How to prevent the gap in pie crust: five surefire solutions

Apple pie: everyone’s favorite fall dessert. You’ve mixed and rolled, peeled and sliced, filled and chilled, baked and cooled and cut and… AAARGGHHH! The filling has shrunk to a shadow of its former towering self, while the crust has stubbornly held its ground, yielding apple pie with a large and unsightly chasm between apples and crust. What’s a baker to do? Fear not; these five simple tips will help you eliminate that irritating gap in pie that sometimes appears.

Apple pie angst? Follow these easy tips for preventing an unsightly gap in your pie. Click To Tweet

Now, the first order of business here is to create the gap in pie that occasionally plagues all of us. I have some ideas for forcing this “error” as I make one of my favorite apple pie recipes; let’s see what happens.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

First, I’m going to really heap McIntosh apples in my pie crust. Macs are notorious for shrinking as they bake; so if I really pile them high before covering with pastry, there’s every chance they’ll cook down — while the crust retains its original loft.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Next, I make it easy for the crust to puff up as it bakes (rather than settle down) by not venting it anywhere. With no place for the apples’ steam to go, the top crust will expand like a balloon.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the baked pie. Bubbling juice managed to seep out around the edge, but it looks like the crust is pretty much intact — and in basically the same position as when I put the pie into the oven.

Once the pie cools, I warily cut it in half. How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Score! I’ve never been so happy to see a failure. This is exactly the result I was hoping for: the gap in pie we all try to avoid.

Now let’s see how to prevent it.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

1. Use butter, not shortening

The solidity of unmelted fat is part of what helps pie crust hold its shape as it bakes. Shortening has a higher melting point than butter; thus pastry made with shortening will hold its shape longer than one made with butter. The result? Pie crust made entirely with shortening will produce pie with a wonderfully crisp crimped edge, but also — potentially — a gap beneath the top crust.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

A pie crust based on butter is less likely to make a gap in pie than one made with shortening.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

2. Keep water to a minimum

This pie pastry looks good, doesn’t it? Cohesive, soft, ready to roll.

But wait — a wetter pastry makes a tougher crust. Why? Water activates and strengthens the gluten in flour: good for a crusty baguette, not so good for tender pie crust.

And a tougher crust translates to crust that holds its shape. Which is NOT what you want as the apples underneath that rigid crust slowly settle into the bottom of the pan as they bake.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

For tender crust, use less water. See how dry this butter pastry looks?How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Squeeze it together, it still looks fairly dry; see the crumbs in the bottom of the bowl? But after 30 minutes in the fridge — which gives the water a chance to fully hydrate the flour — the pastry rolls out beautifully. And produces a pie crust that’s tender, flaky… and won’t contribute to that gap in pie you’re trying to avoid.

Good rule of thumb: for a tender, flaky pie crust, use more fat than water (by weight). If your recipe calls for, say, 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) butter and 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water, beware: a tougher crust is in the offing. Two of my favorite more-fat-than-water crusts are Classic Double Pie Crust, and All-Butter Pie Crust.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

3. Roll sparingly

Back and forth, back and forth, rolling out pie pastry, back and forth… stop. The more you roll the pastry, the more you strengthen its gluten, the tougher the resulting crust.

Tips for effective pie-pastry rolling: Use a heavy rolling pin. Start in the center and roll outward, like the rays of the sun. Press down hard, and use as few strokes as possible to roll the pastry into the requisite-size circle.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

4. Choose apples that hold their shape

Here’s a Ginger Gold apple on the left; a McIntosh on the right. McIntosh apples make delicious pie, but boy, do they shrink as they bake! If you can’t bear giving up on your Macs, at least mix them with apples that hold their shape better. For further advice on apple selection, read The very best pie apples: how to choose.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

5. Vent the top crust

Doesn’t this top crust look gorgeous! But wait — something’s missing. Remember the steam from the baking apples, and how it’ll blow the top crust up like a balloon if it has nowhere to go?

Prick the crust all over with a fork, like you would shortbread; or cut some slashes or crosses. Make a lattice, if you like. But whatever you do, don’t bake your fruit pie with a solid, sealed-down top crust: you’re just asking for the that “gap in pie” result.

Now that we’ve learned our lessons, let’s make an apple pie whose crust snuggles up to its filling: no gap in this pie.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

This is an all-butter pie crust, made with a minimal amount of water. The filling is Ginger Gold and Granny Smith apples. Notice how well-vented the top crust is.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

I brush the top crust with melted butter. It probably doesn’t make any difference as to whether the gap will appear, but it tastes good, and helps with browning.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the baked pie. See how those apples inside are nearly flush with the crust? Looks like a winner.

How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Indeed. The crust follows the contour of the apples very nicely.

But what if you really, REALLY want to make your favorite McIntosh apple pie?

