Kitchen Hacks

Want Picture-Perfect Pie? Bake it in a Bag

December 20, 2015

I love pie—but my pie recipe could use some work. My pies, assembled with great care and affection, have emerged from ovens half-burnt, under-cooked, very un-golden-brown, and with sad shrunken crusts. So when my boyfriend told me that the best pie he'd ever had was served to him in the brown paper bag it was baked in, I didn't waste time tracking it down. This, this could be my great opportunity to make a perfect pie. But it didn't take long for the search for the recipe to turn into a full-fledged investigation.

If I can make a pie that looks like this, so can you. Photo by Mark Weinberg

A very quick Google lead me to The Elegant Farmer, a farm located in the small town of Mukwonago, Wisconsin and the self-declared (and trademark-registered) home of the "Apple Pie Baked in a Brown Paper Bag."

The phone number on the website led me through a labyrinth of recorded menu options—the first of which offered me a "timely message of encouragement from the Bible." After selecting 2 for the market (as opposed to 3, which funneled into the Wisconsin Electric Railroad Museum), I was led through several more options. I clicked through 0, then 1, then 3 before landing at Debbie McCready, the market's Wholesale Customer Service Representative.

The secret to the perfect pie? Bake it in a bag. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Debbie explained to me that the recipe originated from an old cookbook the owners of the farm, "Farmer Dan and his wife Karen," came upon years ago, and had since developed into a large-scale pie operation. "The bag," she said, "allows the pie to absorb the flavors of cinnamon sugar while keeping the apples crispy." Over the course of our conversation, I began to get the hint that this recipe is kept Coca Cola-Level Top Secret. She also made clear that the several recipes for it that exist online are not the original recipe—though she gave me permission to give it my best shot. "Now you know I can't tell you that," she repeated as I asked more questions and jotted down the clues she let slip:

  1. "It's not a short bake-time at all—it's actually different temperatures."
  2. "The crust is sugar cookie-like."
  3. "We cut a hole in the bag during the baking process."
  4. "No, you cannot just use any brown bag. We get ours specially-made."
  5. "Tapioca makes for a better pie experience."
  6. "The pies we sell at our market use a lard crust."
Photo by Mark Weinberg

As soon as I got off the phone, I combed the site for more clues—I only wished I had a blue notebook to jot down the clues in. On the pie reheating guideline page, I found a list of the ingredients. On the same page, I learned that they suggest baking frozen pies at 325° F for 60 minutes and fresh pies at 425° F for 10 minutes. With these clues, I set forth to create and test a recipe:

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From the ingredients list, I assembled my filling from five "sweet-tart apples," cinnamon, tapioca pearls, granulated sugar, all-purpose flour (I diverged here from their use of enriched flour in the filling), and the juice of half a lemon. For the crust, I first asked for your help, confused a few of you, then settled for a contemporary of the Pie in a Bag, a recipe from my grandmother's collection that called for lard.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

For the baking process—arguably the most important part—I placed my pie on a baking sheet, then folded parchment paper over it and tucked it under its edges. I then baked it at 375° F (my boyfriend, a much more talented baker than I, talked me out of the very low cook time they suggest for reheating of 325° F) for 50 minutes, then upped the temperature to 425° F. At this point, I cut a hole in the bag up to the edges—careful to stand out of the way of the escaping steam—and placed it back in the oven for another 8 minutes. And when I took the pie out of the oven, to my amazement and wonder— drumroll, please —it was perfect.

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Top Comment:
“When I made my family cookbook in 2010, I included Apple Pie in a Paper Bag, not so much because it was a standard but a memory. I was asked to bring pies for a Thanksgiving dinner the kids in our son's college dorm were doing for their parents. Pies were a bit of a reach for them. LOL So I decided to try this because it was for college kids. The pies got raves from everyone at the dinner.! Thus I included it. The year was 1989 or 90, I think,”
— Joan W.

The pie crust was evenly cooked, the crust (likely due to the magic of Crisco) had the texture of a sugar cookie, and the filling was delicious—the apples were held together by the tapioca and melded with the cinnamon, but still slightly crispy. It may not be the exact recipe of The Elegant Farmer's (and if it is, they won't tell me), but you can be sure I'll be baking future pies in parchment paper. If not for the flavor, then for the dramatic presentation. Introducing the Amazing Apple Pie Baked in a Haphazard Parchment Tent:

Do you have any tricks for baking pies? Have you had The Elegant Farmers' Apple Pie Baked in a Bag? Tell us in the comments below!

