My fellow Americans, I know we know a lot about pie. We take pride in being as American as the apple pies we bake for any and every occasion. We’ve got pie traditions galore at our favorite holidays. And here at Food52, we even dedicate a week in the fall to the flaky dessert. (Plus, who are we kidding? Many, many other days throughout the year. Pie is just the greatest). But, across the pond, they make just as many pies, often utilizing a crust we’ve been slow to adopt stateside: the elusive hot water crust.
There’s a reason the Brits love hot water crust. This dough has so many checks in its “pro” column. It’s a serious wonder why it’s taken us so long to jump on the bandwagon. How water crust is crazy crispy, but still manages to have great flavor. But most of all, it’s super sturdy. This crust does for pies what gingerbread does for holiday houses: It stays put, and holds up incredibly well. That means you can go deep dish without fear, and fill it to the brim with anything—even heavy and/or wet fillings without worry!
But the hot water crust game is a totally different one from other pie crust strategies.
- Why hot water crust?
- Mixing + kneading
- Handling the dough
- Top crust + venting
- The Recipe
Why hot water crust?
There are so many differences between hot water crust and traditional pie dough, but the main areas to note are texture, structure, and flavor. When it comes to texture, pie dough as we most often think of it is flaky, crisp, and tender. Hot water crust is most certainly crisp—even more so than traditional pie dough. But its texture is more crumbly than flaky and while it isn’t (and shouldn’t be!) tough, it lacks the tenderness of pie dough. But this lack of tenderness has its benefits—namely, it aids in the structure of the baked dough. Traditional pie dough is so tender, it can’t usually stand on its own. Which is why we not only bake it inside pie plates to allow it to encase the filling, but serve it that way, too! Pies made with hot water crust, on the other hand, are meant to be unmolded. It’s quite dramatic and yields some very impressive pies.
Another difference: Traditional pie dough is made by rubbing the fat into the flour and, for the best chance of flakiness, the fat has to be left in large pieces inside the dough. This is delicious, but leads to some natural inconsistencies. The fat in hot water crust is melted and therefore very uniformly combined. This means the dough, as a whole, is significantly more uniform—and this is true of the finished baked pie as well. While that uniformity means saying goodbye to flakiness, there are advantages. That increased structure allows you much more wiggle room when it comes to fillings (like I mentioned before, hot water crust can hold very heavy and/or wet fillings better than traditional pie dough). And on the flavor front: Traditional pie dough is usually buttery and light, while hot water crust tends to have slightly less flavor because not all recipes use butter and, when they do, it’s in a smaller amount and alongside another fat. But since hot water crust pies allow for so much creativity and flexibility with the filling, I think it’s an understandable trade off. Make a flavorful filling and use the crust for what it is: a crispy, golden vessel.
The first thing you should know is the actual ingredients in a hot water crust are largely the same as the ingredients in American-style pie dough. However, since said ingredients are at totally different temperatures and in largely different ratios, it results in a totally different product. Hot water crust is made up of flour, salt, fat, and water. Unlike my favorite all-butter pie dough, the recipe for hot water crust usually calls for a mixture of all-purpose and bread flour. The bread flour is generally used in a smaller amount, but its higher protein content allows for stronger gluten development, which helps when it comes time to roll the crust out. The higher amount of all-purpose flour provides the base structure and helps to ensure the crust doesn’t get overly tough with all of the handling that occurs during mixing. Just like flaky pie dough, hot water crust can use any number of fats, but lard is the top choice because of its higher melting point, which ensures that the crust gets crisp. It should be noted the ratio of fat in hot water crust is a bit higher than in traditional pie dough, and with that larger ratio comes a little wiggle room. I like to use half butter and half lard—giving me the benefits of the higher melting point with the addition of plenty of flavor thanks to the butter. You can also opt for shortening (either in lieu of the lard and/or butter). Finally, the namesake of this crust: the hot water. The hot water is crucial for achieving the proper texture and structure in the dough. Read on for more details.
Mixing + kneading.
