Pie

How to Control the Juiciness of Your Fruit Pies

July 22, 2016

One of the many reasons pie is my favorite dessert is the seasonality of it all. No matter where you are in the year, there’s a perfect pie to be made. When the first glorious stalks of rhubarb grow in May, when strawberries begin to speckle green fields in June, when trees are heavy with cherries in July—it’s all ripe for pie-making.

But fresh fruit is a fickle mistress in the world of pie. The ripest (even over-ripe) fruits make the sweetest pies, but they’re also so juicy. Unpredictably so: It’s impossible to know what exactly is hiding inside each piece of fruit, let alone a pie's worth of fruit. You could have a perfectly par-baked crust, the prettiest lattice in all the land, and have followed the recipe to a T, and still, the pie could be nearly liquid inside when you go to slice. It’s one of the trickiest things in learning to make pie—learning to watch and feel and taste the fruit, then listening to what it tells you. But if you’re not sure you’re ready to enter the world of produce-whispering, I’ve got a few tips that can lead you to perfect levels of juiciness more frequently.

First, a pie primer:

1. Learn to make a tender, flaky crust: There’s no better vessel for your favorite fruit filling, and a perfect filling may go unnoticed without that yummy, buttery stuff wrapping it up all nice!
2. Get a handle on par-baking: Knowing when, why, and how to do it will help lead to crispy bottom crusts.
3. Remember to cool the baked pie: Many fruit pies will be total juice bombs fresh from the oven. Let the pie cool—completely (1 to 2 hours) or, at the very least, for 45 minutes. If you really love warm pie, you can reheat the slices, wrapped in foil, in a 375° F oven for 7 to 9 minutes.

Fresh Fruit

I tend to be sort of a low-maintenance pie baker when it comes to fillings: I don’t always like to pre-cook my fillings. This works out fine with apples and pears in the fall, and other fruits with high levels of pectin are usually okay as well. But when you’re dealing with super-juicy summer fruits, pre-cooking seriously helps.

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Pre-cooking your filling basically allows you to control the juiciness before it goes into the oven, so there are no major surprises when it’s time to bake. This does mean a longer prep time, both to prepare the filling and to let it cool completely. (Putting hot filling into a chilled pie crust = no go! You’d melt your carefully prepared butter shards inside the dough.) But this extra time is pretty nominal in the scheme of things, and let’s face it: Any extra effort that produces a more delicious pie is worth it. Right? Right.

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Top Comment:
“I have much greater success with tempered glass (e.g., Pyrex) pie plates -- especially in getting a good bake on the bottom crust early on, which seems to make such a difference with wet fruit pie fillings. Wondering if you have noticed any difference. Thanks! ;o) P.S. I'm on team tapioca . . . . it was my mother's choice, so I've been using it all my life. I use it in all-berry crisps, too.”
— AntoniaJames
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There are two ways to do it:

Photo by James Ransom

1. Fully pre-cooking.
I especially like to make fully pre-cooked fillings for stone fruit, like cherries, peaches, plums, and the like. In a large pot, toss the fruit (pitted, sliced, and stuff, as needed) with the sugar called for in the recipe to combine. Heat gently over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the fruit begins to break down. Simmer until the fruit is just tender and has released plenty of juices. Strain the solids away from the juice so they don’t get too soft, then return the juices to the pan.

Continue to simmer the juices until they reduce slightly to about 1/2 cup. Pour a small amount of the warm juice into the cornstarch (or other thickener) that the recipe calls for and whisk to create a slurry. (If your recipe doesn't call for cornstarch, a basic ratio is 1/4 cup cornstarch for every 5 cups of fruit. Other thickeners, like tapioca, can be stronger, so you can use 3 tablespoons instead.) Return the slurry to the pot and mix to combine. Stir in the fruit, and bring the mixture to a simmer until it thickens slightly. If the mixture doesn’t seem thick enough, you can add a small amount of additional cornstarch (again, pour a small amount of juice into it to help dissolve it before whisking it into the filling). When the filling is finished, cool it completely to room temperature before adding it to a crust.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

2. Macerating and reducing.
If you don’t feel like going the fully pre-cooked route, the macerating method is for you! It’s also my preferred method for preparing berry fillings of all sorts, because the fruit can break down too much if you make a pre-cooked filling—but this method still ensures the juice doesn’t overfloweth. In a large bowl, toss the fruit (sliced or chopped as needed) with the sugar called for in the recipe. Let the mixture macerate for 20 to 30 minutes, tossing occasionally as needed. Even if your recipe doesn’t call for it, a squeeze of lemon juice can really help get this process going.

Once the fruit has softened and released it’s juices, strain the juices away from the solid fruit. When you strain, press the fruit slightly. Don’t go nuts, but gently apply pressure to release any last clingy juices. Don’t worry about mashing up the fruit too much, since it’s going to get even softer in the oven during baking. Transfer the juices to a large pot, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Continue to simmer until the juice has reduced to around 1/3 to 1/4 cup. Pour a small amount of the warm juice into the cornstarch (or other thickener) and whisk to create a slurry. Return the slurry to the pot and mix to combine. Stir in the fruit, then cool to room temperature before adding to a crust. In this method, you don’t return the filling to a simmer, because it would break down the fruit further—you just let the cornstarch do its thickening work in the oven, instead of on the stovetop.

