Pie 101

This article was originally published in August 2013

Thickener options

Cornstarch has a nice smooth texture and no real flavor, but it can lead to an occasional murky color with berry pies, and its thickening power is compromised with high-acidity fruit such as cherries. 

Quick-cooking tapioca won’t result in a cloudy filling and is great for soaking up really juicy fruit. It can be a little tricky, however, because it needs high heat to activate completely. Substitute 1:1 for cornstarch.

Flour is an easy thickener in that you generally always have it on hand and it works beautifully. But it can lead to a gummy, cloudy filling with delicate summer berries. Reserve using flour as a thickener for heartier fruits such as apples and pears. Substitute 2 tablespoons flour for 1 tablespoon cornstarch.

Arrowroot has a more neutral flavor than cornstarch and also tolerates acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better. Substitute 1:1 for cornstarch.

Agar agar flakes are an odorless, tasteless sea vegetable gelatin. Substitute 1 tablespoon agar agar for 2 tablespoons cornstarch.

Make the most of summer fruit with these tips for delicious, classic pies.

Make a great filling

  • Thickener: The nice thing about baked fruit pies is that you don’t need to do anything fussy. You just need to toss fruit with a little thickener to create a thick, jammy filling. Cornstarch is usually the thickener of choice, but you can use agar agar, tapioca, arrowroot powder or flour (see substitution ratios at right).
  • Not too much sugar: Pies are best when you use ripe, sweet fruit and minimal sugar. Half a cup for a 9-inch pie usually is plenty.
  • Spices: A little spice is nice! Nutmeg for berries, cinnamon for apples or pears, cloves for peaches and apricots. Ginger can go with almost anything. Just 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons is enough.
  • Brighten up: Most fruit pies need a little extra acidity to brighten the flavor. Add a squirt of lemon juice and some zest, or a splash of balsamic vinegar.
  • Butter: This is optional. Some bakers like to dot the top of the fruit fillings with a bit of butter for richness, while others think it detracts from the fruit flavor.

Make a crust from scratch

  • Cold ingredients. All ingredients (even the flour!) should be ice cold before mixing.
  • The dough should have some pea-size pieces of fat. Start with small cubes or shred frozen butter with a cheese grater.
  • Use pastry or all-purpose flour. Cake flour is too soft and bread flour has too much gluten.
  • Blend just enough water to hold the dough together (it should just stick together when pinched), but be careful not to over work the dough. Try substituting cold sour cream or heavy cream for the water.
  • Chill the dough at least 30 minutes before rolling. Place the crust in the dish and refrigerate for 15 minutes before filling to help prevent soggy crusts.
  • Bake at a high temperature. 400 to 450° F produces the best crust.
  • Single-crust pies: When a pie doesn’t have a top crust, you can prebake the bottom crust and brush it with half an egg white or two tablespoons of a thick fruit preserve, strained. Or, chill the crust until just before baking, adding filling just before sticking it in the oven.
  • Two-crust pies: In many ovens, baking the pie directly on the oven floor will produce a crisp crust without burning it. You may bake a pie on the oven floor for an hour at 375° F or 425° F for 30 minutes before raising it to the lower shelf for the remainder of the baking time. If the top is not browning adequately, move it to the top shelf for the last 10 minutes of baking. Using a glass or ceramic pan aids in browning.
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Buy pre-made organic pie crusts at PCC.

We offer Wholly Wholesome’s 9-inch pie shells in Traditional, Whole Wheat, Spelt, and Gluten-free, made with rice flour. Find them in the freezer section.

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