A Guide to the Art of Baking Perfect Pies

The following reference guide is organized by topic—such as “pie dough crusts” and “fruit fillings”—and is in a question and answer format to make it easy to find the information that you need.

I. Pie Dough Crusts

1. What kind of flour is best?

Use unbleached pastry flour if you have it available.  All-purpose flour will do.  Never use bread flour—the higher gluten content will make for a tougher, chewier crust.

2. Can I use butter instead of shortening?

Butter adds a wonderful flavor to pie crusts but shortening is more moldable and plastic.  Try combining the two in a ratio of 2/3 butter to 1/3 shortening.  Butter adds more water to the dough so be prepared to reduce the amount of water slightly.  Use only the coldest butter and work quickly.  Once the butter becomes warm, the dough is soggy and hard to work with and the crust will turn out tough.

3. How much water should I add?

The rule of thumb is 1/4  cup water for every 2 1/2 cups of flour.  If you use too much water, the gluten will develop and the crust will be tough.  Too little and the dough won’t hold together.  We prefer to error on the side of too little, even though the dough may be a little difficult to mold.

4. What temperature should the water be?

Ice cold—especially if you are using butter in the dough.

5. Can I use milk instead of water in the dough?

You can but we don’t recommend it.  The milk will make the crust brown more quickly and the crust will not be as crisp.

6. How should I add the salt?

To ensure that the salt is evenly distributed, dissolve it in the water before adding the water to the dough.

7. Can I sweeten my dough with sugar?

Yes.  Many people appreciate a sweeter, more pastry-like pie crust.  Add the sugar to the water and dissolve it rather than adding the sugar to the flour.  Sugar melts when baked and the crust will tend to be crisper and browner.

8. Why are egg yolks sometimes added to the dough?

The egg yolks make for a richer crust and can replace some of the other fat in the dough.  Mix the egg yolks with the cold water.  Always use the coldest eggs.

9. How can I make my crusts flakier and not so tough?

Use the lowest gluten flour available—pastry flour is the best.  Don’t use too much water—excess water will develop the gluten and toughen the dough.  Keep the dough cold so that the butter or shortening does not melt.   And don’t handle the dough anymore than necessary.  Handling the dough develops the gluten which makes the crust chewy instead of flakey.  Finally, use as little flour dusting on the counter as possible.

10. What can I do about soggy bottom crusts?

There are several tricks that may help:

• Try baking your pie in the lower portion of the oven where there is more heat directed to the bottom of the pan.  The higher heat will help set the crust before it becomes soggy.
• Use a dark pan to absorb more heat and set the crust faster.
• Avoid pouring a hot fruit filling into your unbaked crust.
• Use more starch or flour in the filling.  A thicker filling will not absorb as rapidly.

Also, we’ve heard that you can sprinkle cake or bread crumbs on the crust before filling—though we’ve never tried it ourselves.  The crumbs will absorb some of the moisture that may otherwise go into the crust.

11. How thin should I roll my crusts?

To a uniform 1/8 inch.

12. How can I move my dough crust from the counter to the pie pan without breaking?

There are several methods:

• Try rolling the dough out on a pastry cloth or waxed paper.
• Fold the dough in half or even fourths and then lift it to the pie pan.
• Try rolling the dough around the rolling pin to transfer the dough to the pan.

Press the dough into the pan without stretching it.  Stretched dough will shrink during baking.

Make sure there are no air bubbles between the pan and dough.

13. How do I place a top crust on my pie?

Use this step-by-step procedure:

1. Moisten the top edge of the bottom crust with milk or egg to help seal the two crusts together.
2. Lift the top crust to the pie using one of the methods described in the preceding question.
3. Use the palms of your hands and press the excess dough against the edges of the pan to pinch the dough off.
4. Press the edges together to get a good seal—using the tines of a fork is a quick way to do this.

14. Can you give me a general procedure for mixing a crust?

Yes.  Here goes:

1. Measure the flour into a deep bowl.
2. Add the shortening and/or butter.  Cut it into the flour with a pastry knife until the pieces are the size of peas.
3. Dissolve the salt in the water.  Add the water to the flour mixture.
4. Mix very gently until the water is just absorbed.  Do not over mix.
5. Chill the dough for an hour before forming the crusts.

