For many people (us included), the best part of the holiday season is the plentiful bounty of holiday desserts. From cookies to cakes to truffles galore, there are sweets to satisfy every kind of sweet tooth. And while simple slow cooker dump recipes are OK in a pinch, pies are really the quintessential kickoff to holiday dessert season. Whether you like pecan, pumpkin or apple, if you want to serve up a pie that will make your guests wish they hadn’t had that second heaping helping of stuffing, you’re going to need an arsenal of pie-making tips to get you started. Luckily, we’ve got you covered.
Tips for perfect pie crust
No matter what kind of pie you’re making, your pie crust is the single most important element. For desserts, you’re going for the flakiest, tastiest crust possible — and that’s not always easy to achieve. But there are a few really easy things you can do to achieve optimum flakiage and flavor.
1. Choose your fat wisely
Choosing the right kind of fat is key to your pie crust’s flakiness, tenderness and flavor. Shortening is the easiest to work with, but it doesn’t bring much to the pie party in terms of flavor. Instead, opt for a mix of butter and lard in around a 3 to 1 ratio — but feel free to adjust those to your taste. Butter brings the flavor and does help with tenderizing the crust. Processed lard that you buy at the grocery store is all but flavorless and adds even more tenderizing power. It also brings the flake factor you’d normally get with shortening without that weird aftertaste.
2. Keep it all cold
It’s imperative you keep your pie crust cold until it’s ready to go into the oven. You need your fat to remain as solid as possible so the flour coats it without itself being coated in fat. You need the dry flour to absorb the liquid you’ll add to develop the right level of gluten. Plus, those chunks of unmelted fat melt while baking, leading to those flaky layers you’re looking for.
- Freeze your fat: No matter the type of fat you choose, it absolutely needs to be ice-cold when it goes in. To make it easier to incorporate without heating it up too much, cut it into chunks or roll it into a sheet between two layers of wax paper (you can later use a knife to cut the sheet into smaller bits to incorporate). The fat won’t freeze into a solid like water, so you can still work with it so long as it’s in manageable sizes.
- Use ice-cold liquid: Room temperature liquid probably won’t ruin your crust. But making sure it’s ice-cold also doesn’t hurt. No matter what liquid you’re using, refrigerate it thoroughly prior to making your crust. In the case of liquor, you can even freeze it.
- Keep your utensils and surfaces cold: Make your pie crust in a stainless steel bowl that’s been in the freezer for a few hours and use a frozen stainless steel rolling pin to roll out your crust. We like cheap hollow French pin-style rollers — since they’re hollow, they reduce heat transfer from your hands and the French pin style doesn’t leave crease marks on your crust or run out of rolling surface when the crust gets too large. For even more cooling power, roll out your dough on chilled stainless steel or natural stone, such as marble or granite, if you have it. To chill countertops made of those materials, fill a large, chilled stainless steel bowl with ice water and let it sit on your countertop for a while. Just make sure you dry it thoroughly before flouring the surface.
- Go back to the freezer when you need to: If your dough starts to heat up at any stage, just cover it with plastic wrap and pop it into the freezer for half an hour. In fact, when your dough comes together, gently form it into discs, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for at least an hour, if not three. After you roll it out and fit it into the pie plate, do the same thing. You’re making the best pie crust, not the fastest.
4. Don’t develop too much gluten
The entire reason you knead bread is to develop gluten. Strong gluten structures lead to that soft chewiness that makes bread the toothsome treat it is. But gluten is the enemy of pie crust. It inhibits flakiness and tenderness and just makes your crust boring and tough. Some gluten-development is good for your pie crust, but anything you can do to limit it is good. It’s very unlikely you’ll underdevelop the gluten for a pie crust.
- Use low-protein flour: There are different types of flour for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with all-purpose flour in a pinch. But using pastry flour helps ensure success for pie crusts. That said, it’s usually only got about 2% less protein in it than AP, so don’t spend extra money if you only bake pastries for special occasions.
- Use cold liquor or vinegar in place of some of the water: Adding a splash or more of liquor, vinegar or both helps inhibit the development of gluten. Vodka is a popular liquor choice because it’s flavor-neutral, but don’t be afraid to experiment with whiskey, brandy or even gin if the flavor suits the filling. For vinegar, opt for pleasantly flavored options, like apple cider or white wine instead of plain white distilled or something sugary like balsamic.
- Add flour to fat, not the other way around: A pie crust’s flakiness depends on two things: chunks of fat melting to create air pockets as the wet flour cooks and not developing heavy gluten to weigh down that process. Incorporate your fat gently to avoid overworking (read: kneading) the dough. If you add the fat to the flour, it takes even longer to incorporate (which also melts the fat, which is bad). Instead, mix the flour with the other dry ingredients. Dump the fat into a separate bowl and add a few tablespoons of flour. Cut those in quickly, adding more flour as necessary. Once you have a breadcrumb state, just dump in the rest of the flour and stir. It’s fine, we promise.
5. Take us to Flavortown
Sorry for the Guy Fieri reference, but this is important. Whatever you do, don’t forget the salt. It’s the single most important ingredient in terms of flavor.
But don’t stop there. Consider adding other liquids to your water, such as apple cider vinegar (spoiler alert: apple cider vinegar benefits your crust in other ways too).
6. Bring the dough together right
Now that you’ve got your pie crust dough, it’s time to roll it out. But there are some things you can do even in this stage to bring it.
- Use just enough liquid: You only need enough liquid to make your dough just come together. It shouldn’t look dry, but it shouldn’t look wet either. If you do use too much liquid, you can save it by using more flour when you roll it out.
