5 Pie Mistakes You’re Probably Making (And How to Fix Them, According to an Expert)
We have a major crush on most sweets, but none steals our heart quite as much as flaky, extravagant, nostalgic pie. Baker extraordinaire and PureWow recipes editor Erin Jeanne McDowell shares our sentiment—she just wrote an ode to the dessert with her brand new cookbook, The Book on Pie. Considering McDowell is something of a pie genius, we asked her for the top five pie mistakes she sees the most (plus expert advice on how to fix them).
“I’ve been baking pies for nearly 20 years, and I’m still learning new things about the pie process. That’s not because pies are hard to make, as most people might think, but rather because they can be tough to understand. With The Book on Pie, I set out to create a true handbook filled with all the tips and tricks I’ve learned about the process of baking pies, to demystify this process for home bakers once and for all. The book contains hundreds of recipes for crusts, fillings and toppings that you can mix and match to create the pie of your dreams—but perfect pies will still elude you if you don’t keep your eye on these five common mistakes.”
1. It’s all about hydration
“One of the most common issues I hear about starts with mixing the dough, and it happens before you even break out the rolling pin! A lot of pie dough recipes, including my own, only give a starting quantity of water…then enlist the dreaded recipe phrase ‘plus more as needed’.
But there’s a reason for this. Every type of flour—even different brands of flour—contains a slightly different protein content based on the type of wheat it’s milled from. Why does this matter when making pie dough? The amount of protein will impact the way the dough absorbs moisture and becomes hydrated. Hydration affects the final texture of the dough (over-hydrated dough can be tough, under-hydrated dough can be dry), and can also impact how easy it is to roll out (over-hydrated dough will stick to everything, under-hydrated dough will be very stiff and is prone to cracking).
Keep an eye on the dough. When it’s properly hydrated, it should come together in a ball, but not be sticky or tacky to the touch (a sure sign of over-hydration). If it’s dry or crumbly or you can see any visible floury bits, it’s under-hydrated.”
2. Don’t skip the chill time
“Pie will defy impatience, and so many folks at home are tempted to skip the many points of chilling often recommended in pie recipes. However, ‘it probably needed more chill time’ is the answer to a number of pie quandaries. Here’s the takeaway: You don’t have to refrigerate your dough every time the recipe says, but if it ever feels soft or sticky, you should. When in doubt, chill it out.
When are good times to chill? It might be easier to say that there’s really no bad time. If your butter starts feeling soft mid-mix, throw the bowl into the fridge (sometimes I even chill the bowl and flour before I start to keep things colder throughout the process). After mixing, the dough should always get at least 30 minutes of chill time. I also sometimes like to chill after I’ve lined the pie plate, but before I trim away any excess dough—this gives the dough a chance to relax and reduces shrinking of the crust. Always chill a pie for a bit after assembly and before baking to help retain the best shape on decorative elements in the oven.”
3. Consider the crust
“There is a single key to avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom on a pie: sufficient baking. In the time it takes for a filling to set, single crust pies generally don’t spend enough time in the oven to fully bake the crust. The solution? Par-baking.
Par-baking stands for ‘partial baking,’ and it involves weighing down the crust with weights (like dried beans) and baking until the crust is set but only just beginning to brown. After the par-baked crust cools, it can be filled and baked again. The second trip to the oven bakes the filling and finishes baking the crust, ensuring a crisp bottom.
Double-crust pies typically require a longer bake time, and therefore, the bottom crust should have plenty of time to bake sufficiently. But if you’re nervous, try baking your pie on top of a pizza stone, which will help evenly distribute heat to the base of the pan.”
4. Check that oven temp
“Just as many pie problems can be attributed to not enough chill time, the oven can also be a common culprit on its own. Many home ovens become uncalibrated with time, and without knowing it, your oven may be running hot or cold. This can be very problematic for pies, which require a high baking temperature—they can be severely damaged by an over- or under-heated oven.
One of the most common issues that can arise from an unreliable oven temperature is the fat melting out of the crust and creating a smoky mess inside the oven (and often, a very tough crust too). The solution is simpler than calling an oven repair person: Just invest in an oven thermometer (they’re usually less than $15). Place the thermometer in your oven, set it to 400°F and see what the temperature reading says 5 minutes after preheating. If it’s running 25 degrees too hot or too cold, adjust your temperature setting accordingly.”
5. Cool it down
“That reminder to be patient doesn’t stop with numerous trips to the refrigerator for chilling: It applies after the pie is baked, too. Letting pies cool completely ensures that they will hold a slice and not become a runny mess when the knife touches them. But this is also true at every stage of the process. If you par-bake a crust, let it cool before adding the filling. If you pre-cook your fruit filling, let it cool before putting it into a crust. Intense temperature extremes between components can lead to issues like condensation, which can cause the crust to separate from the filling, and weeping or moisture loss from the filling.”