Let’s try it, using all of our tips for non-rigid crust.

A butter pie crust, made with a minimal amount of water, fully vented.

Let’s bake it.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

You can see the crust sank some; was it enough to prevent a gap?How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Good sign: I can see the apples.How to Prevent the Gap in Pie Crust via @kingarthurflour

Success! The McIntosh apples shrank as they baked, but the steps I took ensured that the crust would settle down with them.

Avoid that dreaded gap in pie

Mind the gap! For your best shot at a beautifully-baked pie, remember the following:

  • Butter-based pastry, made with minimal water and rolled sparingly, will produce a tender crust, one that’s unlikely to produce a gap.
  • Venting the crust releases steam, and helps the crust settle along with the apples as the pie bakes — even if you’ve used McIntosh apples.

Here’s one more trick to try, especially if you’re devoted to your shortening-based crust and McIntosh or Cortland apples: Toss the apples with sugar and thickener until they release some juice, then place in a saucepan.

Cook over medium heat until the apples have released more juice and begun to lose their shape and shrink a little. Spoon the filling into the bottom crust, add the top crust (remember to vent the top) and bake. Hopefully the apples will have settled enough during their time on the stovetop to prevent much further shrinkage — and the resulting gap.

Apple pie season’s here! Do you have any special pie tips? Please share in comments, below.

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. Martin Mcintyre

    Do a lattice crust and you could avoid this issue altogether. And for some reason, some people are overly impressed with it!

    Reply
  2. Joyce Cartwright

    MY favorite apples to eat as well as bake with are Honey Crisp, Granny Smith and Pink Lady–all what I refer to as ‘sweet-tart’ apples. My sliced or cubed apples are tossed with a blend of sugar, a bit of flour, a tsp of butter, cinnamon and cardamom to taste and left to set while dough is chilling. This mixture draws out some of the apple juice and the flavors meld beautifully. My crust is the flour, salt, and binding of a mixture that’s 2/3 butter and 1/3 Crisco. I agree it’s best to use just enough water then refrigerate the dough. Chilling allows forming a better ball to be easily rolled to the desired diameter from the center out, not back and forth, just as you said–and provides a flakier crust. Whether I have a full top crust that has been slit, a circle in the center for venting, or a lattice crust, I brush the top of the mostly baked crust with an egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sugar for the last 10-12 minutes of baking. Autumn IS pie-baking season Yum!!😋😋😋

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The melting point of lard is higher than that of butter, so it’ll act like shortening rather than butter. Here’s what PJ writes about using fats with a higher melting point: “The solidity of unmelted fat is part of what helps pie crust hold its shape as it bakes. Shortening [and lard] has a higher melting point than butter; thus pastry made with shortening will hold its shape longer than one made with butter. The result? Pie crust made entirely with shortening will produce pie with a wonderfully crisp crimped edge, but also — potentially — a gap beneath the top crust.” Therefore, stick with butter if you’re looking to eliminate that gap underneath the top crust. Kye@KAF

  3. Judy

    I’ve read that ice cold vodka is better than ice water in pie crust, true or false? Also I’d read that sanding sugar is better than regular granulated sugar for topping things. True or false or personal preference? I’m a HUGE fan of nutmeg and find freshly grated is far superior to the stuff in the can.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      As for your question about vodka, Judy, we explored using it in this article on our blog: Butter vs. shortening. Here’s what the author PJ Hamel writes: “The verdict? I couldn’t discern any difference in the flakiness/tenderness of the vodka vs. non-vodka crusts. BUT the vodka crust rolled out more easily; with its silken, smooth texture, it was a pleasure to work with. So would I add vodka to pie crust? Sure. I think I’ll even keep a little jar of it in the fridge, so it’s handy for pie crust or a gimlet – whichever comes first!”

      As for your question about sanding sugar, we recommend using a coarse, non-melting sugar like our Sparkling White Sugar for topping pies and other baked goods. Other kinds of sugar will simply melt and disappear during baking, so you’ll lose the visual appeal. Feel free to experiment until you find the right ingredient for your needs. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  4. Emily Epstein

    When my Dad made apple pie, he sliced the apples thinly on a mandoline and layered them in tightly, rather than putting them in in wedges or chunks. His pies never had a gap, and the filling was dense, almost meaty, but still juicy and fruity. Best apple pie ever.

    Reply
  5. Donna Hargreaves

    I like your recommendation to use butter, vent and brush with butter. One more step, sprinkle sugar over the butter on the top crust. Makes for an elegant appearance.

    Reply
  6. Vini Buzzell, Proctor vat

    Before adding apples to pie crust spread whipped egg white to crust as this cooks the bottom crust, otherwise without egg white it’s sort of raw. It works.
    Vini

    Reply

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *