Saturday, August 7, 2010

Impossible Pie Crust

I've heard it from experienced pastry chefs, and you probably have too: it's impossible to make a good reduced-fat pie crust. It's what they learned in culinary school, taught to them by people who, themselves, learned it in culinary school from people who learned it in culinary school. It's so obvious there was never a need for anyone to waste time or ingredients trying it.

Not having a real, formal culinary education, however, I confess to not having been aware of this. And so, in my ignorance, I went ahead and made a reduced-fat crust that has gotten many compliments over the years from friends to whom I've served it. (Apparently, a lot of people I know didn't go to culinary school either.)

The key to making such a crust successfully is managing the fat in the eggs and the butter. The eggs are simple enough; egg-substitutes are an easy one-for-one swap when making dough. (They don't work quite as well for batters or other things that depend on the eggs getting fluffy.) It's the proper use of butter substitute that took a while (not to mention several not-very-good pie crusts along the way) to figure out; let me share with you what I learned.

First, and as most people probably already know, butter substitutes have lower fat than butter because they have a higher moisture content, so in recipes it's not a simple one-for-one substitution. It's more like three-quarters-for-one. In other words, if a recipe calls for a cup of butter, use three-quarters cup of butter substitute.

Moisture, of course, is not the only potential obstacle to a successful crust. Texture is another. I've found some butter substitutes have the right taste but are too soft, while others have a nice firm texture but not a good enough taste. For baking I solved this by making a mix; a blend of Smart Balance and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, in equal parts, has worked well for me in baking projects. I recommend you experiment to find the combination you like best. An important factor to remember is that most brands of butter substitute are available in a variety of fat contents, some high enough to be suitable for baking, and some not. Check the package to make sure the manufacturer specifically says it's ok to use for baking. Remember, we're going for a crust that's reduced-fat, not one that's fat-free. Even I'm willing to admit that last one really is impossible.

Temperature is another key to making dough using a butter substitute. Dough, regardless of whether it's made with real butter or butter substitute, must be kept cold for easy handling. If you're using real butter, this means the refrigerator. For doughs made with butter substitute, think freezer instead. Not to freeze it solid, but to make it that much colder.

To make two 9-inch pie crusts, mix 1/2 cup of water, 1/4 tsp lemon juice and 1 tsp of salt, and put the mixture into the freezer until it's almost icy.

In the bowl of a mixer, combine 12 ounces of all-purpose flour, 4 ounces of cake flour, and 3 tablespoon of sugar. (For a real treat, use vanilla sugar instead of the plain kind. Oh baby!) Blend 8 ounces of butter substitute into the mixture using the paddle until it looks like a coarse meal with a few larger pieces of butter substitute. Add the icy water mixture and blend until the dough holds together. Divide it in half, wrap each in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour before using as you would any other pie crust.

 If you'd like a cookbook-style notebook-ready copy of this recipe, just send me an e-mail and I'll forward it to you as a Word file.

Thanks for visiting - be sure to share your comments and suggestions!

Till next week, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)  


  1. There's a lot of culinary snobbery about these days. Over here in England your basic pie crust doesn't usually contain eggs but it looks as if we all agree that it should all be kept as cold as poss. Thanks for not giving your recipe in 'cups' because over here we weigh it all out. Cups confuse us you see because everyone's idea of a cupful is different, whereas an egg is an egg - innit?

    I have really enjoyed your inaugural post on here,

  2. Thank you, Angie! It's a great pleasure to see you here. And you raise a good point - for future posts I'm going to have to figure out how the measurements used convert for the other side of the big pond. (I've seen that issue come up with some of Nigella Lawson's recipes.)

  3. You know, I have never thought about reduced fat pie crusts. After we move in Sept, I am starting on a journey of baking for a diabetic. I have never done that before either, should be interesting. Wonderful blog Ben! I have mostly Southern dishes on my food blog. In case you have a yearning for full fat recipes.

  4. Thanks, Tawnya! And it sounds like you've got come interesting things happening in your kitchen as well. Baking for someone who's diabetic is such a big and important topic; I hope you'll post some of what you do. As for the Southern dishes, post them too! Everybody needs a treat once in a while and, besides, it may inspire in someone a low-fat version to share. (Btw, I'd love to see your food blog. Can you send the link?)

  5. Ben, I'm very excited about this new adventure of yours! I have to admit, I'm not much of a baker, though I do enjoy cooking/baking when it's a weekend afternoon and I'm trying a new recipe. Not so much at 6 PM on a weekday! Maybe you'll inspire me for those evening dinners.

  6. Thanks, Sandy. You never know. There'll also be cooking posts as well. (Here's a secret: next week it's crepes!)

  7. Ok this I'll have to really sink my teeth into because where food is concerned, I have to remind myself to eat. I know nothing about nutrition, calories, food substitutes, and frankly sometimes eating is a chore. I don't LIKE this mind-set, let's see if this smart little blog here can help me ;-)

  8. I'll do my best, Cathy. :-)