How to Make a Perfect, Flaky Pie Crust This Thanksgiving With Science

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A perfect pie crust can catch anyone's eye. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It's the Holy Grail of Thanksgiving: a pie crust of flaky perfection. Let's start with a big warning: Don't bite off more than you can chew here. If you actually tried all the pie crust techniques that the bakers of the internet swear by, you would need to enlist a small town of volunteers to polish off the results. (Please invite me.)

But don't get overwhelmed by the huge range of promises on offer: While pie crust has a reputation for being persnickety, it's not that hard to make your own once you get used to it—and the results are so very much tastier than a store-bought crust. Just pick a technique or two to try for Thanksgiving, see what you like, and revisit for your next pie-worthy occasion.

Let's take a step back and examine what actually makes a pie crust flaky. Raw and in the pan, a pie crust is basically tiny disks of fat coated with flour, stuck together by some kind of liquid. In the oven, the fat melts, leaving behind perfect flakes. That's why every step of the process is designed to preserve those tiny disks of fat as safely as possible.

Most recipes add at least salt, and sometimes other ingredients like sugar, to the flour before starting this whole thing. Then the first tricky bit is to decide how to break up the fat. You can use a pastry blender, a pair of knives, your hands (but be extra careful to keep everything cold, more on this later), or even a food processor if you're very careful. The key is to know when to stop: There needs to be small chunks of fat intact to get that flaky structure going—aim for pea-sized chunks but don't worry about a little variety. If you cut the fat too small, you'll be left with a crust that crumbles away.

We've been talking about fat in general because you have choices here as well. The most common options are butter, which has a reputation for leading to flakier crusts, and shortening. Other bakers swear by the tiny flakes formed by lard, which you can make yourself if you're feeling particularly adventurous. You can even use oil instead of a solid fat if you prefer.

Most crusts require adding cold water to the flour–fat mixture to pull it together, but a certain segment of the world you probably never guessed existed went absolutely wild a decade ago when one magazine suggested replacing some of the water with vodka. (Don't get too excited, the vodka evaporates during baking.) Unlike water, alcohol doesn't let the flour create gluten networks, which can lead to a tougher crust. Vodka won't change a crust's flavor, but some experimenters substitute flavored alcohols like whiskey as well. Whatever liquid you choose, add it slowly and stop when the mixture begins to stick together.

If all of this feels too fussy, you can also try purposely over-cutting the fat, then adding in a little flour at the end to break it back into small clumps, as pioneered by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats. Or a graham cracker crust is a straightforward classic (and crushing the graham crackers doubles as great holiday stress-reliever).

Two general tips: Throughout your crust-making, be sure to keep the ingredients as cold as possible—like an M&M's chocolate, you want the fat to melt in the oven, not in the bowl. That means keeping your fat in the refrigerator until the moment you start working with it, chilling the mixture before rolling it out, and perhaps even popping it in again before baking.

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Whether or not you crimp the edges, a perfect pie crust is a beautiful thing. Larry Downing/Reuters

Depending what kind of pie you've settled on, you may want to at least partially pre-bake the empty crust before adding the filling, a technique known as blind baking, which protects your pie crust from absorbing too much juice from the filling and becoming soggy. If you do this, either poke holes in the crust or weight it down so the crust doesn't puff up and steal the filling's space.

Once you've constructed your perfect pie crust, the hard part begins: deciding what to put inside it. A double-crusted pie like the classic apple pie is a perfect way to show off your handiwork, although be sure to vent the lid to let steam escape. (You may also want to mathematically engineer the fruit arrangement for the least air pockets possible.) Pumpkin pies are of course a Thanksgiving classic, and peach, pecan, or cherry can be nice alternatives.

And of course, the pie doesn't have to end just because Thanksgiving does: Now that you've perfected your pie crust technique, plop all that leftover turkey into a festive pot pie to polish it off. If you decide to stop eating anything you can't put in a pie, I certainly won't judge you.