Pie

A Professional Baker's Tips for Baking Pies Smarter, Not Harder

June 30, 2016

The way I see it, there are two major differences between professional and home bakers.

The first is practice. I bake a dozen pies on a daily basis and, for weddings and holidays (hi, Thanksgiving and July 4th) up to hundreds (for Thanksgiving last year, three of us made about 400 pies in total, and at least a couple hundred in one night. And 100 of those were apple!) If there’s a “secret” to mastering any skill in the kitchen, it’s repetition (and repetition) (and repetition).

I started working at Scratch—a little pie shop with a big personality in Durham, North Carolina—just over a year ago. On my first day, our chef and owner, Phoebe Lawless, told me, “You are going to become very proficient at pastry.”: Less statement, more mandate. I told myself the same thing, every morning, until it came true. Now, I run our baking program, and say things like, “Easy as pie!” with no sarcasm.

Photo by James Ransom

The second is management. Working as a professional baker is as much about shaping baguettes and whipping meringue as it is about planning ahead, streamlining recipes, and maximizing efficiency. “Smarter-not-harder” tricks—13 of them are below!—enable baking on a production-scale, but they also make baking at home simpler and happier.

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Between you and me, that’s another industry secret: Happy bakers always yield better pies.

1. Make your own pie dough mix.

Take a cue from cake mix and mix together everything for your pie dough ahead of time: Combine flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in butter (or shortening or lard, but I like butter best) until it resembles peppercorns and peas. Transfer to a plastic bag, label, and stick in the freezer for up to two months. Next time you want to make pie dough, dump the mix into a bowl, and just add water! Easy as—okay, okay—and the icy ingredients will help create an extra-flaky crust.

2. Or, go one step further and stock up on the dough itself.

It’s just as much work to make dough for one pie as it is to make dough for four—or eight! Take advantage of having the ingredients out and make a big batch. Wrap each dough round tightly in plastic, then freeze for up to two months. When you’re ready to roll, just thaw overnight in the fridge.

3. Crusts, too!

I know—there’s nothing prettier than a vintage pie tin. But there’s nothing more practical than a disposable one. If you’re baking several pies for one event, crimp your pie shells in disposable tins and store them stacked in the freezer for up to one month. What’s more: Baking directly from the freezer helps your crimping hold its shape. (When I have my choice, however, I like to use a glass pie plate because you can check the bottom to see how the color is progressing!)

4. Or, forget the tin altogether.

Pie anxiety? Try a giant, rustic crostata instead. No par-baking. No crimping. Just roll out a 10-inch circle, fill the center with a fruit or vegetable mixture, then pinch and ruffle the edges inward to form a crust. I like creating five corners, like a star, but it’s your giant crostata!

One of 116 li'l hand pies I spent last night with at the bakery. This flaky fella: sun gold tomato, farmer's cheese.

A photo posted by Emma Laperruque (@emmalaperruque) on

5. Make-ahead streusel will save time.

Decorative top crusts are cute—but time-consuming. I opt for streusel instead. Make a bag-full and keep in the freezer for up to one month. My go-to formula method is to pulse 2 cups flour, 1 3/4 cups sugar, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a food processor, then sprinkle over 10 ounces of cubed butter and pulse until crumbs and curds form. (You can also add a small amount—say 1/2 cup—of toasted nuts to the mix.)

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Top Comment:
“This weekend I am craving a cherry pie but will triple the dough recipe to freeze--per your suggestion. And along with thre water I always add vodka per america's test kitchen's tips. Or maybe because I am usually making bloody Mary's around the same time I am prepping for the evening's dinner party. ;-)”
— zoemetro U.
Comment

The next time you’re assembling a fruit pie, scoop a heaping cup on top. As to what kind of streusel—just ask your flour shelf. You can replace up to half the all-purpose flour with an alternative flour (or even oats!). For strawberries, try rye flour. For blueberries or blackberries, cornmeal. For peaches, whole-wheat.

6. Memorize this fruit pie formula.

5 cups fruit; 1/2 cup sugar; 1/4 cup cornstarch; big pinch salt.

Just remember to always consult (taste!) your fruit first. If the fruit is especially tart or acidic (like sour cherries or rhubarb), increase the sugar to taste. If the fruit is overripe or naturally low in pectin (like strawberries or blackberries), increase the cornstarch by 1 tablespoon at a time, from the 1/4 cup starting point.

7. Choose low-maintenance fruit.

Peaches are such princesses. Blanch and shock and peel and slice! Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, on the other hand, are down to bake as soon as they leave the orchard. If you’re in a time crunch, pick a fruit that requires minimal prep. Alternatively, assemble a mutt pie with two fruits: one fussy, one quick.

At Scratch, we don't actually cook any fruit first—I really like the "one pot" pie mentality (cooking the fruit in the crust, in the oven). If you are itching to roast or sauté or poach your fruit first—to intensify the flavor or change the texture—figure that sturdy fruits (like apples or pears) can stand to get cooked beforehand; but fragile fruits (like berries or super juicy summer produce) wants to get cooked as little as possible.

