Tips for Baking the Best Thanksgiving Pies
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7 Ways to Bake Like a Pro
For many home cooks, homemade pie crust ranks among the most-intimidating baking projects. But professional bakers are here to show you that a quality lattice is within reach. While the stakes might run high this time of year, there’s no better time to tackle making homemade pie. Arm yourself with these tips and prepare to win Thanksgiving.
Buy the Best Butter You Can Afford
Butter creates your crust’s flaky texture and, yes, buttery flavor, so don’t skimp. Unsalted butter is favored across the board (to control the amount of added salt), but American versus European butter is a personal preference. Phoebe Lawless of Durham bakery Scratch prizes American butter for its higher percentage of milk solids, which creates creaminess and caramelization, while Courtney Goldsmith of New Season’s Market in Portland, Oregon, prefers European butter because of its slightly higher fat content, which consistently yields a flaky crust. If you’re a novice baker, Allison Kave, author of First Prize Pies and owner of Brooklyn’s Butter & Scotch, recommends substituting a quarter of the called-for butter for leaf lard (available at butcher shops and farmers’ markets) to help guarantee a flaky crust.
Raid Your Liquor Cabinet
Courtney Goldsmith of New Season’s Market in Portland, Oregon, reveals that vodka is her secret weapon for achieving a flaky, buttery crust, almost always using a 50/50 balance of vodka and water for the liquid ingredients. “If I am using European butter I [sometimes] completely replace the water with vodka; the higher fat content makes up for the moisture loss,” she explains. Look to bolster fillings with a boozy touch, too. Allison Kave of Butter & Scotch (apple pie pictured), adds a hefty shot of bourbon to complement the ginger-laced pecan filling in her pecan pie, and spikes caramel sauce with rye whiskey-infused peanut butter (a byproduct of one of Butter & Scotch’s cocktails) to amp up her Whiskey Peanut Butter Apple Pie.
Wrap It Up — Or Don’t
Once you’ve made your pie dough and formed it into two even discs (no cracks should be visible), Scratch’s Phoebe Lawless recommends wrapping it tightly with plastic wrap and leaving it in the fridge for a minimum of one hour. This will make it easier to roll out and will help keep the fat (butter) cold, which will yield a flakier crust (as pictured in the Scratch pie above). If you make the mistake of adding too much water — which can produce a tough crust — Lawless recommends leaving the dough unwrapped while it rests. “Putting it back into the fridge firms the fat which produces flakier, more tender pastry,” she explains. And while it might not fully rescue your dough, as Lawless says, “Tough pie is better than no pie.”
Even professional pastry chefs are tempted to pull pies and pastries out of the oven too soon. Zoe Nathan believes that pie crusts baked to a deep, golden-brown taste better, so she tells her staff that the bottom pie crust must be “brown, brown, brown.” To ensure that the pie is completely baked, Nathan recommends baking pies in Pyrex glass pie dishes so that you see and monitor the color of the crust.
Top It Off
If you’re baking a fruit pie, the recipe probably calls for a top layer of crust, which can be tricky to evenly lay on top of the filling without ripping it. To dial down the stress factor, try Zoe Nathan’s trick: Use a small cookie cutter to cut out pieces of dough and arrange them on top of the filling to create a top crust and a pretty visual effect, then brush with an egg wash before baking. If you’d rather save the second round of dough for another pie, try a crumble topping instead: Nathan uses a combination of oats, almond meal, brown sugar, walnuts and coconut oil for Huckleberry’s crumble-topped vegan pies.
Focus on the Flour
All-purpose, unbleached flour is the bakers’ standard choice for pie pastry. Phoebe Lawless from Durham’s Scratch prefers the wheat-ier and nuttier flavor that you get, and it creates better overall caramelization (read: golden crust). But don’t be afraid to employ other flours for taste and texture: Zoe Nathan of Santa Monica’s Huckleberry adds rye flour or toasted wheat germ to enhance the flavor of her pie crust, and Keia Mastrianni of Milk Glass Pies in Charlotte adds rye flour or cornmeal to give double-crusted pies “a little more tooth.” (Keep in mind that when working with flours with higher bran content, you may need to add a little bit more liquid.)
There's a Better Butter Process
Most bakers prefer mixing butter and flour by hand so that they can feel the texture (and because they love working with their hands), but you can also use a food processor which can be especially helpful if you’re making several batches of pie dough or are short on time (just be careful not to over-pulse, which activates the gluten). No matter your preferred tool, massage or cut the butter and flour into small, unevenly sized pieces, ranging from “lentil to pea-sized,” says Allison Kave of Butter & Scotch. “Large chunks of butter will leave holes in your crust; tiny, homogenous pieces will prevent the flaky, airy texture you're looking for. The ideal is somewhere in the middle.”