Pie season is upon us. Whether crisp fall fruit, velvety pumpkin, or even savory options, pie is the perfect vessel for almost any filling. But pie is deceivingly difficult to master. There are many places where pie can crumble. The crust needs to be golden brown and flakey. The filling needs to be set. Steam needs to escape. How do we ensure that our pies yield perennial perfection? Simply follow these steps!
Step 1: Chill Out!
Before we even tackle fillings, we need to look at pie dough. What makes pie dough so flakey is the large chunks of fat (butter, lard, shortening, or a combination), that striate through the pie dough. Keeping your dough cold does a few things. For one, it allows the gluten to relax which makes rolling easier. When the fat is hard, it also reduces the likelihood of dough sticking to your board. When using butter, as we do in our recipe, it is essential that butter is cold as well. This helps steam stay trapped in the dough as the butter melts, creating a flakey texture. If your butter is too warm, it will instead seep out and your dough will retract from the sides of the pan.
For these reasons it is essential that your chill your dough at several key junctures. First, chill your dough in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling. While rolling the dough out, if you find it sticking to the board or feel the butter softening, stick it in the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes before continuing. Once rolled to desired size, freeze briefly before transferring it into your pie pan. Chill one more time before par baking (see below) or adding filling.
Step 2: Placing in the Pan
First off, what type of pan are you using? Glass is great because you can see the how brown the crust is. But it is a terrible heat conductor which can lead to uneven results. Metal is a great conductor which runs you the risk of burning your pie. We prefer ceramic which heats up well and retains heat without getting too hot.
Securing your dough in the pan is tricky business. The most important thing is having enough dough to overhang the pan. Thus, roll your dough about one inch wider than the size of the pan. Gently place the dough in the pan. Lift each side and let gravity help the dough fill out the sides and corners. Use your knuckles to secure the meeting point of the bottom and rim of the pan. Now, trim the excess dough handing off the sides, saving just enough to fold back over the lip of the pan, creating a double thick edge. Using your knuckles or a fork, crimp the dough to the side of the pan. Oh, and don’t forget to dock, or poke holes, in the bottom of your pie crust with a fork.
Step 3: Blind Baking
Blind baking is the term for par-cooking your crust before you add your filling. This ensures that the bottom of the crust will be nice and brown as certain fillings can make the dough soggy. This means any pie that has a wet or custardy filling, like pumpkin pie, or a filling that does not get baked, like a pudding. For fruit pies, like apple, it is not a necessary step but cannot hurt.
To blind bake, line the chilled and formed dough with a crumpled piece of parchment paper (crumpling reduces the points of contact on the dough for easy removal). Then fill the pie with weights (dried beans work great for this). Bake at 375 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or until the sides start to brown and the bottom is set. Carefully remove the weights and parchment. Bake another 8-10 minutes for a partially finished crust (pies that will be baked again) or about 15 minutes for a fully baked crust (no-bake filling).
Step 4: Filling, Topping, and Baking
The biggest problem with fillings is when they do not set or juices leak out, creating nasty burnt sugar on the crust. I think back one particular lemon tart that did not set and spilled all over my passenger’s seat upon transportation. There are a few ways to avoid this. Most fruit does not naturally contain compounds that gel when heated. That is why we must introduce some other ingredients. Lemons (and limes) naturally contain pectin which helps the juices set into a filling. Not to mention, they boost the flavor of the main fruit. You should also toss the fruit in a few tablespoons of flour or cornstarch. This also helps the filling set. Be sure not too add too much though to avoid an overly thick and jello-y texture.
When it comes to toppings, there are many options, from crumbles, to, well, none at all. If you choose to use pie dough as a topping, it is crucial that there are places for steam to escape. That can be achieved by creating a pattern, like the classic lattice, scoring the top, or placing a venting tool like a pie bird. And you will want to egg wash the top dough to ensure browning.
For fruit pies, check that the filling is bubbling before removing. This means that the flour or cornstarch has cooked out and the filling will set when cooled. It is very hard to overcook a fruit pie filling so continue to bake if the crust is not done. Custard pies, one the other hand, are done when the edges look set and the center still jiggles (but is not liquidy). You can also use a thermometer as the custard will be done at 180 degrees F. Be careful not to open the oven too frequently as you risk cracks developing in the custard.
Step 5: Cooling
Do not ever cut into a hot pie. Just because a pie is done does not mean it is set. That is why fruit pies should be cooked on the counter until room temperature while custard pies should cooled in the refrigerator until cold.