Monday, December 12, 2011

Astoria Test Kitchen: Pie Crust

It's happened to us all: you're standing in the grocery, pouring over your list of ingredients that are about to become a pie and getting really excited about the deliciousness that is about to happen. You are cool, confident, and certain about every culinary choice you're making, sure your future pie will be spoken of for years to come. But then, as you're checking your list one last time, you have a sudden, nagging fear: I'm about to buy a pre-made crust. Will anyone notice? WILL ANYONE CARE???

This worry has plagued me one too many times, and yesterday I decided to end to my troubles by taking a very scientific approach to the Pie Crust Debacle - when directly compared to one another, which of the three types of pie crust (scratch, box, frozen/refrigerated) is the best?

The makings of three different pie crusts

The Method
1.) Prepare the three crusts at the same time under the same conditions (room temperature, humidity level, etc.) according to their individual directions (i.e, follow the rules on the back of the box)
2.) Fill each of the pies with the exact same filling
  2a.) Use the exact same pie plate for all three pies
3.) Bake all at once, at the same temperature, on the same oven rack level
4.) Taste and rate each pie across five criteria: Taste, Texture, Color, Prep Time, & Price

The Crusts
A.) Scratch (Homemade)
     For this recipe I called upon a friend who, for many years now, has been assigned the task of making all the pies for his family's Thanksgiving. Since I know his family to be ones with very critical taste buds, I decided that this was reason enough to use his Great Gramma Chrissy's Pie Crust Recipe (that, and any recipe named after someone's great gramma is good enough for me). I also wanted to use a recipe that was as personal and varied as any special pie crust recipe, because that is the very nature of a scratch pie crust - whether it's passed down from older generations or it's one that is made up on the spot, no two homemade anythings are the same.
    For this particular experiment, this is the recipe we followed:
1 cup flour
1/3 cup Crisco shortening
Dash salt
- Combine ingredients, add very cold water and stir the mixture until it is of a tacky, play-dough consistency. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

Mixing the scratch crust

B.) Crust from a Box
     The middle ground of pie crusts is one that comes in a box - all the dry ingredients are already mixed together, you just have to add ice water (3 or 4 tablespoons, according to the box's directions) until you achieve your desired consistency. For this experiment, I used Jiffy Pie Crust Mix, which has been a baking-section staple in American grocery stores since the 1940's.

C.) Pre-made, Frozen/Refrigerated Crust
     At the other end of the pie crust spectrum lies the entirely pre-made crust. Sometimes it's frozen, sometimes it's refrigerated, but it's goal is for you to simply unwrap, add the filling, and bake. For this experiment, I used Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crust (you'll see in the picture above that I show the frozen Pillsbury crust - I started with that one, but it completely fell apart when I tried to take it out of it's original pie tin and transfer to another pie plate. I had to run out and get the refrigerated crust, not the frozen one. Whoops!)

The Filling
It was my goal to keep constant as many factors as possible, using the different crusts as the only variable (this is where I pay homage to my middle school science teacher who taught us the importance of constants and variables and such during those never-ending science fairs. Thank you, Ms. Kreiling...oh, and I'm sorry for super-gluing your chalk to the chalkboard ledge. It was all Terri's idea.) Therefore, I made one giant batch of apple filling to evenly distribute amongst all three pies - chopped Granny Smith apples, dashes of flour, cinnamon and nutmeg to season. I didn't add too much spice (actually, I could have added much more) since I wanted to ensure that nothing would mar the ability to taste the crusts - this was an exercise in pie crusts, not making a fantastic apple pie.

Apple filling

The Process
I first made the scratch crust, following the directions I outlined above, and put the dough in the refrigerator. Next I prepared the apples, and the Jiffy crust after that. Nothing on the Jiffy box instructed me to refrigerate that crust, so it remained in the bowl while I dealt with the aforementioned Pillsbury crust issue (running out to buy a new crust only took about 15 minutes, one of the perks of living in New York is finding a full grocery store every seven blocks). Once I had the right refrigerated pie crust, I was ready to make the pies. I used identical 5-inch ceramic pie plates (purchased at my most favorite of all kitchen stores, Fishs Eddy), opting for smaller pies so that I wouldn't end up with an obscene amount of food (three small pies was already two too many for my two-person apartment).

