc.

        • #
          Emily — November 16, 2021 at 9:59 am

          Hi Nancy, we list how to make pie dough ahead of time below the Butter vs Shortening/Optional Secret Ingredient section in our Best Ever Pie Crust recipe 🙂 Those instructions include how to refrigerate as well as freeze in advance. You can also find the same details in our free download of our Make Ahead Baking Guide. I hope that helps!

  3. #
    Eleanor — July 26, 2021 at 6:45 pm

    Thank you for those comparisons, very interesting – especially the sour cream! Have you tried using lard? I used it to make Christmas mince-pies last year and was surprised at the lovely flakiness of the pastry, but I’m no expert so I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.

    • #
      Emily — July 27, 2021 at 9:13 am

      Hi Eleanor, we haven’t tested lard yet, but it’s on our list!

  4. #
    Terese Jackson — November 15, 2020 at 11:52 am

    My mother always made pie crust (by hand) using shortening and pineapple juice-made for the best flavor and flakiness!

    • #
      Tessa — November 16, 2020 at 1:17 pm

      I bet that is so delicious! Moms really know best!!

  5. #
    Ali — November 15, 2020 at 11:36 am

    I’d really like to see you do a vodka-sour-cream-lard
    or butter by hand recipe and bake to see what it’s like!

  6. #
    Anna — September 26, 2020 at 10:26 am

    The traditional egg recipe Ree Drummond uses is more than just adding an egg. The ratios of other ingredients are changed and there is also vinegar in the recipe. It is not my most favorite pie crust, but it is still very good.

  7. #
    Ria Santos — May 31, 2020 at 2:41 am

    Hi! Given your experience making pie crust, I was wondering if you could tell me if it’s “normal” for a pie crust to be a bit…oily? I’ve used your control crust recipe to make some handpies, and while the crusts came out very yummy and flaky, I noticed that my fingers were kind of shiny from the butter. I’m a pie novice, so I don’t know if that is normal?

  8. #
    Steven weaver — December 22, 2019 at 10:28 am

    How would the sour dough crust be a quech and would I have to bake it before filling it? What crust would you recommend?

  9. #
    Kathryn Hann — November 29, 2019 at 4:52 pm

    Have you tried using lard rather than butter or (yuck) shortening? I find it makes my pie crusts extremely flaky and the best I have ever made…just like my old German grandma made.

  10. #
    Diana Beane — October 29, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    I want the ultimate pie crust guide, please and thank you.

  11. #
    Shelby — August 30, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Hi Tessa,

    My pie crust was a fail :[ It was not pie crust-y at all and would not hold/roll/stick so I ended up having to press it into the pan, mostly sticking to my fingers. I went with the sour cream crust, not sure what went wrong. Did I pulse too long/much maybe? First timer.


  12. #
    Lisa — April 16, 2015 at 4:01 am

    This was a fun read! I was wondering…in your sour cream trial, did you end up adding less water? And where did you go to culinary school? Love your blog!

  13. #
    rick manos — January 16, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Thanks for great pie dough experiments. How do you bake the doughs i.e.pie plate pyrex or metal or did you just bake your samples on a cookie sheet?

    Thank you,

  14. #
    Meredith — November 1, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I think the food processed shortening crust was a misrepresentation of what shortening can do. Shortening should never be blended into the flour, that’s what made it flat in your result, it needs to be cut in and then very lightly mixed. A properly made shortening crust will always beat out a butter crust in my book.

  15. #
    Jaime {sophistimom} — October 9, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Tessa, these are great. I love the idea for the sour cream. There are a lot of recipes out there that I want to make but use puff pastry. I usually have trouble finding puff pastry with all butter (I know I can get it at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but it’a a long drive and I don’t always feel like making the trek), so I usually skip making them. Some of them that I’ve seen, however, like tarte tatins, sometimes call for using a pate brisee, which in my opinion would be way too boring. But this looks like the ultimate solution. Thanks!

  16. #
    Christina — October 9, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Here’s one to throw you off: I grew up making the pie crust that my dad grew up with, made by his mother. Flour, melted lard, salt and luke-warm water. Mix together, without overmixing, using a fork and your hand until combined. Roll out on the cutting board, trim to fit the pie plate, and fill with pie filling of choice. Bake, and that’s it! It has never failed us.

  17. #
    Jaimie — August 5, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    I’m reading all the time about using plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream for recipes. What’s your thoughts on doing that for a pie crust?

  18. #
    Sheila — July 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Your guides are insanely helpful! Thank you for taking the time to do this and share your results with us! This will help me create for sure. ♡

  19. #
    Lynn — June 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    When I was a teen I learned how to make pie crust from my mom’s friend. It was an all-shortening recipe. It worked well, and became the family’s standard for many years. Now, however, I know how bad shortening is for you, and so I switched to an all-butter recipe. My husband never liked the old crust, but loves the new one! I will definitely keep sour cream in mind as an addition next time.
    As for lard, it is actually very good for you – as long as it’s from healthy pastured pork, not fed GMO corn. Canola and sunflower are major GMO crops, and are definitely NOT healthy choices! Organic options are available, however.