8. Skip the spice rack.

The usual suspects: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice. These players are friendly, but loud as heck. In the summer especially, I say forget ’em. Locally grown, peak season fruit is beautiful and complex and funny and full of ideas. Let it do the talking!

Lemon zest and juice are another beast: If the fruit, say figs or pears, are craving some acidity, I like adding lemon zest rather than juice, as lemon juice might affect your filling’s thickness. That said, if your fruit needs some liquid encouragement (you've got dry apples or under-ripe nectarines, for example), lemon juice can be helpful! Or try cider vinegar for a beautiful tang.

9. For the most laid-back pie, skip the fruit, too.

“Chess” is a category of classic Southern pies—custard-based, pantry-friendly, and traditionally prepared with buttermilk and cornmeal. At Scratch, we adore all sorts of chess pies. Lemon. Chocolate. Caramel. Lavender Honey. Earl Gray. I love their laid-back personality, like sweet tea on a front porch.

Chess pies are also one of your best make-ahead options! Prepare the filling up to five days in advance and store in the fridge; par-bake the crust up to one day in advance, storing at room temperature. When you’re ready to bake, whisk well, pour into the par-baked crust, and bake until the center just jiggles.

10. Befriend your fridge.

Anytime something seems off when making dough, stick it in the fridge, and come back in a little while (say, 30 minutes), once you've both had a chance to cool down. As in bread, flour and water can accomplish so much together without our help. Often, the last tablespoon we think we need to add to pie dough could be avoided just by letting it rest and hydrate in the fridge.

Something else to consider: Summer humidity! Doesn't just affect hair. Flour absorbs a lot more moisture in the summer months, so you'll probably need less water than recipes advise.

11. Sheet pans are just as important as pie tins.

To get the pies in and out of the oven safely, set them on a rimmed sheet tray (lined with parchment in case there's any spillage). If possible, I like to start fruit pies on the bottom rack (to encourage the bottom crust to brown) and then move them to the top rack toward the very end (to encourage the streusel to crisp).

12. Know what "done" looks like.

If you pull at the crust's edge, to get a look at the sides, the color should be deeply golden brown and not at all raw. For fruit pies, I also look for thick, slow bubbles on top; if it's bubbling over, it's gone too far. For chess pies, you're aiming for a slight puff of the custard and a lazy shimmy in the center when shaken; if it's puffing dramatically, it's gone too far.

13. Take the cooling time into account.

A cooling rack is the best implement, but it's not necessary by any means. The more critical factor is time. (If you need a pie for the evening, make it in the morning. If you need a pie for the morning, make it the night before... or get up at bakers' hours!) Fruit pies need a lot of time to cool—ideally, three to four hours. It's helpful to see the cooling time as "part of the baking," just like with bread. A lot of important stuff happens after the oven!

With respect to chess pies, a couple hours should do it. Basically, if it's warm to the touch, don't cut into it!

Have you learned a tip that's changed the way you bake pies? Tell us in the comments!

29 Comments

debra C. September 24, 2018
I discovered a great way to cut down on added liquid to your fruit pies is.... instead on using lemon juice add 1 tea. of lemonade flavored Kool Aid to the sugar. It adds just the right amount of tartness and keeps the fruit the star of the pie.
 
Paul September 3, 2018
Are peaches really that difficult? Last year they seemed so reasonable, every pie seemed to come out fine---this year, rather disappointing. My go-to recipe is one I got here a few years back, but this year either the peach filling never thickened and the pie was runny (served cool) or it became a gummy mess. My last one was my best by far, ever, because I made a peach filling first, baked the bottom crust, put the filling in cold and added a top crust and baked it until the filling had warmed and the top crust had browned---beautiful flavor and texture, and a nice crust. None of the recipes for peach pie I saw said to do anything special to them (although I saw you wince at a three step peach process, above, that I would not want to do either). I rather liked making the pre-cooked peach filling, but it seems like unnecessary work. Any thoughts?
 
Rick July 12, 2018
Emma, Thanks for the wonderful tips! This is one of those articles we all need to keep handy in our cookbooks and notes.<br /><br />I love tip #6, but have a question. Is it for a 9"x 1" pie tin or the standard 9"x 1 1/4" pie pan? I know they are similar, but just wondered if you had one or the other in mind. Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 13, 2018
Thanks, Rick! I didn't have one or the other in mind. I've found that how full a pie ends up in the pan depends on the fruit itself more than anything else, so if it ever looks a little shallow, I just add a bit more fruit on top.
 
bjm February 11, 2018
I love this site - I always learn something new when I read the original post and the comments - thank you. I have been baking pies for a very long time, have used many of the tips included here, but also learned some new that I will try on my next pie excursion. Do you have any suggestions for successfully using disposable aluminum pie tins?
 
