PieFilter: Double-crust optimization for fruit pies
August 10, 2014 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I've just baked my first two fruit pies from scratch, and have a few questions about the process, namely about prebaking and getting a good top crust.

A big bowl of fresh peaches got me to try my first from-scratch peach pies using Mark Bittman's recipes. Making the peach filling went well, and although my crusts were ugly, they tasted pretty good. But I have a question about the whole double crusts thing.

First, are you supposed to pre-bake the bottom crust when you're doing a double crust? I did, but then I worried constantly that I was going to burn the bottom crust while the top crust was still baking. Consequently I wound up with a paler (although still golden in spots) top crust, a pretty perfect golden bottom crust (just cut a slice and turned it over and examined it carefully), and a very deep golden (just on the edge of being too dark) crust around the edges. Is this where people start to do things like ring the edge of the pie pan with foil? The internet seems to indicate that double-crust pies usually go in with raw dough on the top and the bottom, so is that where I went wrong?

Also, how does doing a lattice top factor into this? Although the lattice top I tried didn't cover much, so it wasn't a proper lattice where you can only see the filling in small sections.

I do have a very old oven and have been using an oven thermometer to calibrate it a little bit - it even has a wonky dial and can be as off as 50 degrees sometimes) so that plays a role also.
posted by PussKillian to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I know, generally for fruit pies both crusts are raw when you go in. The first thing to be done (in my experience this has been the case every time I've baked a pie) is usually the outer edge of the crust. People cover that with foil or those special crust-edge-cover things when that bit is done so that it doesn't get burnt before the bottom crust (which is the last bit to finish baking) is done.
posted by quaking fajita at 7:05 PM on August 10, 2014

An egg wash (an egg and 2 tbsp of water) does wonders for the top crust, giving it a nice golden colour.
posted by furtive at 7:09 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add that as instructed by the recipe, I dotted the crust with butter, sugar, and a wash of milk (which apparently encourages browning where an egg wash encourages a shiny finish? That's what the internet told me.)
posted by PussKillian at 7:17 PM on August 10, 2014

My Mum told me a tip once, about sprinkling flour on the bottom crust before adding the fruit. As this will absorb the moisture and then thicken. This then helps stop the bottom of the pie getting soggy.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 7:24 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I always par-bake my bottom crust. I don't care what anyone else says, but I hate soggy crusts and par-baking helps things. I always do an egg wash--it does add shine but in my opinion it also makes a nicer golden brown color--better than milk. Oh, and yes, the ring of foil around the edge of the crust is a life-saver sometimes!
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:29 PM on August 10, 2014

Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipes are superior to Bittman's. Letting the peaches and sugar sit for a bit, straining those juices and cooking them down make the filling much thicker, and thus, no need to prebake the bottom crust.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:30 PM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I never prebake crusts for fruit pies. (Or pumpkin, either, FWIW).

I don't often make peach pies. For berry, I mix a quarter cup, maybe less, of minute tapioca with maybe a pound if berries and a half cup of sugar and let it sit for a while while I'm dealing with rolling out the crust. Bottom crust in the pie plate, fruit stuff, top crust on top stuck to the bottom crust with a bit of water. Usually I do a lattice top, because it's entertaining. I'm more likely to do a milk wash than egg, because I don't like cracking a whole egg just for the bit of wash. Bake at 400 for 15 mins or so and then turn it down to 350 for the rest of the time.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:01 PM on August 10, 2014

I never pre-bake crusts either. I will say that sometimes it is useful to pre-baking filing, with a double crust pie (maybe not so much with a lattice). Especially apple, but peach also if it is very juicy. This gets it to settle a bit down and you can lay the top crust closer to the filling, and then there are fewer large gaps of air in the finished product. Probably also helps get the bottom of the crust less soggy, as you are boiling off a bit of the excess water in the filling before it goes in.
posted by likeatoaster at 9:09 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with Ideefixe. Rose Levy Beranbaum is a MUCH better baker than Bittman. I never parbake crust for a double crust pie. If you are having trouble with a soggy bottom, try macerating the fruit, again as Ideefixe says, and simmering that juice down before adding back into the raw filling. Also, you can use an egg white wash on the bottom crust when it is raw. I like to let this air dry a bit. I haven't done a scientific trial and error on this but it seems to help me.

It seems stupid, but shielding the crust on the edges as it goes in the oven will help you get the top even. If I remember correctly, the typical time is about 1/3 of the total baking time.

