Most people in the Cooking Light editorial office are fairly well aware of my sweet infatuation with pie. I make a lot of pies, I make my colleagues eat a lot of pies, and I give them a lot of flack when they choose cake over pie. That’s wrong.
That being that, Pi Day (3/14) is my favorite barely official holiday on the calendar year by far. And in celebration, I wanted to share some of my most valued pro-tips and tricks picked up during my quest for pie-fection.
3 Tips for Pie Crust
- Chill Out: Whatever ingredients/tools you’re using to make pastry dough, they need to be cold, really cold. That means pop the mixing bowl with flour into your freezer a few minutes before you begin, wait to pull butter out of the fridge (you can even freeze it if you’re thinking ahead) until ready to cube and incorporate, drop a couple ice cubes into the cup of water you plan to measure from, and run your hands under cold water before starting in. And when every recipe ever asks that you chill the formed dough for at least an hour before rolling and baking… they’re being totally serious. That’s not like an “if you have time and feel like it” step. All of the fuss is really just to keep the fat cold so that it doesn’t get all melty and totally coat the gluten proteins while you’re shaping your pie dough. You don’t want that butter melting until your crust is all up in the oven, when it’s hot enough for the water in the butter to steam up—forming heavenly little pockets of flakey goodness.
- Go Easy: Whether you’re making pastry dough or a crumb crust, use a gentle touch. Manhandling dough—when initially forming or when rolling out for the pie plate—prompts the gluten to go to work on forming structures, which you do not want. Gluten getting ambitious like that leaves you with an unpleasantly resilient (i.e. tough) crust that you’re going to feel really awkward serving, especially on Pi Day. For crumb crusts, pressing with gentle firmness is the smoothest route to getting the crumb mixture even and compact in your pan without creating holes. Just remember, you’re making a pie, not installing hardwood floors—be gentle and refer to tip number 1 (chill out).
- Milk the Flavor: Full disclosure—I give full credit for this one to Christina Tosi, the pie goddess of my universe. She forever changed the way I do a crumb crust. Make your crust more than a mere vessel for filling, make it a legitimate flavor player. Step one: up the salt. Most recipes I come across call for 0 to 1/4 teaspoon of salt in something like a graham cracker crust… you can double, triple, or even quadruple that and only see positive repercussions in your life. Another trick from Tosi is incorporating dried milk powder into your crumb crusts. When mixed with melted butter, the milk powder acts as a great binder and imparts this incredible toasty creamy flavor. It’s kind of magical.
Photo by Gina Yu.
1 Tip for Serving Pie
- Never Serve the First Slice to Someone Important: The first slice cut from a pie is always ugly, there’s no way around that. Just breathe in, breathe out, and accept it. You have essentially 2 options: be a martyr and take the first slice for yourself or give it to that person you know is gonna ask for “just a tiny taste, please.” They’re probably not Instagraming their life of pie anyway.
4 Tips for Pie Filling
- Warm Up: Remember that thing I said about needing cold, really cold ingredients for your crust? You can forget it when you’re making your filling (most of the time). Especially if you’re making any sort of custard-based pie, you’ll want your components out and resting at room temperature for a smooth transition to cooking. You’re a lot less likely to scald cream or scramble eggs if they’re already adjusting to warmer temperatures.
- Reconsider your Stability: I’ve recently started to rely more on unflavored gelatin as a stabilizer in my pies. It helps a pie set up like nothing else and is great for fillings where you really want to concentrate flavor. I also highly recommend substituting tapioca flour anywhere you would typically use cornstarch or all-purpose flour. Tapioca flour is ground super finely and is less susceptible to clumping. More importantly, it never puts that kind of funky cooked starch taste in your apple pie goo.
- Scrape, Don’t Whisk: This is an invaluable tip (more like reprimanding) I recently received from one of our Test Kitchen staff members. When cooking custard—any kind of custard, this extends beyond pie and into the world of ice cream base, pudding, etc.—on the stovetop, do not whisk it. When it comes time to “stir constantly,” grab your fav rubber spatula and stir, scraping the bottom of the pot, in a constant figure 8 motion, making sure you scrape along the entire parameter of the pot. This guarantees that you’ll hit every place where some custard might hide and get lumpy. This tiny technique switch has made a world of difference in my custard game.
- Precook Your Apple Pie Apples: This little bit of genius comes from our friends at Serious Eats and has, yet again, been a total game-changer for me. The key to preventing apple slices from breaking down to mush in your crust is to give their enzymes a little warm up exercise before the big bake. Just place your apples slices in a large heat-proof bowl, pour boiling water over top to cover, and let them sit for 10 minutes before draining and patting dry. This little pre-cook makes the apples’ pectin more heat-stable, so they won’t get sad and limpy while cooking for a longer period of time in the pie.