MichiganDave February 11, 2018
One, I like the way you write. Two, I have read of cooks substituting freezer cold vodka for a portion of ice water to make a more crusty dough. In pie dough to breads, rolls and biscuits and I wonder what your thoughts are. BIG thanks for sharing your knowledge.
 
Erica July 7, 2017
I'm wondering if anyone has any hints for the juice that accumulates in blueberry pies. I haven't figured out a flour/ cornstarch/ sugar to berry ratio and there's always too much juice. help!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 7, 2017
Hi Erica. I've been making a lot of blueberry pies at work lately! If your blueberries are very juicy, they're probably pretty sweet, too? If so, try 5 cups blueberries, 1/4 cup sugar, and 6 tablespoons cornstarch, plus some lemon zest and salt to taste.
 
Erica July 8, 2017
Thank you! Will let you know how it goes!
 
Joan I. May 19, 2017
I didn't see any rhubarb custard pies. I bake one to kill for and have been doing this for several years. I get requests for this pie if they are coming for dinner. i pretty much made up the recipe for the filling as my Mom would say, "a little bit of that and a little more of this". You know how Moms are giving out recipes.
 
bjm February 11, 2018
Could you please supply the recipe for the rhubarb custard pie? Thank you.
 
Brett August 22, 2016
Man. Talk about expert pie tips. I do most of those. But I also do season my apple pies around fall even though I live in Washington and get great fruit. I might have to try one of the 4 'virgin' style.
 
Alexandra H. July 4, 2016
What fabulous tips!! <br />Are than any pies that do not freeze well? I'd like to prep a few pies in advance (just egg wash before baking) for summer guests. Thanks!
 
bbmoe July 2, 2016
I have several pies worth of prepped and frozen peaches, but they are too juicy to use straight up. Any suggestions for how to use them/treat them in pies?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Few suggestions: 1) When you thaw the peaches, do so in a strainer, so you get rid of extra juice before you prepare the filling. But... save the juice for other uses! Like smoothies, or cocktails! 2) Use as little sugar as necessary and amp up the cornstarch. 3) Be wary of overfilling the pie. If the fruit is extra juicy, your crust is already working hard to stay crisp. 4) A generous portion of streusel on top can help absorb any extra juices, too.
 
Smaug July 1, 2016
Raspberry orchards?
 
Julie July 1, 2016
Lots of great ideas here that I will use -- love making fruit pies in the summer!!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Thanks, Julie! Happy baking!
 
EmilyC July 1, 2016
So many good tips here! Thanks Emma!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Thanks, Emily!
 
Lisa O. July 1, 2016
Great tips. I bake alot and pies are my favorite thing. A bit more fussy than say baking a cake, but I just prefer pies. I love your tip about pre-mixing the crust ingredients and tossing them in the freezer. Brilliant!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Thanks, Lisa!
 
zoemetro U. June 30, 2016
Thank you Emma, for all of the wonderful tips--especially the frozen "peppercorn and peas" pie mix. This weekend I am craving a cherry pie but will triple the dough recipe to freeze--per your suggestion. And along with thre water I always add vodka per america's test kitchen's tips. Or maybe because I am usually making bloody Mary's around the same time I am prepping for the evening's dinner party. ;-)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Thanks! Hope your cherry pie turned out great :-) I, too, am always pro a drink in hand while cooking/baking!
 
AntoniaJames June 30, 2016
You covered quite a bit of ground, and did a nice job of it. <br /><br />My two insider tips: <br />1. Toasted wheat germ makes any streusel taste even better. I also sprinkle it on every galette crust, before piling on the fruit. <br />2. Add nectarines, especially freestone ones, to the list of low maintenance fruits. Their thin skins (did you know that the nectarine is actually a variety of peach with fuzz-free skin?) can go into just about any baked dessert with no problem. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance where one would need to peel a nectarine. <br />Going off road here, but while on the subject of peaches and nectarines, if you haven't made Bill Smith's (of Crook's Corner) Green Peach Salad, well, you don't know what you're missing. Next time you're picking peaches or nectarines - yellow or white -- for a dessert, reach for two or three hard ones, and pop them into the fridge for this. It's a Genius recipe here - one of the best. ;o)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
1. Love your wheat germ idea! I always have a jar in my fridge to stir into yogurt. Will have to try with my next streusel :-)<br />2. Totally adore nectarines, especially the white ones! I have an embarrassing fruit fuzz "phobia" -- get goosebumps every time I touch a peach! So nectarines are my jam. I'll have to try a green nectarine salad.
 
lyndsay S. June 30, 2016
Love the tips, Emma! Good reminder about the cooling time for fruit pie. (No.5 you forgot to add "butter" after "cubed"!)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. July 4, 2016
Thanks, Lyndsay! And good catch :-)
 
Fran D. May 19, 2017
Great great info.I have trouble with shrinkage of blind crusts. I think it is in my rolling technique.<br />