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Seward Bakery Spills Its Pie-Crust Secrets

If you’re going to make homemade pie from scratch for the holidays, the crust is going to make or break you. You could have the sweetest blueberries, the reddest cherries frozen from last summer, or the very best baking apples from Hoch Orchard, but if you don’t have a touch with the crust, you could end up with fruit goo trapped in a wad of chewy dough.

With that as a possibility, well, you might as well buy a pie from the co-op’s bakery, right?

But if you want to master the delicate art of making yummy crusts, learning from a pro is essential, and we happen to have one on hand for you: Mary Vorndran, Bakery Supervisor at Seward Co-op. If you’ve ever purchased Seward Co-op pies and appreciate the tender, perfect crusts, then keep this article handy for the pie-baking holidays and winter months to come. It’s a treasure trove of great tips and information from, dare we say, our “Queen of Pies.”

I want to make crust that’s as good as Seward Co-op’s. How do I do it, Mary?

First of all, you have to make it in 50-pound batches and build up some massive shoulder strength…

No really, it just takes some practice! Key things to do are to start with good basic ingredients and then just go to town.

When making pie dough at home, I weigh out my dry ingredients in a bowl and then cut cold butter into small squares. I use my hands or a fork to cut the butter into the flour. You want to get the butter pieces to about the size of a pea; it’s OK to have some chunks as this is what will make your crusts nice and flaky. Then dump all the water in at once and mix it together quickly, yet thoroughly. I portion it out and do a quick knead to finish incorporating and to distribute the butter evenly, forming the dough into a round, hockey puck shape. From here, I let the dough chill and rest for a bit.

Roll it out for your pie or freeze for use at a later date.

Do I need lard or any other special ingredients to make a good crust? Why do some people swear by lard and some swear by butter?

People swear by their personal preferences. If it works for you and you like it, keep doing it. The only way to find out what works for you is experience, so make lots of pie and make it often.

Leaf lard makes very crispy and flaky pie crusts, which is why some people like to use it, but it can leave something to be desired in flavor. Personally, I’m not a fan of using lard for dessert pies, but it’s great for savory items like pasties, pot pies, or galettes. Our own Seward Co-op Meat & Seafood department has plenty of leaf lard available, along with other fat varieties like duck fat and heritage breed Red Wattle pork fat.

We use all butter for our pies in Seward Co-op Bakery, specifically from our friends at Hope Creamery. While we try not to swear here, I guess you could say that’s what we swear by, as it gives our pies that nice, golden buttery flake.

Why do pie crusts fail if I follow the recipe perfectly? What should I look out for? Why did my crust get all chewy and dense?

Like most things in baking, it’s not the recipe—it’s more about technique and experience. I hate to say “failure,” because chances are it’ll still be good enough for someone to eat. But if it’s not up to your standards, try again. You’re only out some flour, butter and time.

Pie crusts get chewy and dense when the pie dough is over-worked. You can try to not knead the dough as much next time or add a dash of vinegar when you mix in the water. It won’t affect the flavor at all, but the acid will break down the gluten strands, making the dough tenderer in the end.

Another trick is to make sure everything is very cold. You can stick your bowl and utensils in the freezer for a bit to help avoid the butter from melting.

And use cold water, too—throw an ice cube in there for reassurance if you like.

Are there vegan options for awesome crust?

Of course! A lot of pie crust in our parents’ generation were actually vegan and made with shortening. We use Spectrum palm shortening in Seward Co-op Bakery’s vegan pie dough, which is a more sustainable option and doesn’t give you that weird mouth-coating like other hydrogenated oils can.

What’s your favorite pie to eat and to make?

Oh man, that’s tough. I simply am a pie lover. I have never met a pie I didn’t like. For some reason, pies that are in season just taste better. Lately, I’ve been a big fan of Seward’s apple cranberry custard pie, which was newly created last year. There’s a lot going on between the custard, streusel topping and the apples and cranberries which meld so nicely together. It’s our most complex pie to make, so I’d have to say that’s my favorite right now to make and to eat.