It must be said: wars have been fought in families — and are still fought in small-town county fairs — over who bakes the best pie. But that’s because pie is awesome. There’s a reason we love it: it’s pie.
There is a scary mystique about making pie, reinforced mostly by people with an interest in making people believe that it’s difficult. But we also say that something is “easy as pie.” It really isn’t hard; or perhaps we should say that it’s only as hard as you want it to be.
There are two parts to pie: the crust, and the filling.
Every family has its own traditional recipe for pie crust, and family members have been brought up to believe, cult-like, that theirs is the only True Pie Crust and all others are mere pretenders. Many of those secret family recipes have been handed down through generations and are in fact excellent. In truth, there is no One True Way to make pie crust. Here we will start with a good, solid pie crust recipe to practice on and learn the basics. If your family already has a recipe, this will help you understand it a bit better. If your family doesn’t, then you can take this one, make it your own, and then start a new tradition.
Pie crust has only four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, and fat. That said, there are choices to be made for each of those ingredients, particularly for the flour and fat. Any other ingredients (e.g. sugar, white vinegar) beyond those four are for flavor, with the exception of the “wash” (optionally) brushed on top to make it shiny and brown. For many, the crust is there as a container and for texture, but not so much for flavor – or perhaps as a background flavor that highlights the real main event: the filling.
Flour: pie crust is not bread. We don’t want a dense gluten network; we want the dough to bake up light and flaky, with just enough structure to hold a little bit of rise. So most pie crust recipes use all-purpose white flour.
Fat: this is where the magic happens. The fat in the dough is what makes pie crust flaky. The best fats for use in pie dough are a solid mixture of fat and water, for example butter. As the dough cooks, the fat forms a bubble that is expanded by the water boiling off. In the end, the water is gone and the remaining fat preserves pockets of air that create the flakiness. Now the trick to achieving this effect is not to fully incorporate the fat into the dough; instead, we stop mixing the dough when there are still visible pieces of fat.
We also want to make sure that the fat stays solid while we’re working it into the dough; we do that by starting it out very cold, by working quickly, and by processing the dough as little as possible. The more you mix, knead, and roll out the dough, the more the fat will warm up, melt and break up into smaller pieces, and get fully incorporated.
Salt: the salt is minimal, and just brings out a bit of flavor in the dough so it isn’t completely bland.
Water: we add just enough water so that the dough comes together but is not sticky. Flour absorbs water slowly over time, so pie crust dough is better and easier to work with half an hour after it’s first made, and it’s optimal 12-24 hours later. Making the dough the night before you intend to make pie and refrigerating it overnight is a best practice. Also: use ice-cold water; it will help to keep the fat solid while you are mixing the dough.
Here is a recipe for a simple, easy to make pie crust that you can use for a variety of pies and pastries. It probably won’t win prizes at the county fair, but it’s solid and tasty and will give you a chance to get the basics of piemaking down before you try to take on Grandma’s secret recipe.
If you’re making a pie with a liquid filling such as pumpkin pie or quiche, you will often need to “blind-bake” your crust first. Blind baking, sometimes called “par-baking,” is partially pre-baking the crust so that it doesn’t absorb any more liquid and get soggy. You can find directions for blind-baking a crust here (it isn’t hard, but you need a couple of things).
Getting a shiny top
Many cooks like to give the top crust of their pie a brown, shiny veneer. They do this by “washing” it: brushing on a liquid just before baking. There are several options for washing your pie crust, including water, butter, and oil, but the most common one is an “egg wash.” Beat together one large egg and one tablespoon of cold water, and brush a light coating (don’t let it pool) over the crust immediately before it’s ready to go into the oven.
You will inevitably have leftover dough after making pie; you can collect up the remnants and trimmings and use them for another creation. The dough will keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 days, and can be used for making small “pocket pies” or tarts. Just keep in mind that every time you gather up the remnants, press them together, and roll out the dough again you are breaking up the bits of fat in the dough and further incorporating them — and that will make the crust flatter and less flaky. The more you work the dough, the less you will like the results.
There are two basic dimensions to thinking about pie fillings: sweet versus savory, and solid versus liquid. There are really interesting pies to be made at all four quadrants of this matrix, for example:
- Sweet liquid: pumpkin or cream pie
- Savory liquid: quiche
- Sweet solid: apple or berry
- Savory solid: meat pie.
Liquid-filling pies generally don’t have a top layer of crust, while solid-filling ones generally do.
Of course, in liquid-filling pies the filling doesn’t stay liquid: it thickens up as the pie bakes so that the final result can be sliced up. The challenge with liquid-filling pies is to stop the liquid from making the crust soggy before the filling solidifies. We do this by blind-baking the crust (see above).
In solid-filling pies we have the opposite problem, especially for fruit pies: as solid ingredients cook, their cell membranes weaken and they start releasing much of their water (and fruit contains a LOT of water). It’s very easy to end up with an unpleasant pool of water at the bottom of a baked fruit pie. We handle this by mixing a thickener (usually flour or corn starch) in with the filling before baking: just enough to absorb the water that will get released, but not enough to be noticeable as a separate ingredient or to create a paste-like texture to the inside of the pie. Getting the exact proportions of filling to thickener right can be a little tricky, because it depends on the type of filling you are using and how much water it contains (and will release when cooking). And because we seal up solid-filling pies with a top layer of crust before we bake them, it isn’t something that we can adjust in real-time as the pie bakes. But with a bit of repetition using the same filling ingredients, you can quickly fine-tune your recipe to the right proportions. Also, to some extent the problem solves itself as the pie cools: even if it’s still watery when hot, as it cools it will thicken up more. One more tip: make sure to cut vent holes on the top of your pie to allow liquid to evaporate off as steam (or you can kick it old-school and use a pie bird).