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Your Biggest Pie Baking Questions Answered

Don't stress: With these tips, baking really is as easy as pie.

<p>Melissa Ross / Getty Images</p>

Melissa Ross / Getty Images

“Easy as pie” they say. But anyone who’s made pie before knows that starting out is not quite that easy. But once you get the hang of it, making pie becomes a joy. You simply need to learn the basic principles — and some handy tips and tricks don’t hurt. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the answers to common pie baking questions and baking pies to check my work. Here’s what I’ve learned.

What is better: butter or shortening?

I surveyed the eight other bakers I completed alongside in the Great American Baking Show, and everyone prefers an all-butter pie crust. Most importantly, butter tastes the best! Butter is an emulsion that includes water. In the oven, the water in butter evaporates and causes the pie crust to puff up and create flaky layers. Fats like shortening, lard, and oil do not contain water, so you get a tender crust, but it’s not as puffy or flaky as when you use butter. Shortening doesn’t have much flavor, so butter (or lard) gives you the tastiest crust. I prefer a high-fat European-style butter, like Kerrygold or Plugra. These butters are more pliable, so they give you better flaky layers and outstanding flavor.

Can you make vegan pie crust?

Yes - it's easy! You can use vegetable shortening, but I prefer to use a plant-based butter, like Miyoko Creamery’s Plant Butter. It has better flavor than shortening, plus it’s an emulsion (like butter), so you get the same puffy, flaky layers. I swap it one-for-one for butter in my flaky crust. When using vegan butter, remember that it’s not quite as pliable as real butter and it melts more easily, so keep things cold!

Related: The Secret to Great Vegan Baking and Ice Cream Is in These Ingredients

Why do you need to chill butter for pie crust?

The butter needs to be cold to keep it from melting into the flour. Chilled butter remains intact as you mix and roll out the pie crust. Once the crust goes into the oven, the chilled butter puffs up, giving you dramatic flaky layers. For a super-puffy, flaky crust, keep everything cold. Use cold butter, cold water, and even cold flour if you have a hot kitchen.

Can you use melted butter in a pie crust?

You can — simply press them into the pie pan. Melted butter pie crusts won’t puff up as much, and are great for pies that don’t require much of that flakiness, like in a pecan pie, pumpkin pie or for chilled pies like lemon meringue.

How do I make my crust taste better?

Crust is not just a vessel; it should be delicious on its own. For the best flavor, use an all-butter pie crust, and do not forget to add salt and a touch of sugar (I use a teaspoon of kosher salt and a tablespoon of sugar in my pie crust). A bit of sugar and salt add flavor to the dough, plus the sugar helps with browning. Without that seasoning, the crust tastes bland. My niece tells me that the crust is the best part of the pie. You can also add flavoring or spices to your crust. The zest of a lemon, some cinnamon, or even something savory (smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, or black pepper come to mind). Some folks even add grated cheddar cheese into a crust, which tastes heavenly with apples for an apple pie.

Why do you need to chill a pie crust before rolling it out?

Chilling your dough after you mix it does two things: First, it allows the flour to hydrate, giving you a smoother dough that’s easier to roll out. Chilling the dough also firms up the butter to ensure puffy flaky layers and to avoid a sticky dough. If the butter melts, you won’t get as much puff in your dough. After making my pie dough, I chill it for at least an hour.

Why freeze a pie crust before baking?

I like to roll out my chilled dough, line the pie pan, and then freeze it for at least ten minutes. This firms up the dough so that you don’t mess up the crust when you add baking beans (to par-bake or bind-bake) or add your filling. This chill also prevents the dough from shrinking when you bake it and encourages more flakiness.

Why par-bake pie crust, and when to do it?

Par-baking means partially baking your crust before you add the filling. You don’t get the crust fully browned, but you get it most of the way there before adding the filling. Par-bake any pie crust that is going back in the oven after it is filled, but not for very long, such as pecan pie or pumpkin pie. Those pies don’t bake long enough to fully bake the crust, plus the fillings are wet and may cause a soggy bottom.

Why do you blind-bake a pie crust (and when should you do it)?

You need to fully blind-bake any pie crust that does not go back into the oven, like cold-set pies such as lemon meringue, coconut cream, or French silk. When blind baking, be sure the crust is fully baked, meaning it’s a deep golden brown all over.

How do you avoid the dreaded soggy bottom on a pie?
If you make a pie that doesn’t bake very long (like pumpkin or pecan), be sure to par-bake your crust. If you make a cold-set pie, fully blind bake your crust before adding your filling.

