Pie is woven into American culture, creating high standards and demand for diverse ingredients and flawlessly executed pastries. Pies give chefs the platform to showcase a myriad of seasonal fruits and vegetables, draw attention to intricate craftsmanship and creativity, and maximize value through cross-utilization.
Before getting too imaginative with this iconic dessert, chefs must have a solid understanding of the essential ingredients and traditional techniques necessary to create the fresh, irresistible house-made pies customers crave. And you don’t have to be a pastry chef to craft an outstanding pie; any chef in the kitchen can master pie-baking basics. With both unique and traditional pie varieties trending on restaurant menus, consider taking a deeper dive into the world of pies and conquering the basic techniques that transform them into an American favorite.
Flour, fat, and water are the fundamental ingredients of a pie crust. The proper handling of these three ingredients can make or break your pie. When it comes to making a pie crust, balance is vital. Adding too much fat can make it too crumbly; too much flour can create a stiff crust; and too much liquid can cause shrinking. Taking your time with the essential components is the secret to an excellent pie foundation.
Crusts can be made from two main types of pie dough: flaky and mealy. Flaky pie dough forms when the fat is worked into the flour while retaining minute pieces of fat where mealy pie dough requires the fat to be blended into the flour more thoroughly. Flaky dough is typically used for fruit pies; however, mealy dough is frequently used for single crust custard-filled pies because it resists moisture.
Pies are also categorized based on their crust. Some may have a single crust, double crust, or crumb top. A single crust pie has one bottom crust; a double crust has a bottom crust and a top crust that encloses the filling; and a crumb top is a single bottom crust with a crumb mixture on top.
One of the first decisions to make when baking pie is choosing which fat to work with – butter, lard, or shortening. There are distinct differences between the three. Generally, lard and shortening produce flaky layers; however, many argue that butter is your best bet because it enhances the crust’s flavor. If you want the best of both worlds, try using a 50:50 ratio of lard or shortening and butter. Whatever fat you choose for your pie, it’s an opportunity to use local, organic ingredients.
An important factor to create a tender, flaky crust is ensuring the fat and water are extremely cold. When flour and water are combined, thin layers form in the dough and the coldness of the fat is what keeps those thin layers separated, retaining the crust’s shape.
It’s also essential to know how to handle the fat, as it plays a key role in the crust’s texture. When the fat is overly incorporated into the flour, the flour won’t be able to absorb enough water, resulting in crust that will break apart easily. On the other hand, if the fat isn’t incorporated into the flour enough, too much water will be absorbed, creating more gluten and making for a tough crust. When combining the fat with the dry ingredients (flour plus flavor enhancers such as salt, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or ginger), it’s best to only mix until the fat pieces are pea-sized. This will help yield an exceptionally flaky crust.
Lard vs Shortening vs Butter
|Lard||Lard may not have a great reputation, but it creates an incredibly flaky crust if it is handled appropriately. It’s generally flavorless – not as tasty as butter but less bland than shortening.|
|Shortening||Shortening has a very high melting point, making it easy to mix into pie dough. It gives crusts better texture but lacks flavor.|
|Butter||Butter gives pies that melt-in-your-mouth feel you expect. It creates a lighter crust with more defined flakes because of its water content that transforms into steam during baking. Butter also has its own distinct, creamy flavor that can help enhance the taste of a pie.|
The flour is the element that gives pie dough its strength, structure, and elasticity. Bread flour is too strong and cake flour too soft, leaving all-purpose flour and pastry flour prime choices for pie crusts. These flours also have an adequate amount of gluten. Gluten is another crucial element to keep in mind. It provides the dough with its stretch; however, too much can create a tough crust and too little can cause the crust to lose its shape. Gluten forms when the flour becomes wet, so you can monitor the gluten amount by adding water to the dough a little at a time until you achieve the perfect consistency (see liquid section for consistency).
Adding salt to the dough softens the gluten, but more importantly, it naturally enhances the dough’s flavor and gives the crust great texture and dimension. The general rule of thumb is to add ¼ teaspoon salt per every cup of flour. Salt can be worked in when combining the fat and the flour, or it can be dissolved into the water, ensuring even distribution.
The final ingredient is water, which should be ice cold and gradually added to the dough to restrict gluten development. Milk is sometimes used, adding more fat and producing dough that browns more quickly. However, the crust doesn’t achieve the same crispiness as water-based crusts and using milk isn’t as cost effective. For an extra flaky crust, ice-cold sour cream can be substituted for water in a savory pie. After adding the water, the dough is ready when it’s just moist enough to hold together when pinched between your fingertips. Form into disks and refrigerate until ready to bake.
First, dust your work surface and your rolling pin with flour. Use just enough to prevent sticking – too much will fortify the dough. Roll out the dough by starting from the middle and working outward, turning and flipping the dough as it’s rolled. Let the dough rest after rolling it out. To transfer the dough to the pan and keep it in one piece, carefully wrap the dough around the flour-dusted rolling pin and unroll over the pan. Be sure to roll loosely, especially with butter-based crusts, as they tend to stick.
