The Ultimate Pie Guide
Tips and tricks for flaky crusts, creamy custards, and festive fruit pies.
Hi Bakers! A large portion of you readers will be celebrating American Thanksgiving at the end of the month. As an American living in Canada, I won’t be making a full feast, but I usually like to grab a slice of pie to keep the FOMO at bay.
I find that pies are very personal. A lot of families have their go-to pie person, the same heirloom recipes that they use each year, and a specific pie menu that will make or break the holiday. But for anyone starting their own traditions or wanting to step-up their pie game, then please enjoy this Ultimate Pie Guide!
As I started writing, I quickly realized there is so much to say about pie. From the dough to fillings, decorations, what to serve it with, etc. Here is what you will find in today’s guide:
Tips for making flaky pie dough
Getting the pie oven-ready
Best practices for baking and cooling
Different egg washes
Plus some of my favorite pie recipes!
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Start with everything COLD. If you want a flaky crust, your main goal should be to keep the butter as cold as possible until it goes into the oven. The best way to do this is to start with cold ingredients. Cold butter, ice water, cool hands, etc. On warm days, you may even consider popping diced butter, the flour, and your equipment into the freezer for a bit before getting started.
Flaky pie crusts are the result of cold, irregular pieces of flour-coated butter marbled throughout the dough. As the cold butter pieces hit the heat of the oven, the water content begins to evaporate and create little pockets of steam that separate the crust into multiple layers. The end result is a crispy, flaky crust. If the butter is too warm and begins to melt before baking, then the crust may turn out hard and greasy, not tender and flaky.
Keep it cool. As important as it is to start with cold ingredients, it is also key to keep them cool as you go. If at any point things start to heat up, throw it all in the refrigerator, take a moment for yourself, then start again.
Your hands are your best tools. I enjoy cutting the butter into the flour mixture with my hands. It is therapeutic and provides the most control. I also despise getting out my food processor (and cleaning it). However, if you have warm hands, this might be stressful. Try running warm hands under cool water or holding a glass of ice water. If that doesn't work, then use a pastry blender or a pair of forks to work the butter into the flour.
Keep butter bigger than you think. For the most flakes, squish the butter pieces between your fingertips until they range in size from about a peanut to a walnut. Yes, a walnut. It might seem big, but trust me. For even more flakes, gently scoop up a handful of dough and smear it between the palms of your hands. Do this a couple more times to create sheets of butter laced throughout the dough.
Proper hydration. Different flours absorb water at different rates. This is why you will likely see a range of water in a pie dough recipe. Add about half of the suggested amount into the bowl and quickly toss the butter and flour mixture around. Do not add all of the water in at once.
Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of water at a time until the dough comes together. Give the dough a firm squeeze - most of it should stick together. A few dry bits is okay. When done, the dough will coat your fingers but shouldn’t feel sticky or tacky. The dough will be shaggy, not a smooth ball.
Work the dough as little as possible. As I mentioned earlier, working with your hands means more control over the dough. Process it too long in a food processor, and your dough will be tough, not tender. Again the dough should be slightly shaggy when done.
Chill the dough. Form the pie dough into a disc and wrap it in plastic. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for 1 hour or up to 3 days in order for the dough to continue to hydrate evenly and for the gluten to relax before rolling.
Find my All-Butter Pie Dough Recipe by clicking here! Complete with step-by-step photos and full instructions.
Preparing the Pie:
Picking a pie pan. I prefer plain yet quality aluminum pie pans, like Fat Daddios. They conduct heat evenly. While ceramic pie plates can be pretty, they don’t always heat up evenly and efficiently. A glass pie pan works as well. Bonus? You can see through the bottom of a glass pan to see if the crust is browning. However, do not freeze and bake a pie in a glass or ceramic pan or it may shatter in the oven.
Add as little flour as possible. You will need a light dusting of flour on your work surface, your dough, and rolling pin to keep things from sticking. Do not add more flour than necessary. In fact, the dough should still have some chill to it from the refrigerator which will make it easier to roll and stick less, requiring less flour. Brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush before assembling.
On rolling… Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. It will be too hard to roll straight from the fridge. Roll the dough from the center then out (away from your body), stopping just before you get to the edge. Keep rotating the dough to form a circle and to make sure it is not sticking to the work surface. If the dough keeps snapping back at you, it could be too cold. Let it stand another 5 minutes then roll again. On the flip side, refrigerate the dough if it starts to warm up too quickly.
Fix cracks when possible. Instead of re-rolling the dough, try to fix minor cracks by pressing the dough back together. If you need to start over, carefully fold up the dough and refrigerate again. Remember, the more you work the dough, the more strength the gluten builds and makes the dough tough.
Vent the top crust. Depending on the design, always make sure there is a vent on top. This is easy if you choose a lattice design. If you decide to leave the top crust whole, make a few slits with a paring knife. This allows hot steam to escape and prevents the top crust from being soggy.
