Pastry vs. Crumb Crusts: How to Choose the Best Pie Shell for the Job
In the world of pie baking, you have two basic types of crust from which to choose: pastry or crumb. A pastry crust simply means you’ve created a dough—using some combination of flour, fat, and liquid—from which you can form a tender, flakey shell for your pie filling. A crumb crust is comprised of pre-existing food items—such as cookies or cracker-like entities (nuts are welcome too)—made into crumbs, tossed/coated with melted fat (typically butter), and pressed into your pie pan to form a shell.
I’d love to tell you that whichever crust type you opt for is a valid life choice, because it’s all merely a matter of personal preference. But that would be a lie.
The truth is, this decision comes down to what you’re planning to fill your crust with. Both crusts offer unique strengths, which make them especially suited for certain types of pie fillings, and utterly incompatible with others. Here’s what you need to know about each crust type.
It’s the image that instinctually surfaces at the mention of “pie”—a golden lattice covering a steamy cradle of sweet, baked fruit. It’s iconic, and it’s generally the most flexible in terms of what kind of filling you can pair it with.
You can break the broad generalization down into more specific categories of pastry based on the ratios of ingredients, but as noted above, what you’re basically looking at here is flour + salt/sugar + fat + liquid to bind it all. For a sturdier crust, bakers will sometimes incorporate egg into this combo, but at that point you’re veering into tart territory. For our purposes of determining which crust belongs in your pie, consider this category as enveloping store-bought pie dough, your standard homemade pie dough (see our favorite recipe below), gluten-free pie doughs (from a homemade recipe or a reliable store-bought product such as Chef Thomas Keller's Cup4Cup), and the like.
The Recipe: Our Best Basic Pie Dough
What It’s Best For
A pastry pie crust is going to be your best play for any pie, sweet or savory, that requires a relatively long baking time. My rule of thumb is, if the pie crust will need to be in the oven for longer than 25 minutes or so, go pastry crust. Thus, a pastry crust should be your go-to for classic baked fruit pies, which require average bake times from around 60 minutes, for fruit fillings like blueberry, to 140 minutes, for heartier fruit fillings like apple. Your pastry crust can handle both the lengthy bake time without burning (though, you will likely need to shield the top of your pie after it’s approached a lovely golden brown) and the fruits’ juices like a champ.
Plus, pastry crust is a must for achieving certain pie aesthetics. There’s plenty of opportunity to create an ins-PIE-red work of art via your pie’s uncovered filling—just ask Lauren Ko. But for braided and artfully crimped edges, woven lattices, shingled shapes, or even just a traditional double-crust + signature centralized steam slits, you gotta go pastry.
None of which is to say you can’t tap the OG pastry crust for fillings that require little to no time in the oven; you definitely can, but this will simply require blind baking your crust—i.e. baking the crust without its filling—partially or entirely. Many home bakers find the journey of preparing pie dough, letting it rest, rolling it out, then blind baking it with pie weights to be more than they’re looking for. They’re not wrong; it’s a labor of love. In cases where I am set on having a pastry crust, but I find myself concerned about a soggy bottom crust being a major detraction (A.K.A. when I make quiche), I find submitting myself to that labor worthwhile.
Here's the major appeal of a crumb crust: it’s easy.
There’s no real pastry technique required to make a crumb crust. There's no required rest time for the dough. There's no flouring of a surface, no rolling and transferring a delicate dough, no cleaning up a floured surface, no ornate crimping, no pie weights… none of it. It’s simply a matter of selecting what you want to craft your crust from, pulverizing it, and combining it with enough melted butter to make it stick together when you press it along the bottom and sides of your pie pan.
You can use anything from graham crackers to buttery Ritz or saltine crackers to Oreos to pretzels to shortbread cookies and so on. There’s lots of room for fun flavor play with crumb crusts, so don’t be afraid to experiment. The world (especially the shelf-stable snack aisle at the supermarket) is your crumb tray!
The Recipe: All-Purpose Crumb Crust
What It’s Best For
Crumb crusts are best utilized to hold pie fillings that require little to no baking. Think pies rocking rich custard fillings that are cooked on the stovetop then transferred to a pie shell to set in the fridge. Creamy pies that take just a short stint in the oven before chilling, like a typical key lime pie, are also great fits for a crumb crust. Generally speaking, I default to crumbing in the majority of pie scenarios that require blind baking the crust. Call it lazy, call it crumby, call it whatever you want—I’m just trying to streamline where possible, folks.
Revisiting my rule from above, I steer away from using crumb crusts in any situation where the crust will have to be in the oven for more than 25 minutes or so. After that point, you’re gonna start running a high risk of burning your butter- and sugar-saturated crumbs that, remember, have already been baked once in their life. In fact, you can technically get away with not baking a crumb crust at all, simply leaning on the crust’s buttery binding re-solidifying in the fridge to create a solid shell. Thus, crumb crusts are THE choice for ice cream pies and no-bake pies.