Frozen Fruit

Frozen fruit is certainly not immune to being excessively juicy. First of all, whether you froze it yourself from your excess summer bounty or you’re using frozen from a market or store, frozen fruit produces a ton of juice when it thaws. Well, it’s not all juice—some of it is water, but that’s extra worrisome. Not only will it add unwanted moisture to your pie, it won’t even be flavorful moisture. And that just won’t do! There are lots of ways to handle frozen fruit for baking (read: no one right way), but I always do it the same way for pies:

First, thaw the fruit overnight in the refrigerator. You can simply do it in a large bowl or put the fruit in a strainer over a bowl to catch the liquid as it thaws. If you don’t have overnight, you can always thaw it at room temperature in a single layer on a baking sheet instead. When the fruit is fully thawed, strain the fruit and reserve all the liquid. When you strain, press the fruit slightly—again, applying gentle pressure to release any last clingy juices. Transfer the juices to a large pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Continue to simmer until the juice has reduced to around 1/3 to 1/4 cup. From there, you can proceed one of two ways:

  • Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together and add them to the fruit, tossing to coat. Add the reduced juices and toss to coat, then cool the mixture to room temperature before adding to a crust.

OR

  • Whisk the sugar into the reduced juices, then pour a small amount of the warm juice into the cornstarch (or other thickener) and whisk to create a slurry. Return the slurry to the pot and mix to combine. Stir in the fruit, and bring the mixture to a simmer, then cool to room temperature before adding to a crust.

What are your best tips for keeping fruit pies from gushing juice when you slice into them? (Also: Are you on Team Cornstarch or Team Tapioca?) Tell us in the comments.

11 Comments

Greenstuff March 29, 2018
Don’t forget this tip from Rose Levy Beranbaum: https://food52.com/blog/20260-how-to-concentrate-flavors-by-reducing-fruit-juices<br />
 
Julie M. August 28, 2016
I have a bunch of red plums that I'm planning on making into a gluten-free galette...... when it says 'When the filling is finished, cool it completely to room temperature before adding it to a crust,' does that mean a pre-baked pie crust? Which obviously won't work if I'm wrapping a galette crust around the fruit, instead of using a pie tin. Or do I just cook it down to get most of the juices out, then wrap the crust around it?<br />
 
sewold August 27, 2016
To a novice cook adding warm liquid to the cornstarch is almost a disaster waiting to happen. Use a little bit of cold juice or water. The small amount of liquid won't make a difference.
 
ellent124 August 1, 2016
I also have been putting 3 Tbsp. cornflake crumbs or plain dry breadcrumbs in the bottom crust before adding the fruit and it seems to help sop up extra juices.
 
Mrs B. August 1, 2016
Here's a helpful article on why one should not use the type of pie plate (earthenware) shown in the photo above (the red one shown with the "Everything You Know" article): http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/08/how-to-choose-the-best-pie-pan.html <br />The same expert, Stella Parks, also published an excellent piece on perfecting blueberry pie a few weeks ago, which is linked from that article.
 
M July 27, 2016
As my last strawberry pie would attest, even berries that aren't overripe can lead to lakes full of pie liquid. Using firm berries (tossed with cs & sugar per recipe, not cooked) led to a sea of red liquid that needed to be sponged out after the first slice was served.
 
Sydney July 25, 2016
How does pre-baking a fruit filling affect the oven bake time, if at all?
 
ellent124 July 23, 2016
I don't think you can mix cornstarch with "warm juice". I learned it must be mixed with cold liquid to fully dissolve and avoid forming lumps. Natural pectin can assist in thinking pie too--finely grate a tart apple and squeeze it dry in dish towel--then add to cooked or raw berries. No one will even see it in the filling.
 
Minneapolani July 22, 2016
I don't love the texture of starch thicken pie fillings, so I use some dried fruit (ideally the same fruit as my fresh fruit) in my pie fillings. I use about 2 tablespoons of dried fruit per cup of fresh fruit. The dried fruit soaks up the juices and becomes fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the fruit. Since it can be tricky to find unsweetened dried fruit, I plan on the recipe being a touch sweeter and usually add extra lemon juice to compensate.
 
Amber July 22, 2016
One day too late...my rhubarb strawberry pie from last night needed this advice. I'll have to make another.
 
AntoniaJames July 22, 2016
Very helpful - earning a spot in my "Expert Advice" collection. <br />I'm curious though about your choice of an earthenware pie plate in the photo at the top. I have much greater success with tempered glass (e.g., Pyrex) pie plates -- especially in getting a good bake on the bottom crust early on, which seems to make such a difference with wet fruit pie fillings. Wondering if you have noticed any difference. Thanks! ;o) <br />P.S. I'm on team tapioca . . . . it was my mother's choice, so I've been using it all my life. I use it in all-berry crisps, too.