Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gluten Free Pie Crust, Demystified

Gluten free baking is a hodgepodge of variations. Some things can be made fairly easily without gluten, while others rely so heavily on gluten for structure that adaptation is quite tricky. Luckily for pie lovers, the flakiness of pie crust makes adaptation relatively easy. I do not often make pies but there are times when pies become necessary, and buying 32 lbs. of strawberries is one of those times.

The basic pie crust method is pretty straightforward - cut fat into flour and add liquid to hold it together - but every baker seems to have his opinion on the best way to do it. I felt like a pastry ninja when I first made pie crust. Pie recipes are frequently really just pie filling recipes plus a line about using a pre-made crust, leaving my gluten free self at a loss. Can you even buy gluten free pie crusts? I guess you probably can in some places now, but let's be honest and point out that gluten free baked goods from the grocery store are typically expensive and taste mediocre. If you have not found an exception, or if you want to save still more money and gain still more flavor, then it is time to do it yourself.

I prefer using all butter for the fat, but only because I do not have any good lard, in which case I would use half lard, half butter. Cold-pressed, refined palm oil is also nice; the Spectrum brand is available in many grocery stores. Just please never use artificial shortening! Did you ever wonder why we invented Crisco last century? As a lard imitation! It is dirt cheap because it is made out of industrial waste oils like cottonseed and soybean oils. Please do not be duped by newer versions "free of trans fats". Fully hydrogenated oils are much less bad than partially hydrogenated, but at a serving size of 1 T. they can still contain about 4% incompletely hydrogenated oils without listing it on the label. Icky, especially when you consider that trans fats are not just bad for you in excess but simply bad in any quantity. Interesterified fats are another alternative to trans fats but no long-term studies have been done yet on their safety, to my knowledge, and apparently some preliminary results suggest they may be no better than trans fats. Perhaps this is in part because oils must still be put through processing that strips away nutrients and subjects highly reactive polyunsaturated fats to high temperatures. Just don't eat fake fats, mmkay? We keep discovering more bad things about them. Our bodies are not adapted to eating them, period, so why be a guinea pig and gamble with your family's health?

Eat fats that taste good and we know are healthy, meaning grass-fed butter, pastured lard, virgin or refined coconut oil, palm shortening, and perhaps grass-fed tallow (though that can have a strong flavor that would not work for many kinds of pie fillings). Yes, cold-pressed and unadulterated olive oil is good for you too, but it would not make good pie. Even cheapo store brand butter is completely fine to use if you cannot find grass-fed.

Basic Gluten Free Pie Crust
1/4 cup sweet rice flour aka glutinous rice flour or short-grain rice flour
1/2 cup coconut flour, quinoa flour, almond flour, or another tasty flour (or a combination)
3/4 cup white rice flour
1/4 t. salt
1 T. sugar (omit for savory pies)
10 T. frozen butter
1 egg
1/4 cup ice-cold water


Gently whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl until free of any lumps and uniform in color.

Grate frozen butter or cut into 40 or so pieces; a food processor is ideal for this. If you do it by hand, just be sure to re-chill if the butter gets soft and make sure it is very cold before proceeding.

Beat egg and cold water together in a small bowl.

If using a food processor: Add flour mixture and pulse several times to combine with butter. Add eggy water and pulse several more times to get a lump of dough, as shown here. Do not overmix! There should be pea-sized chunks of butter in the dough. Fat chunks that melt during baking is what makes the crust flaky. Dump everything back into the mixing bowl to press it all together.

If making by hand: Cut butter and flour together with a fork, pastry cutter, or by hand until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs and the biggest butter chunks are pea-sized. You may have to let the butter warm up a touch to be pliable; refrigerator rather than freezer temperature. Again, do not overmix or break the butter down too small. Re-chill if the butter gets soft enough that your fork smushes it instead of cutting it. Add eggy water and gently mix until just combined.

In either case, if the dough is definitely too dry, add 1 t. of water at a time until it just holds together, and if the dough is definitely too wet and sticky, add 1 t. of white rice flour until just barely not sticky. The picture you see above was just right without any additions once I pressed it all together.

At this point, you can wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until you want to use it. I am a big fan of making large batches so you need not do the same work so frequently. The dough does have to thaw gently on the counter for a while to be workable again before you roll it out.

Roll out dough between pieces of parchment paper until thin and at least 1" around bigger than your pie pan. Uncover one side, place pie pan facedown over the dough, and turn together to get the delicate dough into the pan. Gently press in place; if you get cracks, just press things together. There's no gluten so you can't overwork the dough :-). For a pre-baked crust, prick the bottom several times with a fork and bake at 350°F for 15-20 minutes until lightly browned.

I made strawberry sour cream pie filling, substituting white rice flour for the wheat flour.

Nibble off bits of crust? Who, us?
Variations: try adding spices to complement your fillings, such as 1 t. cinnamon and a shake of ground cloves for a pumpkin pie crust or nutmeg and Italian herbs for a quiche crust.

Do you have any more tips for pie crust? What kinds of pie do you enjoy most?

This post is part of Real Food Wednesdays.

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