The ability to make a good pie crust isn't as universal as it once was, but it's still a useful skill. A well-made crust elevates even the simplest of pies to a whole different level, and it requires only a few ingredients and a few minutes of active preparation time. Although your crust will improve with time and experience, it's possible for even a novice to turn out a perfectly respectable batch of pastry.
Basic 3-2-1 Pastry Dough
Professional bakers tend to think in terms of ratios and percentages, and the basic ratio for pie crust is very simple. Bakers call it a 3-2-1 dough, because it uses three parts flour to two parts fat and one part water. Add a pinch of salt to the flour; then cut in your fat -- shortening, lard, and butter are the most common choices -- either by rubbing it with your fingers or cutting it in with a pastry cutter. Pulsing the ingredients in your food processor works, too. Stop when the flour and fat has reached a cornmeal texture, but pea-sized lumps of fat are still visible. Add up to one part water -- it's a maximum -- a spoon at a time, just until the dough comes together.
Theme and Variations
That standard crust, known as "pate brisee" in the commercial kitchen, is sturdy enough for most pies but still bakes to a delicate, shortbread-like texture. You can sweeten it with sugar for fruit pies, if you wish, or add an egg in place of the water to make a sturdier dough for tarts or meat pies. In each case, it's important not to use too much liquid. The dough should still feel slightly dry when it's first mixed. Cover it and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes in your fridge, so moisture has time to spread through the flour's starchy granules and form an even-textured dough.
Once you've mastered that basic crust, you might want to add a flaky crust to your repertoire as well. Flaky crust uses the same basic ingredients, but with one significant change to the technique. At least 1/3 of the fat, and in some cases all of it, should be coarsely chopped into pieces roughly 1/4 inch square. Again, work the dough just until it comes together, and then let it rest in your refrigerator. When you roll the dough, these large pieces of fat will flatten and form thin sheets between layers of dough. When baked, those sheets will melt and leave behind a crust that shatters into thin flakes when broken by your fork.
Rolling the Dough
Once your dough is made and rested, you'll still need to roll it. Use the smallest possible quantity of flour on your work surface; too much added flour will toughen the crust. Divide your batch into individual crusts and shape them into rough discs with your hands; then roll from the middle of the dough to the edge with your rolling pin. Give the dough a quarter-turn, and repeat. Your dough should roll out into a reasonably neat round, ideally an even 1/8 inch for most purposes. Dust your counter and rolling pin occasionally with flour, if the dough sticks.
Some Crucial Tips
Most novices try to make a smooth, even-textured dough, which is always a mistake. You can't do it without adding too much water or over-working your dough, both of which develop strong gluten strands and make your dough tough. The dough should barely hang together when you refrigerate it and still feel slightly dry. You can give yourself more margin for error by using low-gluten pastry flour, which can be worked longer without toughening. Butter is flavorful but can be tricky to work with, so lard or vegetable shortening are often better choices for beginners. Keeping your ingredients well-chilled -- a point of faith for many recipe writers -- is helpful, but not crucial unless you live in a very warm climate.