The bottom crust of a double crust pie is certainly not going to get the color the top does. You can manipulate this, though, by your choice of pie pan. Darkly colored will brown fastest and glass/ceramic is the slowest. I don't know if they make these, but if there are Airbake pans, avoid them if you want color on your crust.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:59 AM on August 11, 2014

Also try baking on a stone. I don't prebake fruit pies. Actually pretty much only blindbake pies filled with precooked filings.

I dislike bittman and think Beranbaum's books are perfect for novices. But damn is she persnickety. Almost the opposite of Bittman.
posted by JPD at 4:52 AM on August 11, 2014

My process: after I roll out the bottom crust and put it in the pie pan- I put it in the freezer while I roll out the top. After I have the entire pie assembled, I put the whole thing back in the freezer for 20 mins before baking. No pre-baking the bottom.
posted by sulaine at 5:31 AM on August 11, 2014

My double-crust pies generally go in the oven with both crusts raw unless the recipe calls for pre-baking.

I find pies are pretty forgiving of oven swings -- my last apartment's oven had a crazy 60F swing (it wasn't miscalibrated -- it actually cycled between 30F above and 30F below whatever it was set for) and pies and tarts turned out just fine.

I generally use cornstarch to thicken the filling a bit -- same idea as the flour and tapioca starch suggested above. Whatever starch you have on hand will likely work.

Also, you don't mention what type of crust you're using? The specifics of your crust will make a big difference here. I'm generally lazy and gluttonous enough to just use short crust (which is high in fat and similar to a shortbread dough). Short crust is very easy to crisp and browns very easily (high fat content FTW). It's possible to make a short crust limp, but I've never managed it.

Rose Levy Berenbaum is amazing but she's a little intimidating for newcomers. I feel like Mark Bittman has a role -- you won't get the BEST PIE, but you'll get a pretty good pie, and the pie-making method won't make you crazy. (Seriously, I love Berenbaum, but she's the kind of baker whose dough ratios have three significant figures.)

Both Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and Rose Levy Berenbaum's pie and tart book have short crust recipes. I've cooked from both -- they're both good.

Anyway. My take is that you're at the point in learning to make pies where the best thing you can do is make a bunch of pies. You will learn a lot from each pie. (If fresh peaches are too expensive for a regular thing, frozen fruit can make a delicious pie, just defrost before using.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:34 AM on August 11, 2014

I'm a fan of the Cooks Illustrated recipe and methods for pie crust. I have pre-baked bottom crusts for some pies but it shouldn't be necessary.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:18 AM on August 11, 2014

I should maybe mention that I wasn't told specifically by the Bittman recipe to prebake the bottom crust. I have the How To Cook Everything app so when I looked at the fruit pie recipe, it cites the Flaky Crust recipe as something that's needed, so I sidelined into that recipe and it notes that prebaking is a thing which one can do and tells you how to do it. Since I had heard about it before (in a received wisdom, "prebaking crust is the way to have a better pie! kind of sense) I went ahead and did it and then realized I'd be trying to attach a raw dough top to a cooked dough bottom.

The filling was thickened with a bit of cornstarch. As for the crust, I suppose it may have been a shortcrust dough? It was flour, a stick of butter worked in, (I used my fingers because I don't have a reliable food processor but I've had some experience getting to that "cornmeal" stage baking other things) and then adding ice water. The crust tasted really, really good. Also, if the idea is for me to practice, practice, practice, I know I won't have any objections at home to turning out more pies. Really, these two were successful in that they tasted great despite looking a little amateur-hour. But now with all this help you guys are providing, I can get the aesthetics working too!
posted by PussKillian at 6:23 AM on August 11, 2014

Going to have to go against the flow here: I parbake every crust, whether tart or pie, open or closed. Just enough to make it set firmly, really. I then eggwash the entire inside and pop back into the oven for a couple of minutes to prevent sogginess from happening--I cannot stand a soggy pie crust.

Then remove from oven, fill, and top--lattice or full top doesn't much matter. Egg or milkwash the top, and yes, foil around the edge will prevent the seam from getting too brown.

posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:38 AM on August 11, 2014

Oh, and protip: pennies work much better as pie weights than beans do, because you can get right into the edges. Put them through the dishwasher first, of course.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:39 AM on August 11, 2014

Was it one stick of butter for two pies with two crusts each? That sounds like a normal piecrust, not a short piecrust. I know the RLB short cookie crust recipe includes an egg and some powdered sugar and a higher amount of fat. (I don't have How to Cook Everything (the book) in front of me, though, so I can't confirm that his short crust recipe is different!)

