It's crust 101.
Back in the Day Bakery Southern Pumpkin Pie
Credit: Greg DuPree

Pastry is a tricky thing. No matter whether you are talking about your basic flaky pie crust, a sweet paté sucrée, layers of laminated dough in a puff pastry, or a cornmeal butter crust, sometimes knowing which crust to use when can be a challenge. While most recipes in magazines and cookbooks will give you a specific recipe for the crust they recommend, a lot of us have inherited hand-written recipes from moms and aunts and grandmothers that simply say “one batch of dough for a double crust pie” or “quiche crust” with no indication of how to make one, or even more definition than that. The days of everyone intuitively knowing how to make basic pastry as a matter of course are over.

And for those of us who would like to be able to look into the fridge and see a pile of random ingredients and know that there could be a good quiche to come out of it, or has overbought at the market and has fruit that needs to be put into a crust and baked fairly immediately, we are left with the decision of which crust to choose.

Never fear, I am here for your pastry dilemmas, and have a basic guideline for what the different crusts are and how to use them to their best advantage.

Watch: How to Make a Simple Lattice Pie Crust

Flaky Pie Crust

Flaky pie crust is your most basic crust, made of fat, flour, water and salt. Often it has either minimal sugar or no sugar at all. This crust, ideally handled very little, should provide a crispy flaky base for a variety of pies. It works well for fruit pies which are baked from raw, and with cream pies, which are usually blind baked. Most recipes assume a double-crusted pie, but if you are only using a bottom crust, as with a cream pie, you can store the second crust, either just in a disc of dough or already rolled out, frozen for up to three months for a future pie.

Tender Pie Crust

Similar to a flaky crust, this crust also incorporates some egg, and has no sugar, which gives a crust that is slightly less flaky, but is often a bit easier to work with. This makes it an ideal version for use with pies that have decorative top crusts like lattices, since the dough is a bit more pliable and less likely to toughen with the added manipulation required with these sorts of toppings. Tender pie crust is also ideal for savory applications like pot pies and quiches, since without the sugar, they balance well.

Hot Water Crust

This style of crust which is specifically designed for savory pies that require a hearty robust crust that can contain fillings without leaking. British in origin, this is the style of crust you see with classics like pork pie. It is made by melting the fat, often lard or shortening, into hot water and then stirring in the flour. This can be a great crust to learn for things like meat-filled hand pies, or savory pies that have a sauce or gravy in them, since this crust is unlikely to crack and leak.

Paté Sucrée or Sweet Crust

This sweet crust is usually used for tarts and tartlets. It incorporates both sugar and egg, and is usually rolled very thin to line pans, and then blind-baked fully to crisp and browned to be filled with cream and/or fruit fillings. It makes for a crust that is almost like a crisp cookie and is a wonderful base for pastry cream tarts or elegant fruit tarts. It is a forgiving dough, so easier to work with than some of the flakier pastry versions.

Crostata Crust

This version of a sweet crust is more shortbread-like and tender than paté sucrée. It often incorporates citrus zest or spice as a flavoring. It is designed to be used for thin jam- or curd-filled tarts that are closer to a bar cookie than a true tart or pie. Unlike the thin paté sucrée, this crust is pressed into the pan a bit thicker, and then either crumbled on top of the filling or latticed, and baked raw instead of blind-or pre-baked. It is a wonderful crust to get to know because it makes for a versatile pastry that can be a brunch sweet, an afternoon tea item or a dessert, depending on garnish. It is also one of the crusts that can come together quickly in a food processor and is not finicky.

Cream Cheese Crust

This tender crust is a dream to work with, it essentially is your basic flaky pie crust recipe but with half the butter swapped out for cream cheese, which helps the crust stay tender and flexibly and is not at all fussy. It is a crust for use with young children, because the addition of a little vinegar in the dough will prevent toughness, even if it gets a bit overworked. It is great for basic pies, but also ideal for small hand pies or other items that need to be formed by hand instead of in a dish or pan. You bake from raw, so it works very well with drier fillings like nut pies or chess pies and the like. And since it has no sugar, you can go sweet or savory with your fillings.

Cornmeal Crust

Usually a butter-based crust, this crust is a hearty base for savory tarts and pies. Using a blend of fine cornmeal and all-purpose flour in this crust makes for a base that is nutty and flavorful and can stand up to robust flavors. Some deep-dish pizzas are made on a cornmeal butter crust for this reason. Any tart that contains cheeses, cured meats, or intensely flavored seasoning is a great pairing for this crust.

Puff Pastry or Rough Puff

These two are tricky, finicky things to make and work with. Most people will tell you to just buy puff pastry in the freezer section and by most people I totally mean me. Laminated dough, which is designed to puff up into many flaky layers, is truly best left to the pros. Made by encasing a flat sheet of butter in dough and then going through a series of folds and turns to create a dough that is many alternating layers of butter and dough, requires lots of time and skill.

Rough puff, a sort of cheat version that uses large chunks of butter mixed into the dough, and a similar folding and turning technique is slightly easier than “full-puff” but is still a serious undertaking. Puff pastry or rough puff are good for encasing things, like a beef wellington or salmon en croute, as well as small appetizers, and some use it to top sweet or savory pies for an elegant finish. Docked (pricked with holes to prevent rise) or baking with weights or pans resting on top can create a great thin but super buttery flaky crust for little tarts but will be too delicate for larger items. Store bought puff is wonderful for making sweet hand pies or breakfast pastries.