For fruit pies that don’t need par-baking, like apple pie or cherry pie, I have a few extra tips.

First, pre-cook your filling for juicy fruit like cherry, rhubarb, blueberry, or peach. This captures some of the water in those fruits and ensures that the filling sets properly. You can also add a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs or finely chopped toasted nuts to the bottom of your pie crust to absorb any extra liquid from the fruit.

Start your pies at 425°F for the first 20 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 350°F and bake them for 60 to 90 minutes more, until they’re fully baked. The high temperature sets the crust and encourages puffing, then the long bake at a lower temperature cooks the filling and the pastry all the way through.

And finally, bake your pies on the bottom rack of the oven. Most ovens (set to “Bake”) heat from the top and the bottom, so placing your pie on the bottom rack means that the bottom of your pie sits closer to the heat source. This way, the top crust and bottom crust are done at about the same time. If you bake a double-crust apple pie on the middle rack, the top crust will be perfectly golden brown, but the bottom might still be soggy.

How do you know when your fruit pie is done?

Fruit pies should be bubbling all the way in the center of the pie, especially if they’re set with cornstarch, which is my preferred thickener. The crust should be a deep, dark golden brown. It’s hard to overcook your pie. In fact, most people undercook their pies.

What type of pie dish works best?

Glass, ceramic, or metal all work well, but I get the best results using an inexpensive heavy-duty aluminum pie pan. Aluminum is a great heat conductor, ensuring a crisp, evenly baked crust every time. Glass or Pyrex pie pans don’t conduct heat as well, but you can see if the bottom crust is fully baked.

Ceramic pie plates look lovely, and I recently took a pottery class and made my first ceramic pie plate! But in my experience, they are the least reliable when baking, because of varying thicknesses and materials. And unlike glass pie plates, you can’t check the bottom. However, ceramic plates work well for any pie that requires blind baking because you can see if the crust is fully baked before you add the filling.

Related: We Tested Popular Pie Dishes to Find the 3 Best for Bakers

Why is it important to let your pies cool completely?

Pies take a shockingly long time to fully cool, around four hours. To get the cleanest slice of pie, let it get to room temperature. Never cut a warm pie unless you want a puddle of filling and a soft crust.

Do you have a go-to pie crust recipe?

I have my flaky pie crust recipe memorized. It’s easy to remember: 1-1-2-3. 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, 2 sticks of cold, cubed, unsalted (preferably Kerrygold) butter, 300 grams (2 1/2 cups) of all-purpose flour, plus 8 to 10 tablespoons of ice-cold water. You rub in one-quarter of the butter into the flour until it looks like fine breadcrumbs, then take the rest of the butter and squish each piece flat and toss them with the flour. Add the water in two-tablespoon increments until the dough just barely holds together. Wrap the dough up and chill it for at least an hour before you do the next step to make it super flaky.

How do you get the flakiest crust ever?

The key is to have big flat pieces of butter in your dough, then do a quick lamination. Lamination is the fancy term for a process of folding dough to create the thin layers of dough and butter that give pastries like puff pastry, croissants, and flaky pie dough their lovely buttery flakiness. After I make my dough and let it chill, I roll it out into a big square, fold two of the sides in towards the middle, then roll the whole thing up like a sleeping bag. The roll-up gives my dough a ton of layers very quickly. Next, I roll out that sausage-shape to a flat rectangle that is about three-fourths of an inch thick. I chill the dough for at least an hour before rolling out to put in my pie pan. Chilling your crust before baking ensures that the butter doesn’t leak out in the oven, and instead puffs up.

How do you make the crust ahead of time?

First, make your pie dough ahead of time and freeze it. I make pie for Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July, birthdays, and almost every other holiday. Making pie dough ahead of time for the holidays saves time and stress. I always have blocks of flaky pie dough in my freezer for pastry emergencies; you can freeze unrolled pie crust for several months. After I make the dough, I wrap it well, put it in a plastic ziplock bag, then freeze it before rolling it out. I thaw it in the refrigerator overnight so it’s ready for me the next day. You can also roll out the dough, line the pie pan, wrap it tightly, and freeze it for two to three days so that it’s ready to fill and bake on the day.

Can you bake pie ahead of time?

If you pre-cook your fruit pie filling, you can do that a couple of days ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator. Although pie’s texture is best the same day it’s made, I will make pies for Thanksgiving the day before, since the oven is occupied with other things on the big day. I’ve never had any complaints. A good pie makes everyone happy.

Martin Sorge is the winner of Season 5 of the Great American Bake-Off and the creator of the weekly newsletter, Great Bakes.

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