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Renee L. June 20, 2018
Have you tried baking any other pies in the brown bag? I have a cherry pie recipe that uses a crumb topping. I wonder if it would work the same as the apple? Only bag recipes I have seen have apple.
Marcia March 14, 2016
My Mom made an apple pie baked in a paper bag. We just called it bag pie. I have a box of my Moms recipies, I'll try to find it. If I remember correctly the pie had a crumble top.
Joan W. March 14, 2016
When I made my family cookbook in 2010, I included Apple Pie in a Paper Bag, not so much because it was a standard but a memory. I was asked to bring pies for a Thanksgiving dinner the kids in our son's college dorm were doing for their parents. Pies were a bit of a reach for them. LOL So I decided to try this because it was for college kids. The pies got raves from everyone at the dinner.! Thus I included it. The year was 1989 or 90, I think,
twinsue February 9, 2016
Do use parchment and not a paper bag. Modern grocery bags have chemicals in them used to process pulp, etc. and heating them can release them.
G February 9, 2016
The hole in the bag ... is a small vent hole or is it more like an 8 inch hole ?
Leslie S. February 9, 2016
8-inch hole!
MPC February 9, 2016
I first had apple pie baked in a brown paper bag in about 1991. A friend made it for us for doing a favor for him. We have always called it "Ira's Apple Pie." He heard the recipe on the radio. My husband no longer cares for it as he thinks it is too sweet, but it is always a big hit. My recipe does not use lard, only butter.
Susan February 9, 2016
I've been baking a standard apple pie in a brown bag since the mid 1990s when I was in high school -- the recipe came from one of my mom's cookbooks all about Amish cooking or Amish baking, I forget which. I use a plain brown paper bag from the grocery store - just slide the pie in and crimp it closed, and give the edges a tiny tweak if you're worried it is poking up too high! With a crumble topping, at 425 degrees for about an hour - it comes out perfect every time and never EVER has the bag caught on fire! (And I've made this pie in good ovens, bad ovens, electric ovens, gas ovens, big ovens, small ovens, and over 2 continents and on a private island off the coast of California. I promise - it's a genius tip for sure!
Leslie S. February 9, 2016
Where do I sign up for eating apple pie baked on a private island? Sounds amazing!
Barbara W. December 21, 2015
Your pie does indeed look picture perfect. I thought I'd ask; since you were looking for a pastry dough made with lard, why did you settle for one made with vegetable shortening? Shelf stable vegetable shortenings (and shelf-stable lards) are hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated (trans) fats, a dangerous health hazard. But fresh lard is available from your butcher, and makes sublime, silky, flaky pie crust. Just make sure your lard has to be refrigerated, and will keep for only a few days.
Leslie S. December 22, 2015
That's a great question I could have answered better in the post! In short, I decided to use vegetable shortening because I learned from the Elegant Farmer that the pies they sell at their local Whole Foods use vegetable shortening, so I felt like I could use either lard or shortening, but I've never worked with lard before so I stuck with what I knew (and had readily in my pantry!) but you could definitely make this with lard! Which you're right is probably much healthier!
bjm March 14, 2016
Lard makes an excellent pie crust - especially when paired with butter for flavor. The only lard I use is Leaf lard. It is hard to find, but is a treasure when you can. It is the premium of lard and there are no chemicals or preservatives in Leaf lard. I buy it several pounds at a time, portion it out, wrap it in parchment paper and then foil and freeze it. It makes a tender, flaky pie crust with excellent flavor.
Meg June 8, 2023
Where do you find Leaf lard? Is that a brand name or what?
Vicky |. December 20, 2015
Omg Elegant Farmer!!! We used to go there on a field trip in summer camp every year and would buy our pre-teen weight of pies and pickles. This warms my heart!1
Ascender December 20, 2015
I remember seeing a cooking show about the Elegant Farmer's apple pie in a bag. It looked interesting but way too much work for the home cook, using different pastries for top and bottom crusts and separate ovens for the long slow bake and the final hot bake. Your approach is an interesting compromise -- simple enough to try.