  20. #
    Jane Raifsnider — June 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I agree with TN. Oil crust wins hands down over any other kind of pie crust. It is incredibly flaky and so quick to make. I make it with sunflower oil. Is it healthier? Well it is not lard, so maybe. But after using this method for years, anyone who has eaten my pies finds traditional crust too dry.

  21. #
    Goreti — June 17, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Decided to make apple pie today and used your recipe with the sour cream. Since it was for an apple pie, I also added some cinnamon. Just cut the pie and the crust is wonderful. I think I have found my new go to pie crust recipe. Thank you for sharing.

  22. #
    Gina — June 10, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    I too have always used my Mom’s recipe which was passed down from her Mom. It calls for an egg and vinegar. I have never used butter or shortening only lard.

  23. #
    Karlyn — November 16, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    I have always used my mom’s pie crust receipe, which makes 3 single crust pies and uses butter, egg and vinegar along with the other standard ingredients. I am curious as to the purpose of the vinegar and how that affects the end product? What do you think Tessa?

  24. #
    TN — November 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I LOVE your ultimate guide series! But I think it is such a pity you didn’t try to make the pie crust with canola oil as the fat ingredient (the oil is mixed with cold water and stirred just until moist into the flour). The crust is so flaky I was amazed a liquid fat could do that! Granted, the flavor was lacking, but it can be such a good diet substitute… at midnight when a huge pms craving kicks in lol

  25. #
    Kristen — November 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    I keep getting ported over to Bing too. Even if I try to stop the link from loading while it’s thinking it still goes to Bing 🙁

  26. #
    Heather Christo — November 14, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    This is SO BRILLIANT. I am headed over to see the results!

  27. #
    Alana — November 14, 2013 at 11:56 am

    the Ultimate link keeps overriding to BING search engine. Can you please update the link?

    • #
      Tessa — November 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      That isn’t happening when I click the link… maybe it’s something on your browser or possibly an advertisement?

  28. #
    Barbara @ Barbara Bakes — November 14, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I’m a big believer in using both butter and shortening. Also making them by hand because I always seem to over process in the food processor. I’m really intrigued by adding sour cream. I’ll have to give that a try this Thanksgiving. Great post.

  29. #
    Shanna@ pineapple and coconut — November 14, 2013 at 9:41 am

    This is perfect timing for me. I am attempting pie crust for the first time ever and I am making my mom’s pie where she uses a sour cream crust. I love that you do these series Tessa!! Sharing on my facebook page!

  30. #
    Maybelline — November 12, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    How do you stay so slim? I really enjoy your recipes and the way you present them.

  31. #
    Gaby — November 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    So intrigued by the sour cream crust! Love this!!

    • #
      Tessa — November 12, 2013 at 10:15 am

      It’s awesome!! Thanks Gaby!

  32. #
    DessertForTwo — November 11, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    I saw Mel (Mel’s Kitchen Cafe) posted an all sour-cream pie crust recipe recently. It must be the new thing! I’ve got to try it! Thanks for your experimenting 🙂

    • #
      Tessa — November 12, 2013 at 10:15 am

      I love even a touch of sour cream in the pie crust! Will have to try all sour cream.

  33. #
    Diane @ Vintage Zest — November 11, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    So excited to see! I recently tried a crust with vodka and thought it was good, but I would love to see the other results. I’m heading over now. 🙂

    P.S. – I did my own little experiment changing out the flours: all-purpose, wheat, and whole wheat pastry. No blog post about it though, although it would have been a good one. Opportunity missed, dang!

    • #
      Tessa — November 12, 2013 at 10:14 am

      That would have made a great blog post! If you ever do those flour batches again let me know – I’ll link it here!

  34. #
    Erin @ The Spiffy Cookie — November 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Love that you experimented. Cannot wait to read the results so going there now!

  35. #
    Erica Lea | Buttered Side Up — November 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

    This was an awesome experiment, Tessa! I may have to give the sour cream a try. I don’t have a food processor, so of course I’ll be doing the by-hand method. 🙂

  36. #
    Patty White — November 11, 2013 at 8:02 am

    The links to said page not found.
    I use an iPad 3

  37. #
    Karyn Campbell — November 11, 2013 at 7:47 am

    I keep getting page not found at Relish 🙁

    • #
      Tessa — November 11, 2013 at 8:16 am

      The link should be working now! Sorry about that!

  38. #
    Chris Novosel — November 11, 2013 at 7:14 am

    The link is currently not working. I would love to see your analysis.

    • #
      Tessa — November 11, 2013 at 8:17 am

      The link is working now! So sorry for the inconvenience.

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