Chill, again. After assembling the pie, refrigerate the whole thing again for at least 20 minutes. It is the perfect time to preheat the oven and allow the dough to relax. This settles the gluten in the dough and keeps it from snapping back and shrinking in the oven.
Add an egg wash. Just before baking, brush the top of the pie with an egg wash. You can use parts (just the yolk or whites) or the whole egg mixed with water or milk. An egg wash encourages browning. Depending on the combination, it will brown faster and/or may provide a nice sheen (more on this below).
A sugar sprinkle. Last but not least, sprinkle the egg-washed pie with a bit of sugar. This provides a little extra sweetness and texture to sweet pies. Try regular granulated sugar, turbinado sugar, or a combination of both! Use a light hand as too much sugar may brown quickly.
Properly preheat the oven. Make sure that the oven is nice and hot before baking the pie. Remember what we said about cold butter making flaky crusts? You want the pie to start baking at a high temperature immediately, then reduce it (per recipe instructions) to cook the filling.
Use a pizza stone. To ensure a crisp bottom, try baking pies on a preheated pizza stone. Alternatively, you could use a preheated rimmed baking sheet. In fact, you should almost always bake pies on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any unwelcome spills.
Use a pie shield. If the edges or top crust begin to brown too quickly, cover them with a pie shield. I don’t personally own one, but I do create my own out of foil. Tent the whole pie in foil or just the edges by cutting a hole from the center.
For fruit pies. Make sure you are baking your fruit pies long enough. The filling needs to come to a boil in order to activate the thickening agent - like cornstarch. You should be able to see obvious bubbles within the vents of the pie.
For custard pies. Do not over-bake custard pies or they may crack and curdle. With most custard pies (like pumpkin), the pie is done when the edges puff up and set, but the center circle (a few inches in diameter) still has some jiggle to it. The filling will continue to cook and firm up as it cools.
Be sure to give both fruit and custard pies ample time to cool before slicing. If you cut into a fruit pie straight from the oven, the filling will spill out. It is best to allow it to completely cool, at least a couple hours, before slicing.
For custard pies, cool them in the oven (turned off) with the door open, if possible, for about 30 minutes. This will help the pie keep from cracking. Since the center should not be set when you pull it out of the oven, it needs plenty of time to cool and firm up. Keep custard pies in the refrigerator after they have cooled, or per the instructions of your recipe.
My Favorite Pie Recipes to Bake This Season:
Other tips and tidbits:
Pie dough may be frozen for 2 to 3 months. Wrap it well in plastic then place it in a zip-top bag or lidded container. Thaw the pie dough overnight in the refrigerator before using.
For fruit pies, you can freeze them both unbaked and baked. Wrap unbaked pies in a double layer of plastic wrap before freezing. If you have freshly crimped edges or decorations you want to preserve, chill first to set then wrap and freeze. Bake the pies from frozen, adding the egg wash just before they go in the oven. Be prepared to add at least 30 minutes of baking time. Do not freeze then bake unbaked pies in glass or ceramic/porcelain pans as they might shatter due to extreme temperature differences.
Personally, I’ve never frozen an unbaked pie longer than a week or so. I suppose if you want to freeze them longer, I would suggest wrapping them in another layer of foil or placing them in a large freezer bag.
For custard pies (like pumpkin), allow baked pies to completely cool before wrapping and freezing. They can be kept frozen for about a month. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator to keep ‘weeping’ to a minimum and the crust from getting soggy. Carefully blot any excess moisture that forms on top with a paper towel. Serve cold, at room temperature, or give slices a quick blast in the microwave.
If you plan on freezing pies (before or after baking), then I recommend using disposable aluminum pans so your other pie pans aren’t tied up in the freezer.
As mentioned above, different combinations of eggs, parts of eggs, and liquid create different washes for your pie. I typically use a whole egg whisked with a splash of milk for golden brown crust with a hint of shine. Here are a few other options (like when you have a leftover egg white or yolk you want to use up):
Egg white (beaten): subtle shine but not much color.
Egg white with milk: subtle shine with a little color.
Whole egg (beaten): golden brown and slightly glossy.
Egg yolk with cream: deeply golden with little shine.
Heavy cream: crisp crust but not much color.
No wash: matte and dull.
Decorating tips and ideas
Last year, I wrote a super fun and festive article about decorating pumpkin pies. The three ideas included piped and toasted meringue topping, leaf-shaped pie dough cut-outs, and a giant whipped cream flower on top. Read about each design here.
To keep pie dough cut-outs and decorations on a custard pie from sinking in or browning too much, I suggest baking them separately from the pie then placing them on top later.
Struggling with lattice pies? Remember that the fridge is your friend. Roll, cut, and chill the strips before weaving so that they don’t get too soft on you.
Easily switch up a regular lattice by angling the strips to create diagonals or try braiding a few of the strips to slip in between.
Another fun way to decorate both fruit and custard pies is to embellish the edges. Instead of a regular crimp, use dough scraps to cut out shapes or add a braided trim. Use egg whites as “glue” to hold everything together.
What pie recipe are you most excited to bake this season? Let us know!