Perfect Pie: a baker's dozen+ tips

What’s your definition of the perfect pie?

That’s like saying what’s your definition of the perfect day. Or sunset. Or movie. We all have our own parameters and standards; none right, none wrong, all different.

But the perfect pie – well, most of us can agree on certain things. Its crust should be tender and flaky, not leathery or hard. Golden; not burned, or pale and soggy. Its filling, nicely sliceable: not stiff as wet cement, nor slumping into the pan in a watery mess.

With Thanksgiving just one week away, it’s time to polish up your pie skills. Whether you’re a beginner, or a well-seasoned expert with braggin’ rights at the Thanksgiving feast, I’m sure you’ll find at least one “ah-ha moment” in the tips below.

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Rule #1: Don’t use cheap ingredients in your crust. With just two ingredients (flour and fat) poised to make or break your crust, it pays to buy the best. King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (or our softer pastry flour, Perfect Pastry Blend) are top-quality flours that yield consistently good results.

And as for fat: all butter and shortening are NOT created equal. Some less-expensive store brands have more water (and less fat) than the national brands, and they can make your crust stiff or leathery, rather than flaky. Our advice? Use well-known brands (we like Vermont’s Cabot butter, and Crisco shortening). Or find a store brand that works for you, and stick with it; don’t dub around with cheap substitutes – especially when your Thanksgiving pie is on the line!

And which crust is “better” – one made with butter, or shortening, or a combination? See Butter vs. Shortening: the Great Pie Crust Bakeoff.

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The secret to wonderfully flaky pie crust lies in the balance of fat and water: the higher the ratio of fat (to a point), the flakier/more tender the crust.

Many pie bakers make the mistake of adding just a touch too much water, in an attempt to make the dough cohesive. Here’s a tip: Once the dough starts to come together, dump it out onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper, and spritz any dry areas with a water bottle. This will help keep the fat/water ratio in balance. For complete instructions, see our blog post Pie, Any Way You Slice It.

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Pie crust is easiest to roll after about 30 to 40 minutes of refrigeration. Once you’ve shaped it into a disk, wrap it in plastic or waxed paper, and chill it in the fridge. You want it to be stiff enough so it’s not sticky, but not so stiff that it cracks around the edges as you roll; and 30 minutes is just about right. If the dough has been refrigerated longer than that, give it about 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature to soften up, before rolling.

Does your pie crust slide down the side of the pan as it bakes, or shrink away from the rim? Tsk, tsk – you’ve rolled it too much, and/or not let it rest before baking. The gluten in pie crust becomes elastic as you roll the dough – the more you roll, the more elastic it becomes. If you fill the crust and put it directly into the oven, that elastic gluten pulls the crust away from (and down) the sides of the pie pan.

The solution? Refrigerate the crust once you’ve rolled it out (while you prepare the filling). This gives the gluten a chance to relax (no shrinking or sliding); and also hardens the fat (superior flakiness).

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So the crust is in the fridge – time for the sales pitch! But really, even if we didn’t sell this stuff, I’d recommend it. 1) An old-fashioned apple peeler-corer-slicer. Stick an apple on the prong, turn the handle, and less than 10 seconds later you have a cored, peeled, perfectly sliced apple. 2) A silicone rolling mat. Makes cleanup a breeze. The one I use has measured circles marked on it, so you can roll your crust perfectly round, and to the exact right size. 3) A giant spatula. Use it to pick up the crust as you roll, to sprinkle more flour underneath. Then use it to pick up the crust and gently lay it in the pie pan. 4) 9″ parchment rounds, the perfect size for lining your crust before adding pie weights, dried beans, uncooked rice, etc. prior to pre-baking.

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OK, back to business. Be absolutely sure, when rolling out pastry dough, that it’s sufficiently floured. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as rolling out a lovely round, then being unable to get it off the table into the pie plate. Take a giant spatula and, after every five or so strokes of the rolling pin, use it to lift the crust off the the counter or mat, and sprinkle more flour underneath.

