Published December 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
Many store-bought pie crust options are grim: dense and doughy or greasy and cracker-crisp. Could we find a crust that’s closer to homemade?
Hands down, homemade pie crust is worth the effort, but we don’t always have the time. Enter premade crust—it may not be Grandma’s, but it’s fast and easy. When we last tasted commercially made crusts, we could recommend only one product, and with reservations at that. Since then, more have entered the market. Could we find one that is convenient and delicious?
We put eight products to the test, choosing a mix of frozen and refrigerated doughs, including three sold in sheets and five ready in aluminum pie plates (we discounted box mixes; if we have to bring out the mixing bowl, we’ll just make it ourselves). All the packages make two single-crust pies or one double-crust pie. We ate the shells baked plain, in single-crust pumpkin pies, and in double-crust apple pies, evaluating them on flavor, texture, capacity, and handling. Our benchmark was homemade crust: buttery, tender, and flaky.
A premade crust should be easy to use—after all, convenience is the point. That’s the appeal of crusts sold in throwaway pie plates: Just fill and bake. Unfortunately, they were too small for our pumpkin pie recipe; one-third of the filling didn’t fit. A standard pie plate is 9 inches in diameter. These pans claim to be the same, but when we measured them, they were 8½ to 8¾ inches—a significant disadvantage.
Another drawback? How could we make double-crust pies from crusts already shaped to fit pie plates? The instructions recommend flipping a second preshaped shell on top of a filled bottom crust. For every brand but one, sealing the already-molded edges was awkward. Worse, the top crusts were too small to stretch over the filling and seal with bottom crusts. In addition, because heat penetrates faster through flimsy aluminum pans, the crusts burned in spots; standard recipe baking times were inaccurate. To solve some of these problems, we attempted to transfer the dough from the aluminum pie plates they came in to our favorite Pyrex pie plate. They were too small to fit. We tried to roll them out more, but the dough was finicky and difficult to enlarge. For all of these reasons, we don’t recommend pan-style crusts for double-crust pies, and even for single-crust pies we can recommend them only with reservations.
How did the other styles of premade crust handle? Two of the roll (or tinless) crusts were refrigerated; one was frozen. The refrigerated versions unrolled effortlessly, without tearing, and were easy to shape, forming perfect flutes and producing windowsill-worthy pies. The frozen roll must be defrosted for 3 hours (it can then be refrigerated for up to three days), and it sometimes took a little coaxing to unroll without tearing.
Convenience, of course, isn’t the only factor. Taste and texture are also decisive. Manufacturers use different types of fat in premade crusts: shortening, margarine, lard, palm or canola oil, or a combination. Each fat has a different melting point and crystalline structure, which affect the taste and texture of the crust. A product using all shortening had a “delightfully light and flaky” crust but also, no surprise, the bland, fatty taste of shortening. Two products blended shortening and margarine to glean the flaky benefits of the former with the wannabe butter flavor of the latter; unfortunately, these were dense and tasted “processed.” Two used lard, which has a neutral taste and makes for very flaky crust; alas, one added too much sugar, the other too much salt. The two crusts we preferred used palm oil for a tender, flaky texture; they were neither too savory nor too sweet, and they didn’t taste artificial.
In the end, we concluded that options have definitely improved. We found one product we could recommend and six we could recommend with reservations. Our two top picks were from the same company. We preferred the taste and texture of our runner-up, but the product suffered from all the pan-style disadvantages described earlier. We can recommend it for single crust pies only and with a major reservation: You will likely throw away some filling.
Our winner costs more than the pan version because the production process is less mechanized—our winning dough is “tender” and “subtly sweet,” and it holds an entire batch of filling. Plus, we could use our own pie plate and depend on recipe baking times.