Also, the type of flour you use matters -- you would assume that whole wheat pastry flour would make a tougher crust, but it's exactly the opposite. The whole wheat actually interferes with the gluten strands and makes a tenderer crust. I generally sub up to about half of the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat pastry flour, which is available in bulk from my local Whole Foods. (Store in an airtight bag in the freezer, as with all whole grain products.)

Working dough with the fingers is the best method IMO (unless you have hand issues, in which case the food processor is fine). Leaving some chunks of butter slightly larger (not going quite to the "cornmeal" stage) will make the crust flakier as the butter will roll out between flour layers in baking and then melt, leaving flakes.

Also, if you're a visual learner, some bloggers add process photos, which can be very helpful. Here's Joe Pastry with RLB's standard pie crust method (the short cookie crust from RLB is faster... another reason I use it). Smitten Kitchen on pie crust. Both of these sites also have pie recipes, which will show you the actual rolling and assembly process as well.
posted by pie ninja at 6:44 AM on August 11, 2014

Reading your question... it sounds like nothing went wrong and you made a delicious pie - congratulations!

It is super difficult to over-bake the bottom crust once there's a filling in a pie. The filling is wet, and will not rise above a 212-220F boiling point temperature range (a bit hotter than water, because of sugar content, but nothing like a candy stage) so there's no way your crust can really burn. (no way, in the context of fruit fillings, and bottom crusts baked without pricking holes in them - you can get high-sugar pecan pie filling leaked under your crust and burning onto the bottom of the pan, but even then the crust itself doesn't burn.)

Basically, the only part of a pie that will burn is the part of the crust that isn't touching the filling. That means the fluted edge (and that's what the foil ring can prevent) but also sometimes the center top dome of the top crust. If the fruit you filled the pie with was very firm and chunky and had air spaces between pieces of fruit, then when it cooks and the fruit softens, it settles into a layer of pie filling that takes up less vertical space than the raw fruit did. If the top crust has already set up by that point (hot enough oven) then the crust will stay domed over an air pocket, and that crust is then somewhat prone to over-browning. Your best bet to prevent that is to precook the filling just enough that it doesn't hold air spaces.
posted by aimedwander at 7:01 AM on August 11, 2014

I use the Joy of Cooking recipe, essentially the same as this one. The main thing is to not blend in the butter too much, you want "pea sized" bits of butter. Never do this with your fingers if you can avoid it since you'll start melting the butter. If you like making pies, get a pastry blender, preferably one with straight tines, not rounded wires. You can us the two-butter-knives method if you don't have a pastry blender.

You don't need to pre-bake and I've never dusted with extra flour. Using ice water has never been necessary for me even in warm climates, nor has chilling the dough (though these might help). If you're worried about the bottom crust baking, put a baking sheet in the oven while it's warming up and this will help to conduct heat to the bottom of your pie when you put it in.
posted by beerbajay at 7:02 AM on August 11, 2014

Seconding the pastry blender, which is indispensable for pastry making.

I stopped pre-baking pie crusts for anything that goes in the oven. Even pumpkin and pecan pies get a raw crust (although I chill them in the freezer for a bit before I fill them, so the crust doesn't slump in the oven).

My preference is for the Cooks Illustrated crust, which uses a LOT of butter, but is easy to handle and doesn't break apart as easy as some others. My sister's very fond of the James McNair crust, which has different proportions.

As for filling a fruit pie, it depends on the fruit. I make pretty successful peach pies by getting peaches that are only just ripe (but not too juicy), peeling them by hand, and using tapioca to keep the filling together. Using corn starch or flour to thicken the filling affects the fruit flavor too much, I think.
posted by suelac at 12:08 PM on August 11, 2014

I pre-bake my crusts, and use instant tapioca to help reduce crust sogginess. It absorbs liquid much better than flour or cornstarch, and also doesn't leave a discernible flavor or clumpiness.
posted by PearlRose at 5:55 PM on August 11, 2014

I'd also say congratulations on your first tasty pie! I'd also like to echo pie ninja and say, that baking a lot of pies is the best way to learn. I prefer cooking to baking, but took 2 summers to master pie-making and I learned a lot about how crusts behave during that time. I also am convinced that there is a different "perfect" pie dough for each pie maker.

For me, lard was actually "too flaky". All butter tasted the best, but was a bit finicky to work with. My go-to crust is Rose Levy Berenbaum's cream cheese crust. I never par-baked any of my bottom crusts - but hey, now I have something new to try!

Happy practicing! (I now see peach pie in my weekend plans!)
posted by sarajane at 2:15 PM on August 12, 2014

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