That said – don’t overdo the flour. Too much flour will make your crust dry. As you roll, use a pastry brush to brush off any excess.

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Do you have trouble making a smooth edge when you’re rolling out pastry dough? Does your rolled-out dough look like a relief map of Australia? It helps to start with a nice, smooth edge. Shape prepared dough into a round disk about 3/4” thick, then roll the disk, like a wheel, along a clean work surface. Roll several times, until the edges are nice and smooth. Rolling dough into a smooth circle is much easier when you start with a smooth circle.

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Be sure to roll the crust large enough for the pan you’re using. A good rule of thumb is the pan’s diameter plus twice the pan’s height, e.g., a 9” x 1 1/2” pie pan needs a 12”-diameter bottom crust.

Why is this important? Because pastry dough that’s stretched to fit a pan will try like heck to revert to its original size as it bakes. If you’ve stretched a too-small round of dough to cover the pan, it’ll most likely shrink down the sides of the pan, disappearing into the filling as the pie bakes. FAIL.

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Did your grandma roll her rolling pin and roll back and forth, back and forth over pie crust dough? Well, this is one time you shouldn’t follow Grandma’s example! Rolling dough first one way, then the other “confuses” the gluten, making it tough.

Best way to roll pie crust? Start at the center and roll outward, towards the edges, giving the crust a quarter-turn every couple of rolls. This “aligns” and strengthens the gluten in the dough without making it tough. And if you’re worried about the pin sticking to the crust, put a piece of parchment between the two; works like a charm!

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Now, on to the pan. If you’re a pie baker who battles soft, white, flabby bottom crusts, try this trick: bake in a well-seasoned, 9″ to 10″ cast-iron skillet. Cast iron, being both black and iron, conducts heat extremely well; set it on the lowest rack of your oven, and I guarantee your pie’s bottom crust will be wonderfully browned.

Whatever pan you choose, it’s best that it be darker in color (like our dark-gray 9″ King Arthur pie pan), rather than lighter; a light-colored, shiny metal pan will produce a light-colored, under-baked crust.

Do you prefer baking in a glass or stoneware pan? No problem; if it works for you, stick with it.

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Grease your pie pan? Doesn’t seem like you’d need to, since the crust includes a significant amount of fat. But here in the test kitchen, we’ve found that a spritz with your favorite non-stick vegetable oil spray (our favorite is Everbake) makes it easier to get that first slice of pie out of the pan – especially if any sticky filling has seeped out and is acting like glue.

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If you’re making an open-face (single-crust) pie – e.g., pumpkin, chocolate cream, custard, apple crumb – you’ll want to “crimp” the edge of the crust: which means prettying it up a bit, rather than simply letting it sit there all raggedy-looking.

The simplest “finish” to the edge of a crust is simply to trim off any overhang, then press it down onto the rim of the pan gently, with the tines of a fork; this is an appropriate crust when the filling isn’t liquid.

For a liquid filling, it’s best to make a stand-up edge, in order to better contain any sloshing filling as you’re moving the pie from counter to oven. To make a stand-up edge, press and squeeze the crust’s overhang into a vertical “wall;” then use your fingers to flute the wall. A spoon pressed around the outer edge makes a pretty crimp, as well.

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When you’re making apple pie, choose apples according to how soft you like your filling. Of commonly available apples, McIntosh will make a very soft, smooth filling; Cortland, a bit less soft; and Granny Smith, the most toothsome, chunky filling.

Check out local varieties by slicing in chunks, and microwaving for several minutes, side by side; you’ll be able to tell easily which apples soften as they cook, and which remain firm.

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Who’s had this experience? You cut into your pie, and the filling drains out of the crust into the bottom of the pan. Not a pretty sight.

Fix #1: Don’t cut your pie until it’s absolutely cold. Cutting a piece of pie when the pie’s even lukewarm can cause the filling to run into the breach. To enjoy a slice of warm pie, wait until the entire pie cools completely (this can take up to 6 to 8 hours); then cut a piece, and rewarm briefly; the microwave works well here.

