Baking the Perfect Pie Is Easy—So Long as You Follow These 7 Essential Steps
#2 is going to help you bid soggy bottoms farewell for good.
The art of good pie is a balancing act of many variables. It’s an exact science, determined by finessing the time, temperature, ingredients, and so much more. Don’t be intimidated! As with many baking skills, the only way to nail the perfect pie is to practice, practice, practice.
So who better to provide us with expertise in baking the best pies than Nicole Rucker, author of Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers? She’s spent years working as the pastry chef in top restaurants like Gjusta and owns her own pie company, Rucker’s Pie. Her self-proclaimed lifelong passion is helping home cooks find the same magical alchemy she’s achieved with fruit desserts. Here are Nicole’s top tips for achieving pie perfection. Try them when baking our sweet Summer Fruit Pie or Old-Fashioned Apple Pie recipe.
Fruits come in varying degrees of ripeness, and recipes need to be adjusted to manage fluctuations in juices, sweetness, and firmness. So rather than thinking of time and temperature as one-size-fits-all guidelines, always customize them to fit your filling. Watery fruits may need more heat and time, for instance, as will under-ripe peaches, pears, and more.
Structure plays a role, too. The open structure of a lattice top allows steam to evaporate more freely than a vented solid crust; a crumble top releases extra thickener into the filling, so adjustments should be made to the amount of thickener in the fruit.
The bottom of the pie should be golden brown, same as the top, but often those things don't happen at the same time. The top crust should be deeply bronzed. If your bottom crust needs to catch up to the top, tent the pie with tinfoil and continue baking until the bottom crust glows with color. A fully baked bottom crust is key to the taste and structure of a pie.
To bake an evenly browned crust, try Rucker's genius method: “I preheat the oven to a high temperature of 400°F to blast the crust with heat at the beginning. Through trial and error, and many different ovens, I have found that it’s the best way for me to make sure my crust stays in the shape I want it to,” says Rucker. “I lower the temperature as soon as the pie goes into the oven to prevent the high temperature from cooking the top crust too quickly.” You’ll never bake a soggy bottom again.
Fruit naturally softens and gets liquidy when baked. You can combat the oozing with thickening agents, but if you add too much you’ll compromise your pie’s flavor. Balance is key.
“I prefer taste over beauty every day, and a fruit filling with too much thickener does not taste good,” explains Rucker. Instead, she recommends aiming for a softly set fruit filling with just the right amount of thickened juices and fruit. That way, the slice will be able to stand on its own while still oozing the just-right amount of sweet sauce.
If you plan to serve your pie warm from the oven, remember that starch thickens as it cools. Conversely, a warm, saucy pie will be slightly more settled and stiff the next day.
Rucker advocates for the use of glass pie dishes—especially for beginning pie makers—as they allow for the visual references for doneness to be more obvious. Advanced bakers can choose which they prefer based on the merits they value. Metal is a better heat conductor, and can be safely transferred from the fridge or freezer to the oven with no risk of shattering.
To bake a truly top-quality fruit pie, fresh fruit is always best. However, you can make a great pie from frozen fruit—it just takes a little more work. Freezing fruit softens the structure, and once the fruit is thawed, the water escapes the fruit more easily. If you don't prepare properly, this can make a soupy pie.
- Frozen peaches, apples, and rhubarb are all suitable to be baked without thawing and draining.
- Frozen blueberries, strawberries, and cherries must be thawed first, and for best results should be precooked with the sugar and starch until the juices are thickened.
- Raspberries and blackberries are generally OK to use straight from the freezer in small amounts, but if you were to make a pie with 100 percent blackberries and use frozen fruit, Nicole recommends treating the blackberries like blueberries and precooking them.
- If you would like to use frozen berries mixed with fresh apples, pears, or peaches, you can add them frozen to the filling without risking a wet pie.
Single crust pies fall into two categories: par-baked and fully baked. In both cases, the crust should be lined with tinfoil or parchment paper and filled with either beans or pie weights to prevent the crust from bubbling up and shifting during baking. “I use beans; they are cheap and can be composted after a few uses,” says Rucker.
While taste comes first, beauty is part of the fun of baking pie from scratch, and Rucker recommends that all pie makers develop their own personal finishing style. “Years ago, I met a woman in Arizona who prepared a hundred pies for a diner once a week. She kept the unbaked pies in a large chest freezer, each one marked with her own language of cuts for identification. Each pie in that freezer was evidence of a lifetime of practice."
Takeaway? The practice is an ingredient, too.