The Science of the Perfect Pie | Natural Gourmet Institute

The Science of the Perfect Pie

Posted November 1, 2018

Pie season is officially here. Whether you’re a seasoned pie maker or learning to make pie for the first time, these tips from NGI alum Cheryl Perry, a professional baker and author of the cookbook For the Love of Pie: Sweet and Savory Recipes, will help you improve your pie making game.

Starting with the foundation of pie, here are some tips for ensuring success in making the best crust.

For the Crust:

  1. Colder is better – Keep your crust ingredients cold. Cold inhibits gluten development, so cold butter, ice cold water, and even cold flour will help to ensure a tender and flaky pastry.
  2. Avoid bleach – Use a high quality, unbleached all-purpose flour that is not enriched. Bleached flour is just that, bleached. Try to avoid this at all costs. Bleaching lowers gluten content, which makes it difficult to have a pie crust that holds together. The 11% gluten found in all-purpose flour yields the perfect tenderness in a crust.
  3. A little acid goes a long way – Add a little acid to your dough. Whether it be fresh lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, acid retards gluten development. One teaspoon will do the job, and it can replace some of the water you add.
  4. The more pieces of butter, the better – Be sure to leave pea-sized pieces of butter. Butter is made up of 3 parts: milk solids, butter fat, and water. As the pea-sized pieces of butter melt, the water heats and creates steam, which lifts the pockets to create a flaky pastry.
  5. Leavener is your friend – Add a leavener to your dough. Baking powder is a leavener (a substance that causes expansion of doughs and batters by the release of gases), so by adding a teaspoon to your crust, it will assist the butter in creating a flaky pastry. Baking powder is essential in vegan pastry dough where you don’t have butter pockets creating steam.

Once you’ve created the perfect crust, you need the perfect filling. Here are tips for the most popular seasonal pies: apple and pumpkin.

For Apple Pie:

  1. Water is not your friend – Apples, like most fruits, are mostly water. Water is the enemy of a fruit-filled pie because it make your pie mushy and your crusts soggy. To combat having a watery pie, mix apples with the other filling ingredients (sweetener, cinnamon, salt, etc.) for 30 minutes. This pulls a lot of moisture from the fruit. Strain the mixture and reduce the strained liquid in a saucepan by half. The liquid should have a caramel-like consistency.
  2. Get zesty – Add lemon zest to fruit pies instead of lemon juice. Fruit loves lemon, and the bright flavors of lemon zest do a better job of enhancing fruit flavors without adding extra liquid. I like to think of lemon as the salt of the fruit world.
  3. Balance sweetness with salt – That being said, you should still add a pinch of salt to all fruit pies.
  4. Let your pie breathe – Cut steam vents. This will help liquids that are present evaporate into steam.
  5. Thicken your filling – Add a starchy thickener and be sure you see the liquids bubbling before removing your pie from the oven. When adding a thickener, be it arrowroot powder, kuzu powder, or organic non-GMO cornstarch, it must be heated to a boil to activate. Otherwise, you will not only have a watery pie, but it will be chalky from the starch thickener.

For Pumpkin Pie:

  1. Let your filling sit overnight– Make the filling a day ahead. Letting your filling sit in the refrigerator overnight allows the spices you’ve added to the pumpkin filling to develop, creating a truly flavorful pie.
  2. A little lemon zest does wonders – Add lemon zest to the filling as an unexpected way to enhance the flavors.
  3. Bake until the outer edge sets – For a pumpkin pie with a smooth surface, free of any cracks or craters, bake the custard until the outer edge is just set and slightly puffed. The center of the pie should remain jiggly (but not liquidy). This might make a pie baker concerned that their filling will be under cooked, but my rule of thumb is 1 1/2-inches from the edge should be set (not jiggly) and the carry over from the set edge will finish cooking the remaining custard.
  4. Get creative with your custard filling – Try adding something unusual to your custard, maybe a little spiced rum and coconut milk instead of whole milk.
  5. Blend your own spices – Mix your own pumpkin spice mix instead of using a pre-made version. Not only will you be able to ensure the freshness of the spices, but you can control the balance of the different spices. For an extra-special touch, use freshly grated nutmeg and a touch of cardamom. Adding some Chinese 5-spice powder is an unusual, and delicious, twist.
  6. Mix in other orange produce – And lastly, you can always mix 1/2 the pumpkin with baked pureed yam, butternut squash, or sweet potato for a deeper flavor.

So there you have it.  Now get baking!