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