For a single pie crust, fold the edges of the dough under itself so that it rests on the lip of the plate. For a decorative fluted edge, use the index finger of one hand to press the dough between the thumb and forefinger of the opposite hand; repeat around the edge of the dough. Loosely cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before filling and baking.
Blind baking is a technique that’s essential for pies with baked custard or other fillings as well as pies with unbaked fillings. The moisture in baked fillings can make the crust soggy before the filling has a chance to bake, and blind baking helps prevent this. It involves partially or completely baking the crust before adding the filling. In addition to preventing a soggy crust, it also inhibits the development of air pockets and helps retain the crust’s shape.
Press the rolled out dough into the corners of the pie tin and refrigerate before baking to solidify the fat and prevent shrinking. Once it’s chilled, dock the pie dough and line it with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Then weigh it down with ceramic pie weights or dried pulses to prevent air bubbles from forming. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the crust is a light, golden brown, then remove the lining and weights. For baked filling pies, add the filling to the crust and return to the oven for the second baking. For unbaked pies, allow the crust to cool completely, then add the filling and chill until it’s set.
If the crust is a pie’s heart and soul, then the filling is its personality. There are infinite possibilities for pie fillings from fruit and chocolate to meat and vegetables. The center of a pie presents the perfect opportunity to showcase seasonal flavors such as summer fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, as well as savory vegetables like rhubarb, peas, carrots, spinach, and leeks. To increase your yield, freeze summer produce such as strawberries, rhubarb, and blueberries, and utilize them in the winter months when customers are looking to indulge in these comfort foods while also craving the sweet tastes of summer.
To achieve a perfectly thick center, some pie fillings benefit from additional ingredients like starches. Cornstarch can help thicken cream pie fillings, helping the pie hold its shape, and tapioca can help thicken the juice in a fruit filling while keeping it from bubbling over. Clear jel is a modified starch that’s also frequently used for fruit pies, giving the filling a less cloudy appearance, softening its texture, and distributing spices and flavors. The amount of starch needed can be affected by the amount of sugar or acidity in the recipe; the greater amount of acidity, the more starch is needed. If possible, add sugar and acidic components after the starch is added.
Luckily, there are ingredients you can utilize, such as apples and blueberries that have natural thickeners requiring less added starch. No matter what combinations you create, be sure to always add the fillings right before baking. Letting fillings sit in an unbaked pie can result in a soggy crust. If you’re preparing the pies in advance, refrigerate fillings and crusts separately.
A Classic Meringue Topping
Made up of whipped egg whites and granulated sugar, meringue adds lightness, volume, and sumptuous elegance to pie. There are different types of meringue including French, Swiss, and Italian. French meringue (the most common) is made from egg whites at room temperature that are beaten with sugar; Swiss meringue is made from egg whites and sugar that are warmed over hot water while they are beaten; and Italian meringue is made when hot sugar syrup is beaten into the egg whites.
When making any type of meringue, wash the mixing bowl and wipe with white vinegar before whipping egg whites to reduce any residue on the bowl’s surface that may inhibit the whites from incorporating air and expanding. For a firm, stiff meringue, use the freshest egg whites possible and make sure they are at room temperature (about 70°F). Begin whipping the whites with a pinch of cream tartar (to help stabilize the meringue) on low-medium speed, keeping the mixer on throughout the whole process. Once the egg whites are at soft peaks, slowly rain in superfine, quick dissolving sugar. Ensure the sugar is completely dissolved before whipping on high speed. To test if the sugar is completely dissolved in the egg whites, rub the meringue between two fingers to make sure it feels smooth. When you remove the whisk from the mixer, the meringue should appear glossy and stand firmly on the whisk.
Getting the meringue to stay in place on the pie can be challenging. It’s recommended to prepare the meringue right before you prepare the pie filling. As you spread the meringue on the hot filling, the heat will “cook” the meringue onto the pie, reducing chances of weeping or shrinking. Finally, seal the meringue completely to the edge of the pie so it touches the crust, and brown quickly at a high temperature to avoid shrinkage.
Lightly brushing the top of a double crust pie with egg wash or cream before popping it in the oven is an essential step that significantly enhances the pie’s appearance. This step is the difference between a perfectly golden brown or dull and under-baked look. An egg wash will create a glossy appearance while a cream wash will give your pie a matte-like finish. Sprinkling the pie with sugar, whether it’s all-purpose decorating sugar, turbinado jewel-like sugar, or granulated sugar can also add texture, sweetness, and visual-appeal to your picture-perfect pie.
Once you master the fundamental techniques of executing pie, the possibilities are endless for the superior, flavor-packed pastries you can create. With a bit of practice and creativity, you can tell a story through each element of your signature pie, keeping customers interested and returning for more.