If you’ve read any of my past pie articles, you’ll know I’m constantly shouting from the rooftops about everything being cold, cold, cold. But, not surprisingly, hot water crust is the opposite. The water (and fat!) are hot, and the crust is not only mixed up with warm ingredients, but needs to be used while it is still retaining heat, as that’s when it’s most pliable. Why does this work? Using hot water and melted fat allows for a higher ratio of liquid to be used, which results in a crispier crust. Hot liquid hydrates the flour faster during mixing, and results in a smooth, pliable dough. Once the dough hits the oven, the moisture evaporates, and the crust gets crispity crisp. Using melted fat means the fat is distributed more evenly, ensuring the crust will not only be smooth and uniform, but will brown evenly during baking.
The first thing you need to remember about making hot water crust is you have to use it while it’s hot. This means before you make your crust, you should have your pan and your filling ready to go. To mix the hot water crust, mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. It’s smart to use one that’s heat safe (metal or heat-treated glass) because you will be adding very hot liquid to it. Have your tool of choice ready: I like to start with a fork, then switch to a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. You’ll also be kneading it quite a bit with your hands – so if you’re sensitive to heat, you may want to have a pair of disposable gloves at the ready. Start by heating the water—you want to bring it to a boil, but you also don’t want it to boil for a long time (you’ll mess with the ratio if too much evaporates). Bring the water to a simmer and have your fat(s) ready and waiting, When the water comes to a boil, add the fat to the pot and stir until it’s melted.* The liquid should still be very hot. If it isn’t, turn the heat back on and bring to a gentle simmer—again, not for too long, just enough to make sure it’s good and hot.
Pour the hot liquid and fat into the flour mixture and mix until the mixture is combined. It will look quite shaggy and not totally uniform. Once it’s combined, it’s time to knead. Kneading is crucial to achieving a smooth dough and build additional gluten to help give the crust more strength. Avoid adding too much additional flour during kneading. If you must, use a light dusting on the surface and your hands, but know added flour will alter the ratio and also will lower the temperature of the dough. The length of time it takes to knead the dough may vary, but don’t overdo it. You want the dough to appear smooth, but still have heat. If you mix too long, the dough will begin to cool down, and it will become harder to handle when you go to roll it out.
*Note: Some recipes for hot water crust also incorporate the fat by rubbing it, or a portion of it, into the flour just as you would traditional pie crust. I found that melting it is not only easier, but produces a more uniform crust. So don’t panic if your favorite recipe has different instructions. Different crust strokes for different pie folks.
Handling the dough.
Handling hot water crust is the most difficult part about the whole process, but it’s still beyond doable, especially when you know your way around. The whole process gets easier the more times you do it. I am certainly not trying to scare anyone off with this warning. Instead, I just want to arm you with the knowledge that YOU CAN DO IT (!!!)—and should disaster occur, there are built in opportunities to rectify mistakes. Hot water crust should be very pliable, but it also has a tendency to rip or tear. Remember what I said earlier about adding too much excess flour during kneading? That can definitely still be a problem at this stage—even more so because as the crust gets thinner, additional flour will bring down the temperature faster. You could end up with a dry-ish dough that’s no longer easily pliable. No good!
Because of this, I found that the easiest way to roll out the dough is between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper. This helps prevent the dough from sticking to the surface without needing to add too much extra flour. Remember to peel away the paper/plastic occasionally. This helps the dough relax a bit so it can be rolled out further. The same goes for flipping the dough over (meaning making the bottom piece of paper/plastic now be the top—peel it away, then keep going). Roll the dough out to about 1/4 inch thickness. You don’t want to go super thin with hot water crust, so stay away from 1/8 inch. You want that thicker structure.