Jiffy crust

A - Scratch  B - Jiffy  C - Pillsbury

The Judging Rubric
I employed three fellow pie lovers to act as my fellow judges (it's amazing how agreeable people are when I ask them to help me eat pie. But ask them to help me put together the Ikea furniture...). We couldn't do a blind taste test like I had originally wanted (my friends arrived during the beginning of the baking process to "advise" and "comment"), but we nonetheless ate and graded a slice of each pie on a 5-point scale (1 = low, 5 = high) across three criteria - Taste (too overpowering? nonexistent?) Texture (too doughy? not flaky enough?) Color (golden brown, please). We also rated Prep Time and noted the monetary cost of each crust, but did not factor the last two into the final score.

The finished pies!

The Results (average scores)
A.) Scratch Crust
    Taste - 3.9
    Texture - 4.5
    Color - 4.5
    Prep Time - 2.3
    Cost - $2 (1 stick of Crisco is about $1, the rest of the ingredients you probably have in your cabinet already, but they'll cost you another $1 or so)
    TOTAL - 4.3

B.) Jiffy (box) Crust
    Taste - 1.5
    Texture - 1.3
    Color - 1.5
    Prep Time - 3
    Cost - $2/box
        **It should be noted that one box barely made enough for a 5-inch top and bottom crust; any regular sized pie would require two boxes
    TOTAL - 1.4

C.) Pillbsury (refrigerated) Crust
     Taste - 3.8
     Texture - 3.8
     Color - 3.8
     Prep Time - 5
     Cost - $4.50
     TOTAL - 3.8

Scoring sheets

Jiffy boxed crust was the clear loser. It was unanimously decided that it was doughy in taste and had a texture closer to French bread than pie crust. It was lighter in color than the other two pies and looked almost like an over-processed bakery pie rather than a homemade creation. It was completely wrong for a lighter, sweeter apple pie, but might be alright for a pot pie or breakfast pie (it had such a strong Bisquick taste that I was reminded of the pancakes of my youth). It also wasn't a time-saver when compared to the scratch crust, since it does require some preparation on the cook's part (mixing, rolling, etc.) The only redeeming quality was the the apples on the inside remained perfect wedges and looked like a beautifully stuffed pie. Regardless, I had never used a Jiffy crust before and I'm not likely to use one again.

Apple pie with Jiffy crust

The pie made with the Pillsbury crust came in as a close second. It was thicker than the other two crusts due to the lack of rolling, and had a very flaky consistency and very buttery taste, almost more like a layered biscuit (not surprising, it is Pillsbury brand after all); one of the judges suggested this would make a great baklava. Personally, this was the crust I most preferred and would have declared the winner, but my preferences were outnumbered by the other three judges who felt the crust's taste overpowered that of the apples. While this was the easiest crust to prepare by far, it was also the most expensive at more than double the cost of the other two crusts. However, no one was turned off by this crust as they were the previous Jiffy crust.

Apple pie with Pillsbury crust

The winner of Astoria Test Kitchen: Pie Crust was Great Gramma Chrissy's Homemade Pie Crust. Personally, I found this crust to be a little too light and subtle for my taste, but after expressing this to my fellow judges I quickly learned that I was in the minority. It didn't have an overwhelming buttery or doughy taste - in fact it barely had a taste at all, allowing us to fully taste the fruit filling.  It looked like the perfect pie on the outside - golden brown and not sunken in like the Pillsbury crust. The apples on the inside though were the mushiest of all, the filling looked more like apple sauce than the wedges of the Jiffy crust, but no one seemed to mind the unsightly insides.

Apple pie with Scratch crust

Did we put the pies on Olympic pedestals? Yes. Yes we did.

Bottom line: if you already have a favorite scratch pie crust recipe, then no pre-made crust, no matter how good, cheap, or convenient can replace that. However, if you're in a pinch then there is no shame, culinary or otherwise, in grabbing a frozen or refrigerated pre-made pie crust - your guests might, but if they do they won't be disappointed.

I had a lot of help with this project! Many thanks to Andrew, Caskey and Amanda!


  1. That's it Mare, you're coming back down to Philly. I'm going to make you an Apple Pie with a butter crust. Real, honest to goodness, butter cut into flour, pie crust. January sometime maybe, okay? Put it on your calendar. There will be no "close seconds" in this race.

    BTW, I hate to admit it, but I may have let out a little, "Yes!" when I saw that this post was up.

  2. I knew that darned Terri was a bad influence.

  3. I think you short-changed the jiffy box crust ... ;)