II. Crumb Crusts

1. What can I use for crumbs?

Anything you like.  Graham crackers are, of course, the most popular.  You can also use cookie crumbs—vanilla or chocolate wafers or gingersnaps.  For a delicious change of pace, add chopped nuts.

2. For what pies should I use a crumb crust?

Crumb crusts work best for cream or chiffon pies—those with no or little baking.  Pies that require a long baking time—such as custard pies or those made with raw fruit—are not good candidates; the crumbs are likely to burn.

Choose a crust with a flavor that will not overwhelm the taste of the filling.

Bake the crumb crust for ten minutes at 350 degrees to give it a toasted flavor.

3. Can you give me a general procedure for making crumb crusts?

Yes. Here it is:

1. Crush the cookies or crackers to fine crumbs.
2. Add sugar and mix well.
3. Melt the butter.  Stir the butter into the crumb mixture until the crumbs are uniformly coated.
4. Spread the mixture across the bottom and up the sides of the pan.
5. Press a second pan onto the crust to pack the crumbs and create a uniform depth.  (If you don’t have a second pan available, you may press the crumbs with a spatula.).
6. Bake for ten minutes at 350 degrees.  Cool the crust before filling.

III. Fruit Fillings

1. My pie is too runny.  How do I make the filling thicker?

Fruit fillings have two components: the fruit and the syrup or gel.  The syrup contains sugars, spices and a thickening agent—usually flour or cornstarch.  Flour makes a cloudier filling but may be easier to work with.  The amount of thickener that you use will vary depending on how juicy the fruit is.

There are two ways to apply the thickener.  The most common—and quickest and easiest—is to toss the fruit with the flour and spices to coat the fruit then put the coated fruit in the pie shell.  But it’s hard to judge how much thickener you will need and it must reach a high enough temperature to gelatinize the starches.

A more foolproof method is to make a syrup with the thickeners and some juice in a saucepan on the stovetop.  Cool the syrup till it is warm and mix the fruit with the syrup in the pan before adding it to the pie shell.

2. How can I make a fruit pie without cooking the fruit?

Some fruits, such as strawberries, require little or no cooking.  By making the syrup on the stovetop, you can avoid cooking the fruit.  Mix the thickener, sugars, spices, and some juice—apple juice from concentrate works well for this—in a saucepan and cook it on the stovetop until it is thick and bubbly.  Let it cool and add the fruit.  Pour the filling into a prebaked shell.

3. Can I use second quality fruit for my pies?

You can.  We prefer to use the very best fruit for our pies.  Of course, you can cut around minor bruises and use that fruit.

4. Can I use canned fruit for my pies?

Yes, you can.  Make your syrup on the stovetop as explained above—otherwise your fruit is likely to turn to a soggy, over-cooked mess.

IV. Custard Fillings (including Pumpkin)

1. How do custard fillings work?

Custard fillings are egg based with some flour or cornstarch added for thickening and to reduce weeping.  The eggs are cooked until they coagulate and the pie filling is set.

2. I tend to burn the crusts of my custard pies before the filling is set.  How can I avoid that?

Set the pie at the bottom of a hot oven—425 to 450 degrees—and bake for ten or fifteen minutes.  Then move the pie higher in the oven and reduce the heat to 350 degrees.  Bake until done at the lower temperature.

3. How do I tell if the pie is done?

The most common way is to insert a thin knife blade near the center.  If the blade comes out clean, the pie is done.

If you don’t want to slit the top surface of the pie, you can tell if the pie is done by shaking.  The filling is set when the center is slightly soft.  The pie filling will continue to set as the pie cools.

V. Cream Pie Fillings

1. My cream pie fillings don’t hold their shape when cut.  How can I fix that?

Cream pie fillings are made with cornstarch.  So, if you add more cornstarch, the filling will be firmer.

When you cook the filling, make sure that it comes to a boil and thickens before removing it from the heat—otherwise the starch will not gelatinize.

2. Should I add the filling while it is still hot or let it cool first?

The debate rages.  (Well, maybe that is an exaggeration.)   Putting the filling in hot will make the pie firmer.  However, a hot filling tends to cause a soggy bottom.  Try compromising with a warm filling and then adjusting for the next pie after you see the results.


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