By Beacon Staff

I had this little mental debate going on about the subject of this week’s column, because that title could apply to either subject. It seems I’ve got a reader out there who could be described in the kindest way as “crusty.” He/she has always had a lot to say about what I write and it’s usually negative.

The heck with it. I’m going to write about pie crust and the things that sometimes go wrong. It will be more valuable to you than a rant.

There is an unattributed saying in the culinary world that goes: “Cooking is art; baking is science.”

In the simplest of terms, you can improvise pretty much all you want when you’re cooking almost anything. In fact, I encourage people to get creative and think of my recipes (or any recipe, for that matter) as suggestions, rather than something carved in stone.

On the other hand, when you’re baking, you must follow the directions. There’s a reason baking recipes are called formulas and that’s because so much depends on chemical reactions, interactions, gas production and the list goes on. In fact, professional bakers prefer to measure by weight rather than volume. These attributes of baking are what frequently keep the average person from trying this stuff at home.

Let’s leave the technicalities for a moment and talk about pie crusts, because in a previous column I wrote about my favorite lemon tart, and tart crusts and pie crusts are essentially one and the same. Lots can go wrong, but the most common flaws are easily fixable and they are these: toughness, shrinking, crumbling and cracking. The latter refers to custard type fillings.

So even though I’ve touted this as science, there is somewhat of an art to making pie dough. Let’s consider just this little bit about the science. There’s this thing called gluten that forms when flour combines with fat and/or liquid. The way gluten gets treated has everything to do with just about all of the things that can go wrong (or right) with pie crusts.

For instance, if your pie crust is too touch, it’s the result of either of two errors: too much liquid in the dough or you’ve overworked the dough. The most important element in this dough-making scheme is cold fat (I prefer butter). Most recipes also call for ice water, but the addition of ice water using spoons or cups is that sometimes you may add too much and you won’t know until it’s too late. By all means, use ice water, but add it in drops. I once saw TV Chef Alton Brown use a spray bottle to add the water and that illustrates the point beautifully. You really don’t need a lot of water. Just enough to help you bring the dough together in a mound. This is a trial and error “feel” thing. You’ll get it eventually. Bring it together, shape it into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at last a half hour. More on this later.

And this leads to problem No. 2: flakiness. Or rather lack of flakiness. The fat you use should be ice cold and should remain as cold as possible throughout the whole dough-making process. If you see that your fat is softening or melting, stop what you’re doing and put the whole kit and caboodle in the freezer for a few minutes. And when you roll out your dough you’ll also want the fat to be cold and for some pieces to be large enough so that it sits between layers of dough. Then, while it bakes in the oven, it will produce steam, which helps the layers of dough set and, when finished, attain that quality of flakiness we all seek.

Shrinking crusts occur because the gluten has been overworked. Gluten essentially is elastic and if you don’t let it rest, it will do what elastic does: go back to the shape it started out as. That’s why, after working with your dough, you need to gather it up and let it rest, wrapped, in the refrigerator. The longer it rests, the less elastic the gluten will be and the lower the chances are that your crust will shrink.

The crust that is too crumbly also relates to fat that is too soft and blended into the flour too much. You want your flour and fat combination to look like small pebbles. But make sure that some of the fat remains in larger pieces. Incorporating the fat into the flour too well makes it waterproof and inhibits the steam from doing its job.

The cracking I referred to earlier has more to do with custard type fillings that it does with crusts. Custard fillings generally go into blind-baked crusts, so your crust should be near the golden brown color you want. As soon as you see your custard set (it should jiggle when nudged slightly), pull it out of the oven. Overcooking causes custards to crack.

There you have the 4-1-1 on pie crust problem-solving. Follow these rules and your pie and tart crusts will be – well – crust.

And yet I have no doubt that my erstwhile crusty nemesis will have something to say about this column, too.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.