- Create more flakey layers: After you’ve chilled your dough, pat or roll it out into a large, thick disc and cut in in fourths. Stack those triangles on top of one another and smash them down and repeat that process three or four times. This will give you an even flakier crust. Don’t forget to chill the dough again when you’re done.
- Roll it from the center: To keep your crust as round as possible when rolling your dough, start from the center, not the edges, and work out. Give it a quarter-turn and do the same thing, working your way around the crust. Roll it to about 2 to 2-1/2 inches larger than the size of your pie plate.
- Blind bake with confidence: If you don’t bake often, don’t waste money on pie weights. Just buy some dried beans for a dollar and use those instead. Just as with pie weights, don’t forget to line your crust with parchment so they don’t bake in. You can even save the beans in an airtight container or bag to use as pie weights later.
- Brown your crust, don’t burn it: Sometimes, your crust will start to get a bit too dark before your filling is cooked. Don’t sweat it. You can buy a pie shield if you bake pies frequently enough. But if not, just make yourself a foil tent or crust shield as needed.If you’re looking to make sure a top crust gets browned, skip the melted butter. It might burn at the high temperatures pies often require. Instead, ever so lightly brush the top with milk and sprinkle just a bit of sugar on top to facilitate the caramelization. Just make sure you don’t get any on the edges, which are susceptible to burning as is.
Tips for better pie filling & baking
The perfect pie requires both a perfect crust and a killer filling. After all the work you just put into the crust, you owe it to your pie to fill and bake it with care. We’d love to give you tips on all the pies you could bake, but if we did, this article would never end. So we stuck with the top three examples. But you can apply many of the tips to any pie you bake.
Apple pie filling tips
Once you’ve had one apple pie, you’ve had them all, right? Not so fast. If you believe that, you’ve never had an apple pie made by someone who actually tried. But it’s possible to make a standout apple pie with just a few easy tips.
- Apples aren’t created equal: Opt for firm, crisp, tart apples like Granny Smith, pink lady or Braeburn. Other apples are less flavorful when cooked and will yield a lot of water while cooking, making your pie filling runny and your bottom crust soggy.
- Cut the apples right: There are two schools of thought on apple cutting for pies. You can choose thin slices for a more tender cut or small cubes for a little bite. Whatever route you choose, size is key. Making them too big makes the pie difficult to cut and scalding hot to eat fresh from the oven.
- Spice with care: You don’t have to use the spice jar labeled “apple pie spice.” Try any spices that go with apples, like cardamom, star anise or allspice. If you do use apple pie spice, here’s a radical idea: Don’t use it according to package directions. For a single pie, they typically call for around one-and-a-half teaspoons, but just a half teaspoon gives you plenty of flavor and lets the apple really shine.
- Don’t precook your apples: Speaking of letting the apples shine, don’t cook down your apples until they’re a mushy mess. Instead, pile them raw in your pie plate, layering them with sugar and spice. Top them with a few pats of butter, blanket them with top crust and cook the pie until the crust is golden-brown for a flavorful filling with real apple bite.
Pecan pie filling tips
Pecan pies are cloyingly sweet and completely flavorless in the wrong hands. And that’s sad considering how easy they are to get right.
- Use plenty of pecans: Look. I’m from Texas, and we’re all about ingredients like butter, sugar and corn syrup (and cumin, but that’s a different article). But the pecan tree is the Texas state tree, meaning we’ve got them in spades. And I know a thing or two about using them. All that sweet filling is meant to balance out the nuts. So skimping on those is a recipe for saccharine disaster. Use at least two cups of chopped pecans —then up the ante by placing pecan halves in concentric circles around the top. Otherwise, you’re just making a shoofly pie with nuts.
- Use Karo corn syrup: Cheap corn syrup is thin and watery, which negatively affects your pie. This is one of those times the name brand is best.
Pumpkin pie filling tips
Pumpkin pies are easy as, well, pie. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be better — if you know what you’re doing.
- Start with the right recipe: Starting with a solid recipe is always good, but it’s imperative with pumpkin pie. When in doubt, default to Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe. Personal taste is personal taste when it comes to spices, but Libby’s has been selling pumpkin purée based on this recipe since pretty much the dawn of canned pumpkin (the company was founded in 1869, but we couldn’t verify when they started selling canned pumpkin). Either way, a trusted recipe for this pie takes the guesswork out. Pumpkin pies don’t ever look done when they are, so you need to know the recipe developer has done their homework on the timing and temps.
- Practice makes perfect: Since they’re easy, you can practice them without much drama. Experiment with different spice levels. See if you like subbing some of the white sugar for dark brown to get more depth. Learn what a perfectly cooked pumpkin pie looks like. According to PJ Hamel for King Arthur Flour, “The fully baked pumpkin pie will look slightly domed and solid around the edges; and a bit sunken and soft in the center: not sloshing like liquid, but jiggling like Jell-O. And I don’t mean just a nickel-sized area in the very center…” That’s the key to the best pumpkin pie — trusting your (well-educated) instincts.
Massive baking tip for all pies
No matter what kind of pie you’re making, place the pie plate on a cookie sheet lined with foil before baking. Not only is it easier to get your pie out of the oven that way, it stops any boil-over action from ruining your oven while you’re cooking for the holidays. Think it can’t happen to you? Who has two thumbs, tons of baking knowledge and still had that happen two holidays in a row? Yeah, me. Speaking of which, if you do screw it up, cut yourself some slack — even Martha Stewart has burned something. It’s how we learn.