As you roll, if you struggle with tears or holes, simply patch them with some scrap dough before continuing. This is much easier to do with hot water crust than it is with traditional pie dough, so don’t fret if you face this dilemma! Once you’ve reached the correct thickness, you can shape the dough as desired. For small pies or other freeform shapes, just cut the shape you want out of the dough with a cutter or paring knife. If you’re lining a pie plate, use the plastic/parchment you rolled on to help you transport. Peel the top piece away from the dough, then use the bottom piece to help you flip it into the pie plate. The deeper the pie plate, the more likely you are to have rips or create holes. Still, don’t worry! Just patch these up and do your best to make sure any added dough is sealed very well. Remember to work quickly—the dough will be cooling down every moment you work with it. But, also, don’t feel like you have to rush! It should retain the heat well enough to complete this process comfortably.
*Other note: Hot water crust can actually be used like a press-in crust as well, though it is harder to get it to appear as nice and smooth this way. But if you struggle to roll it out, you can always opt for this—it works very well if you take the care to make sure it’s even.
Filling the dough is the easiest part. Just take care to make sure there are no holes in your crust. This causes leakage, creates burnt spots, and destroys the structural integrity, making it harder to unmold the pie eventually. Because your crust itself is hot, you don’t even need to worry about cooling cooked fillings before you add them to the crust. That being said, if you make a hot filling, it will cool a bit while you prepare the crust, and that way you aren’t adding a piping hot, fresh-from-the-stove filling to the crust.
Top crust + venting.
If you’re making a double crust pie, you’ll want to handle the dough exactly the same as you did with the base. It should be noted if you’re making a deep dish pie, you’ll need much more dough to cover the base than you will to cover the top, so divide the dough into one section that’s 2/3 of the dough for the base and another that’s 1/3 for the top. Use your parchment or plastic to help you place the crust again. It’s best to handle as carefully as possible, because it’s understandably more difficult to patch mistakes on the top crust than it is on the sides. Once the top crust is on, use your fingers to pinch the edge of the top crust to the side crust as best you can. This helps them form a seal. You can do traditional crimping very easily with hot water crust, and it is much more likely to hold its shape during baking than flaky pie dough. Crimp your edges as desired—this will help guarantee the crusts are sealed together and the filling won’t escape.
When it comes to venting, it’s traditional to poke holes in a hot water crust instead of cutting slits with a knife. To poke a hole, use the rounded handle of a wooden spoon and press straight downward into the crust until you hit filling. This larger vent ensures plenty of steam can escape and also helps keep the shape of the top—the filling is unlikely to leak out, so the crust will stay flat.
Baking hot water crust pies is similar to baking other pies, with a few noteable exceptions. Generally speaking, the oven temperature can be more moderate. You don’t need the intense heat to evaporate moisture in the fat quickly to create flakiness. Instead, you want the pie to brown gradually, and it will continue to crisp up the longer it’s in the oven. My preferred temperature for most hot water crust pies is 375°F. Egg washing is optional, but does help to ensure even browning on the surface of the pie – plus a lovely sheen. Bake until the pie is very golden. Underbaked pies will lack crispness. And, honestly, who wants that?
Recipe for Hot Water Crust
- 2 1/2 cups (10.62 oz) all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup (2.12 oz) bread flour
- 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) salt
- 1/3 cup (2.66 fl oz) water
- 1/2 cup (4.00 oz) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup (4.00 oz) lard (or shortening, if you must)
- Have your filling ready to go. In a large bowl, whisk the all purpose flour, the bread flour, and the salt to combine.
- In a medium pot, bring the water to a boil over medium heat. Add the butter and lard and stir until melted. The mixture should be hot—if needed, bring it back to a simmer briefly.
- Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and pour the hot liquid into it. I usually start mixing it with a fork—but a silicone spatula or wooden spoon works too. Mix until the mixture forms a shaggy mass: It should form a ball but not look smooth.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it on a clean, smooth surface until it’s smooth, 2-3 minutes. You have to work with the dough while it’s still warm—divide the dough as needed for your recipe.
- You can roll the dough out (between two sheets of parchment paper is best and helps prevent sticking, ripping, and tearing). You can also press the dough into a pan. For deep dish pies, I tend to opt for a combination—rolling the dough out, then patching the holes as needed—just be sure to patch well! You want smooth sides and no chance for leakage.