Foolproof gluten-free pie crust

Spinach feta pieMuch more than anything else gluten-free, I’ve really, really struggled with GF pastry. I’ve made it so hard, I’ve needed a steak knife to cut it. I’ve made it so crumbly, it totally disappeared into the pie. I’ve had such difficulty handling it, it has basically exploded when I tried to put it in a pie plate. But finally, I’ve developed a tender yet handle-able pastry that has not failed me, despite my well-proven ability to screw up pastry. It involves both the right recipe and the right technique. But pay attention to a few simple principles and you too can have delicious, tender, gluten-free pastry.

Tourtiere

Tourtiere – I started to cut into it before I remembered to take a picture!

I’ve tried many recipes for gluten-free pastry. Many types of flour mixes, different fats, various additions, many different proportions and techniques. However, the recipe I’ve settled on is beautifully simple, involving only three ingredients.

Foolproof gluten-free pastry

Makes four single or two double pie crusts

Ingredients

  • 500 grams self-raising gluten-free flour
  • 250 grams cold butter, cubed
  • 6 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon ice-cold water (amount may vary slightly; see below)

It can’t really be that simple, is it? Yes and no. Here are more details for the baking geeks and/or those having trouble.

Flour

I use Dove’s Farm self-raising gluten-free flour, commonly available here in the UK. When I lived in Canada, I didn’t use ready-made gluten-free flour mixes very much because I never found one I really liked. They tended to taste beany or gritty. Dove’s Farm, however, is perfectly lovely, with no “gluten-free” aftertaste. When I started trying to develop a good GF pastry recipe, I went through a number of homemade and store-bought flour mixes but have found this one to give the best results. Not even Dove’s Farm plain GF flour mix can compare. I know self-raising flour isn’t the done thing for pastry, but trust me: it makes a big difference in the flakiness level, and unlike wheat pastry, you don’t have to worry about GF pastry puffing up too much. Therefore, you don’t really need to worry about pricking it or weighting it if you’re blind-baking.

If you don’t have ready access to a good, pre-made GF flour blend, you will probably get reasonable results if you use flours that don’t have too strong a taste (save the buckwheat and bean flours for another use) and you use a mix containing 50 to 60 per cent protein flours. (For more on the protein-starch ratio of gluten-free flour blends, see point 3 of this WikiHow.)

Also, weigh your flour! Generally, I like to cook with cups. They’re handy and good enough for most purposes. For gluten-free pastry, however, weighing is absolutely necessary. That’s because all gluten-free flours don’t weigh the same. Try weighing a cup of tapioca starch and a cup of almond flour. You’ll get a dramatic difference. There will also be a big difference between a cup of well-settled flour versus a cup of the same type of sifted flour. I repeat: weigh it.

Don’t be tempted to add stuff to your flour. Xanthan gum is great in most GF recipes. Not here. You don’t want something that will make your pastry stickier because although that may make it handle better, it will also make your pastry hard. This is even more true of psyllium husk (experimenting with that resulted in my worst pastry fail ever). Adding fibrous or chunky things like flaxseed to your flour will make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to handle a pastry that is by nature very fragile. I repeat: don’t mess with the flour.

Butter

Sorry, vegans, but it’s true: butter tastes better. There’s also a big difference in the firmness and moisture levels when you use margarine or vegetable shortening. I often substitute Trex vegetable fat for butter in other, more forgiving types of baking, but find I have to slightly compensate for the softer and moister fat. With something as finicky as gluten-free pastry, where a teaspoon of water can make the difference between success and failure, cavalier substitutions aren’t going to work.

Salted or unsalted doesn’t seem to matter (well, except to the taste, obviously) but COLD does. What I do is take refrigerated butter and cut it into small cubes. I spread it out a bit on the paper the butter was wrapped it, put it on a plate, and pop it into the freezer for a short time (about 30 minutes). You don’t want it frozen but you do want it very cold. Warm butter and water will result in greasy and hard pastry.

Water

Like with the butter, you want your water ice-cold, and likewise, I pop a small bowl in the freezer for about 30 minutes before using. When it’s time to add the water, I add first three tablespoons, then I add one tablespoon at a time while blending with my pastry blender (see below). When I feel I’m getting close to the right consistency, I switch to one teaspoon at a time. The quantity of water you use is probably the single most important factor in your gluten-free pastry. Too little and you will have exploding crumbs. Too much and you will have pastry you need to saw.

