For more vegan pie knowledge, read Nicole's corresponding blog post on how to make classic Thanksgiving pies vegan.
Not all vegan pie is created equal. I can say that because as a professional pie baker I’ve been roped into judging many pie-baking contests, and trust me: The vegan pie section is always the hardest category to find judges for. Tasters are typically subjected to mealy, sandy crusts that leave a film of shortening on the palate, or an overabundance of nut-based crusts that crumble when cut, their lack of gluten unable to withstand the weight of a hefty fruit-filled pie. But it doesn’t have to be so! It’s possible to make great vegan pie crust, and I’m here to show you how.
For many years, plant-based butter substitutes and fats have simply been considered a non-dairy swap, and not a refined ingredient unto themselves. Times are changing though, and much in the way that the dairy butter aisle has expanded to encompass European-style, French-style, and even buffalo milk variations, non-dairy butter has also experienced a rebirth of sorts. The options for a vegan butter substitute are no longer just flavorless vegetable shortenings: Cultured plant-based milks and some interesting inclusions to the ingredient list have made vegan butter a burgeoning category of its own, which has made better vegan crust possible.
So what makes a great vegan pie crust? The flavor and texture of the crust should be something craved on its own, unadorned by juicy fruit fillings or rich custards. The edge of the pie — where the crimp shows us the hand of the maker — should be nicely browned and able to hold its shape. And the crust needs to be flaky, something a shortening-based crust never will be.
Start with the right butter
When I set out to create a perfect vegan pie crust recipe, I looked first to quality vegan butter, because a well-made pie crust is nothing more than fat and flour bound together with a little bit of liquid.
For the best vegan pie crust, I choose to start with a vegan butter that I would enjoy eating straight from the package (unlike a tub of vegetable shortening). I prefer the cultured flavor of Miyoko’s Creamery European Style Cultured Vegan Butter (cashew and coconut-based), but I’ve also had excellent results with Flora Plant Butter (palm kernel and pea protein-based).
One thing that makes these vegan butters tastier than vegetable shortening is the inclusion of lactic acid, which is normally associated with dairy-based products. In the case of vegan butter, the lactic acid is the result of the fermentation of vegetable products in the culturing process. This equates to a more complex, layered flavor in the finished butter — and subsequently, pie crust.
Another important inclusion in vegan butter is water, because this means that there is some moisture that can evaporate during baking, and where there is evaporation there can be flakes! A flake is created when a piece of moisture-bearing fat encased in gluten melts and reaches the heat point where the residual water in the butter evaporates. The steam from evaporation rises, creating a pocket of air. Voilà! A flake is born. In comparison, pure fat-based shortenings will never produce a flake due to their lack of water.
While both Miyoko’s and Flora are bit on the expensive side, I find their performance and flavor to be superior to other options and well worth the price.
Handle with care
Vegan butters can be temperamental, especially in something as hands-on as pie dough. These butters’ lower melting point can make working with them stressful, which is why I eliminate as many opportunities for premature melting as possible. I prefer to mix vegan pie dough in a stand mixer, and I take the extra step of freezing the cubed vegan butter before adding it to the dough.
The flat beater attachment quickly breaks down cubes of frozen vegan butter into pea-sized chunks that will be dispersed throughout the dough. The paddling creates just the right amount of action — similar to what you’d get if you rubbed the fat into the flour with your fingers — but without the heat of your hand. This means the vegan butter remains in distinct, unmelted pea-sized pieces until it’s time for rolling and baking (and flaking!).
Hydrate with more than just water
To ensure strong, tender dough, the liquid in this recipe includes apple cider vinegar with the water, to hydrate and control gluten production. Vinegar acts as a tenderizer for the gluten being developed during mixing; it also prevents oxidization and has the added benefit of adding complexity to the flavor of the finished crust.
For flavor and proper browning, my recipe also has the sugar dissolved in the liquid, dispersing the sugar throughout the entire structure of the flaky finished crust, and creating an even color in the bake (since sugar helps with browning). Using a stand mixer on low speed while slowly drizzling in the sugar syrup allows for the entire amount of liquid to be absorbed into the dough, hydrating the flour evenly and helping to create a consistently strong, well-seasoned dough with no dry bits.
How does vegan pie crust compare to dairy-based crust?
Of course, the ultimate test of any good pie is the taste. Can a vegan pie crust stand strong next to an all-butter pie crust? Will the structure of the crust hold up when sliced, and will it get that glowing brown sheen of a well-baked pie?
With the right ingredients and technique, I can confidently say “yes” to all of the above.
I’ve often served vegan pies to guests without their knowledge and had them marvel at the tender flaky texture and complex flavor of the crust. While the goal of a good vegan swap is not about fooling you, it should be a seamless way to focus on the joy of baking something delicious. So to that end I say: “The perfect vegan pie crust has arrived.”
Now that you have your crust down, it's time to fill it: Read Nicole's corresponding blog post on how to make classic Thanksgiving pies vegan.
Cover photo (Vegan Flaky Pie Dough) and food styling by Liz Neily.