I remember being maybe eight or nine years old and informing my mom that I wanted to invent a soup recipe. She gently suggested that I might want to at least glance at a recipe and just make some changes, make it my own, but I wanted to do it my way! So into the pot went water, salt, and a head of broccoli that I had very carefully chopped. There may have been a seasoning or two in there, but you get the idea. I dutifully ate my entire pot of “soup”, but I then went away and had a good think about the few steps I might have skipped in learning to cook.
In the past couple of decades, I’ve learned that in order for improvisation to be successful (in music, in cooking, in any creative pursuit), there needs to be a foundation of basic skills and understanding. In the kitchen, I’m always working on collecting building blocks: basic recipes that are (in my opinion) the very best of their kind and can easily be tweaked to open up whole new worlds of culinary creativity. I’ll share them here from time to time– the unbeatable chocolate cake, the basic vegetable soup, the elemental muffin– but today I’ll start with just one: the perfect pie crust.
The pie crust recipe I’ve ended up with is an amalgamation of more different recipes than I can count, but there’s one thing that they all had in common: the vinegar, egg, and ice water mixture that binds the crust together at the final stage. This adds a whole extra level of rich flavour and flakiness that plain shortening-and-flour crusts can never achieve.
You want your butter chilled and chopped into manageable chunks. Heat is the enemy of flaky pastries everywhere. Those little nuggets of butter that never quite work into the dough are key for the flaky texture you’re aiming for.
Flour, salt, and just a hint of sugar (omit for a savoury crust) get sifted together…
Tossed in a food processor with the chilled butter cubes…
And pulsed until it looks like coarse meal. Or, if you don’t have a food processor, you can use a pastry cutter or two knives or even your fingers. The goal is the same: no butter chunks bigger than a pea, but don’t overwork it!
An egg and a splash of white vinegar get whisked together with ice cold water…
Poured into the flour and butter mixture, a little at a time…
And mixed gently, just until the mixture can hold together in a ball.
The crust needs to be wrapped up tight and refrigerated for at least an hour (preferably overnight) before it can be rolled. I flatten it into a disc shape before chilling, as this shape is a million times easier to roll out than a solid ball.
Use in any recipe that calls for a shortcrust pastry or pie crust. Go ahead and have a couple copies of the recipe written out– you’ll get asked for it.
Makes enough for 3 single-crust pies or 1 large double-crust pie
3 cups plain flour (375g)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar (omit for a savoury pie)
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter (285g), cubed and chilled
2 tsp white vinegar
5 tbsp ice water
- Sift flour, salt, and sugar together.
- In a food processor, pulse flour mixture with cubed butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Place flour mixture in a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl or jug, whisk egg, vinegar, and ice water together until well incorporated.
- Gradually add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, stirring gently to combine. Add just enough liquid to allow the mixture to hold together in a ball– you may not need all of it!
- Separate mixture into the number of crusts you plan to make. Shape each amount into a ball, squash it into a disc, wrap tightly with cling film, and refrigerate thoroughly (at least an hour, but preferably overnight).
Note: these pie crust discs freeze really well! Just wrap in a layer of cling film and a layer of foil and freeze until needed, moving to refrigerator to thaw a day or two ahead of time.