On with the recipe! You will need:

  • Kitchen scalesPastry blender
  • Large bowl
  • Pastry blender – by which I mean a hand-held tool like the one pictured here
  • PVC-free cling film
  • Non-stick baking paper/parchment paper
  • Rolling pin
  • Spatula
  • Thin chopping board (recommended though not strictly required)

Procedure

  1. Put the flour, chopped cold butter, and 3 tablespoons ice-cold water into the large bowl. Use the pastry blender to cut/mix it together. Do not use your hands to rub the butter into the flour because then you will get the pastry dough too warm and it will turn out hard and greasy. Do not use a food processor, because not only will you create excess stuff to clean up, it will be much harder to judge exactly when you have just the right consistency/right amount of water. Do not use two knives because it will take forever!
  2. Pastry doughAt the three-tablespoon level, your dough will probably still be too crumbly to work. Carefully add in more ice-cold water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough just starts to stick together into pea-sized balls. At that point, you’re very close, so switch to teaspoons. Add in just a tiny amount more water until you start to be able to cut the dough with the pastry blender and the part pushed through the blades comes out in larger rectangles that break when they fall over.
  3. Push together the resulting dough (it doesn’t have to be a ball at this point; just a firm mass in the bottom of the bowl) and use a knife to divide in four.
  4. Cut four large sheets of cling film. Use a spatula to scoop the four parts of the dough into the middle of each sheet. Using the cling film, shape into four balls. Weigh each ball to make sure they’re all close to the same size (unless you want different quantities of pastry for different purposes, of course).
  5. Refrigerate all balls but one. Alternatively, refrigerate all the balls and come back to this recipe later. Another alternative is to put some or all the balls, still wrapped in cling film, into a freezer bag for use later. If you do this, be sure to thoroughly defrost the dough overnight in the refrigerator (not in the microwave) before attempting to use.
  6. Disc of dough, slightly flattnened

    Just barely flattened

    Take the ball you’re going to work with, still completely wrapped in cling film, and flatten it little by little, at first using your hand, then using the rolling pin with a light touch, until you come to the point where the cling film is starting to no longer meet in the middle and/or the cling film is being stretched to the point where you start to fear it might break.

    Pastry dough-flatter

    Dough straining against cling film just before partially unwrapping

  7. We come now to my big innovation: for rolling out, use one sheet of non-stick baking paper on the bottom and one sheet of non-PVC cling film on top. Partially unwrap your disc of dough and put it on the baking paper. This is because using cling film alone to roll out your dough is likely to result in bubbles of cling film bursting in places, taking dough with it, and/or in cling film getting bunched up in places, resulting in small cuts in your dough. Using two sheets of baking paper is even worse – the dough will stick in places, making breakage more likely, and the edges will come out much more ragged. You need baking paper on the bottom for a nice, non-wrinkling rolling surface and you need cling film on top to help keep the pastry together. Trust me. Use both. If the edges start to break, use the cling film to push it back together.

    Rolling pastry dough

    Rolling out pastry, sandwiched between cling film and non-stick baking paper

  8. My next innovation is to use both the baking paper and the cling film to get the pastry into the pie plate. Before I figured this out I was always trying to slide the pastry sideways onto the pie plate and I almost always got significant breakage, unless I’d used so much water in the pastry it was going to come out rock-hard. Now, however, I have perfected The Double Flip, which goes as follows: Once you’ve rolled out the pastry, flip it over, still sandwiched between the parchment paper and the cling film, so that the parchment paper is on top. Carefully peel off the parchment paper.

    At this point it is optional to slide the pastry, cling film side down, onto a thin chopping board. This will make the next steps easier, though you can manage without.

    Next, put your pie plate upside Pie plate on top of doughdown on top of the pastry. Carefully flip the pie plate over again so the pastry ends up sitting on top of the pie plate. If you’re using the chopping board, hold the chopping board and the pie plate together as you flip, then remove the chopping board.If you have made your pastry right it shouldn’t immediately collapse in pieces into the pie plate. Rather, it should gently slump, with the cling film to hold it together.

  9. Shaping dough into pie plateNow you can use your hands to shape the pastry to the pie plate. It’s easy because it’s still attached to the cling film. At this stage, you can if you like refrigerate the pastry and not bake it until the next day. The cling film will keep it from drying out in the fridge. Otherwise, carefully peel off the cling film and optionally scallop the edges. Voila. Your pie crust is ready to bake. Alternatively, you can freeze it like this, with the cling film still on top and the whole thing in a large freezer bag.
  10. Bake as per your normal recipe. Enjoy your perfect gluten-free pie crust!
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