Fix #2: Use the correct amount of thickener. Whether you prefer flour or cornstarch, tapioca or Instant ClearJel or Pie Filling Enhancer, it’s important that you match type of fruit to type and amount of thickener. This can be tricky; for lots of helpful tips, see our blog post Thickening Fruit Pies.

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For a lovely final touch atop a double-crust pie, before baking brush the crust with milk or cream, and sprinkle it with coarse white sugar (sparkling sugar). For apple pie, try cinnamon-sugar.

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If you’ve baked many fruit pies, you’ve probably experienced the dreaded boil-over: the filling bubbles up and out of the crust, onto the floor of your oven, where it smokes, turns black, and fills your kitchen with the aroma of burned sugar. NOT pleasant.

It’s inevitable that fruit pies will sometimes spill their filling; make sure you’re prepared by setting the pie pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment. While the filling may burn and even smoke, at least you can simply discard the parchment afterwards – rather than stick your head in the oven and scrape gluey black residue off its floor.

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Can you freeze pie and bake it later? Absolutely! Our blog post FREEZE: the Fastest Way to Fresh-Baked Fruit Pie tells you everything you need to know to get ahead of the Thanksgiving curve – or to save some of summer’s fresh berry pies for to enjoy in January.

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And there you have it – pie news you can use. This Chocolate Cream Pie is now well within your reach!

Bet you’re inspired to make pie crust, right? Enjoy our recipes for Classic Single Pie Crust and Classic Double Pie Crust.

I’m sure you’ve got a tip you can share with everyone – simply enter it in the comments section below, and we can all continue to learn as we go.

Want to weave a lattice crust, make cutout decorations, create a braided edge, and more? Read our pie crust how-to.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Donna Y

    I roll out the pie crust between 2 sheets of cling wrap. Do you have a tip on how to flIp the crust into the pan? The crust usually will tear at the edges. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Donna, we’re glad you asked. We have a few different techniques that we use for moving rolled out pie crust into a pan, and we even made a video to demonstrate the four methods we’ve found work best. Check out that video here. (It sounds like you’ll want to pay special attention to technique #3, which includes a parchment paper flip of the crust into the pan.) We hope this helps! Kye@KAF

    2. Donna Y

      Thank you. I will try parchment paper. Can you tell me why my crust dough doesn’t have the same flex. It will tear. Not enough water or gluten? It bakes up nice and flakey and tender though.

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      It sounds like it could either use another teaspoon or so of water to hold together, or that the dough is too cold and needs 5 to 10 minutes on the counter to become more pliable. It should still be chilled but you don’t want it to be hard as a rock. If you have any other questions, our free and friendly Baker’s Hotline is available at 855-371-BAKE (2253) or through chat and email on our website so always feel free to reach out! Annabelle@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hello, Donna! We recommend using parchment paper rounds to line the bottom of your pan. It seems there are very few things in life that can’t be fixed with a little parchment paper. Annabelle@KAF

    2. Donna Y

      Thank you Annabelle. Can you also give me a tip on how I can bake a custard pie to get the bottom crust brown? I like to bake the pie in a waterbath halfway through (to keep the sides from over baking while the center gets done) but then the crust is raw and gummy. I tried prebaking then brushed on egg white when cool and then fill it with the custard and bake but the bottom crust got soggy. Thanks again in advance!

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      Perhaps instead of just prebaking your crust, you should fully bake the crust until it’s golden brown. Check out the tips in this article on our blog about blind baking for details on timing and temperature. Another approach you can try is fully baking your pie crust, letting it cool, and then spreading a bit of melted chocolate on the bottom and up the sides. This works along the same lines of using an egg wash to line the crust. It creates a barrier between the crust and the creamy filling and hopefully keeps things crisp! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We wonder if it might have something to do with the kind of pan you’re using, Kelly. As we mention in the article, dark colored metal pans conduct heat most efficiently and are usually our pans of choice. If baking in glass or ceramic instead, it can help to lower the oven temperature by 25° to allow for a slightly longer bake, as well as to bake in the bottom third of the oven. If, on the other hand, you’re baking in a disposable tin pan, you might find it helps to snuggle it within a cast iron pan to bake. We suspect that a more fully baked crust will release more easily from the pan, but don’t forget that a non-stick vegetable oil spray can also help to ease the task. Mollie@KAF

  2. Kari Brane

    I made a pie today, all butter crust, stuck it in the freezer for about 30 min before baking, but some of the fluted edge broke off and slid down the outside of the pan. A draping garland is not the crust edge I was looking for. How can I fix that problem for next time?
    Thanks!
    Kari Brane

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kari, if your crust slid down the outside of the pan while it was baking, you might want to consider using a bit of shortening in place of some of the butter next time. Shortening has a higher melting point than butter, so it holds its shape and remains defined after baking. It’s especially worth taking this approach if you’re hoping for a pretty presentation. Doing this in addition to chilling the dough before baking should give you better results next time. Happy pie baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Betty Jean Niehaus

    Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Finally someone addressed the problem of the PIE CRUST RIM FALLING AWAY THE SLICED PIECE OF PIE. I too use a store bought frozen crust because it’s faster for me but the same thing happens every time. I slice the pie, place it on the dish and the CRUST RIM falls away from the filled pie. WHY?
    Also, don’t tell me to make my own crust because just like JJ. LEIGH-November 17th-2014 at 1:35 AM, I too had a PARENT who always made ‘PERFECT’ PIES by JUST FEELING the dern INGREDIENTS so I never learned how to feel that PERFECT PIE !!!!!!!!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We know just the problem you mean, Betty Jean, and we find that it typically happens when the crimped edge has been pressed too thin (and is therefore a little too delicate). Try using a lighter touch when crimping, especially right at the seam where the edge of the pan meets the rim, to allow for a slightly thicker, sturdier edge. We think (and hope) this will help! Mollie@KAF

  4. Derek Wit

    Thank you. My daughters always made terrific pies for all holidays. i.e. 9 pies for Thanksgiving. My favorite is Pumpkin with whipped cream followed closely by Cherry.

    My daughters are off with their own families and your article inspired me to continue the tradition. Cheers to all…Derek

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It can be so frustrating when that happens! The apples themselves will shrink when cooked, so not packing the pie fully enough can lead to a falling top crust. Sometimes pre-cooking your filling a bit can help — athe fruit will shrink down before filling and allows you to more fully fill your pie. Shrinking can also happen if you don’t vent the pie, and the steam gets trapped inside. Mollie@KAF

  5. Jackie

    I just baked a delicious pecan pie with my own crust. At serving time we were surprised to find that the center of the crust rose to the top just under the pecans leaving the sticky filling attached to the bottom of the pie pan. The only thing I think of is that I may have put the filling in too soon. Help. The crust was flaky and light.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Jackie, some pecan pie recipes call for blind baking the crust for a short period before filling it. This sounds like this could have been helpful in your case. Check out this Pecan Pie recipe for instructions. For more help troubleshooting what happened with your crust, please give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-2253(BAKE). Barb@KAF

    2. sandy

      I had a similar problem with pumpkin pies last Fall. I had changed the pie crust recipe I was using and several of my pumpkin pie had the crust raise up from the bottom of the pie pan leaving a wide gap underneath. After a lot of experimenting I concluded that the new pie crust recipe I was using was too moist and that I was putting the pie too low in the oven to bake. Result was that steam was forming under the bottom crust and pushing it up. I didn’t have the problem with apple pies (I think) because the filling was heavy enough to hold the crust down. I went back to a dryer crust recipe and put the pie higher in the oven to bake and the issue disappeared.

  6. Jean Glur

    This was a great read! I am an in-home baker, have baked pies for over 20 years, but there is always something you can learn from the experts! Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks, Jean! We’re glad you still found something to learn after 20 years of pie baking. I’m sure you could teach us some great things too! Barb@KAF

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