The Right Pie Pan
There are many types of pie pans out there — glass, metal, ceramic — and even more ideas about which is best.
There are theories. There are facts. But perhaps most important, there are personal preferences. And for Nick Malgieri, a cookbook author and the director of baking programs at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, the answer is oven-safe glass. (Note from Rita: I remember well the class I assisted Nick in way back when in Cincinnati – he thinks like a scientist and cooks and bakes like a cook and baker – perfect combo!).
“People have a misconception that because glass is a poor conductor of heat it doesn’t make a good pie pan,” he said. “But in my many decades of baking, I’ve found that not to be the case.”
Although metal pans conduct heat better, glass more than makes up for that because it is clear, so radiant energy can pass through the pan and help the crust bake. Metal and ceramic pans impede this.
That means that although glass takes slightly longer to reach the same temperature as the oven, it cooks crusts faster and darker. This is why many cookbooks suggest lowering the oven temperature by 25 degrees when using glass, so the filling can catch up.
The downside with glass, Mr. Malgieri conceded, is that it’s more slippery than metal, making it easier for crusts to shrink and slouch, even when secured with pie weights.
His solution: Add a touch of baking powder to the dough. It helps the crust expand into the pie plate, he said, which is good no matter what your pie pan is made of.
Mr. Malgieri’s priority is control.
“I like glass because I hate guesswork,” he said. “I like to see I’m getting the color I want.” But, he quickly added, you can make a great crust in any pan “as long as you start with a good dough.”
So how to choose a pan? If you want more control and don’t mind a little shrinking (or if you are comfortable experimenting with baking powder), go with glass. If you would rather give up control of the color for a neater shape without altering your dough recipe, choose metal. Ceramic pans make the prettiest presentation, though they are the slowest to bake.
Maybe the better question is: what is your pie priority? — MELISSA CLARK
The Pre-Baking Dilemma
Should you, or should you not, bake a pie crust before you slip the filling into it?
The question stirs up such a quandary that Dorie Greenspan, a prominent cookbook author and one of the owners of a newly hatched New York cookie company called Beurre and Sel, can’t quite figure out how to answer it. “This is a big issue,” she said. “It’s huge. This is really a problem issue.”
Purely from the standpoint of flavor and color and texture, the simple answer is yes: pre-baking a crust crisps it up and helps prevent it from going soggy when it comes in contact with the filling, Ms. Greenspan said
You make the dough, line a pie pan with it, freeze the crust for a while, cover the frozen crust with parchment or some other barrier, then pile a temporary filling (like rice and beans) on top of that protective sheath to keep the crust from puffing up. You bake the crust for 20 to 25 minutes with that paperweight-like filling, then another 5 minutes or so without it, which tans it nicely. When that round is done, you give the surface a brisk brushing of egg white. You let the crust cool.
Then you’re ready to pour in the filling (which, in the summer of Ms. Greenspan’s dreams, would be blueberries). You add a top crust before a follow-up stretch in the oven. “It works,” she said.
But here’s the catch: In spite of all that, Ms. Greenspan usually does not bake her crust in advance. To affix that top crust, you have to use a sleight-of-hand, moistening the rim of the pre-baked bottom crust and getting the raw dough of the top crust to stick to it. “Somehow it feels like a trick and un-American,” she said. “It’s not the way American pies are supposed to be made. I prefer it pre-baked, but I don’t do it.”
Maybe, she suggested, a touch of sogginess is not the end of the world. What she’ll sometimes do, before filling the bottom crust, is to sprinkle an absorbent layer of challah pieces or cake crumbs along its top, to sop up (theoretically) some of the liquid. Does that help?
“It makes me feel better about it,” she said. — JEFF GORDINIER
The Right Thickener
You want to cut nice, neat wedges of that summer pie. The pieces of fruit must nestle cozily and close, thickly bound, and not run off into a soupy puddle. Do you reach for flour to bolster the filling? Cornstarch? Arrowroot? Tapioca? Nothing?
Ron Silver, an owner of the TriBeCa restaurant Bubby’s who co-wrote “Bubby’s Homemade Pies” and has held a pie social with home bakers for the last 10 years, said his thinking on thickeners has evolved.
He started using just flour years ago when he tried to enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (He was disqualified from the competition for amateurs because he did his baking at Florent, where he was the breakfast cook.) But now he prefers something along the lines of a butter and flour roux.
“I toss the fruit with flour and then add melted butter,” he said. “It’s classic and the most flavorful.”
With peaches or apricots he might even use brown butter. And with just one exception, he does not like cornstarch as much, even though it acts quickly and turns translucent. In his book, he warns that cornstarch does not thicken well with very acidic fruits. He also finds that the thickening effect of arrowroot does not last as long as that of flour, and the filling can become runny.
“When you have very juicy fruit like raspberries or cherries, instant tapioca is also good,” he said. Tapioca turns clear and glossy, does not impart a starchy flavor and adds interesting little gelatinous beads to the texture.
But for a fresh blueberry pie, Mr. Silver’s favorite, his choice is cornstarch. He cooks half the berries to make a thick sauce with sugar, lemon juice and the starch, which has first been dissolved in cold water. He then folds this mixture into the rest of the raw blueberries to fill a cooked pie shell. He does not bake the pie further, but lets it set for about two hours before serving.
You might get away with no thickener (just sugar and melted butter) especially with denser fruits like figs, stone fruit, apples and pears. But thickened or not, Mr. Silver says it’s important to wait two to three hours before cutting into the pie, allowing the filling time to settle so the juices released by the oven’s heat are reabsorbed. — FLORENCE FABRICANT
Choosing the Fat for a Crust
As American as apple pie, the saying goes. But according to the food scientist Harold McGee, our national identity resides specifically in the crust.
“As a country,” he said, “we value a macroscopic discontinuousness in our pie crust.”
To translate: A pie crust that shatters into large crumbs and shards when you press your fork through it is good. A crust that crumbles into sand or needs to be sawed through is bad.
Fortunately, that patriotic, macroscopic discontinuousness can be achieved with flour, water and almost any cool, semisolid fat such as butter, lard, suet or vegetable shortening.
But which is best?
When Mr. McGee wrote his magisterial study “On Food and Cooking” in 1984, he came down in favor of vegetable shortening, because its consistent proportions of fat, water and air make it easier to produce flaky crusts. But since then he has modified that position, leaning toward the savor that butter and lard add. (Also, the hydrogenation process used to make vegetable shortening was later found to produce trans fats, which are unhealthy when consumed in large quantities.)
For a truly ideal pie crust, Mr. McGee said, you would need a fat with the flavor of butter, the water content of lard and the temperature flexibility of vegetable shortening. When temperature is an issue, shortening is the clear winner. While a crust is being mixed and rolled, the butter needs to stay between 58 and 68 degrees to achieve the right texture: shortening works at anywhere from 53 to 85 degrees.
“The Fourth of July brings a hot kitchen and hot hands,” Mr. McGee said. He said that not only the fat but also the flour should be chilled until the last possible moment.
Lacking that fantasy fat, Mr. McGee said the proper choice is a matter of technical skill and personal preference. Sometimes the flavor of butter can be too aggressive: just as many chocolate cakes and banana breads are made with neutral oil to let the flavor of the main ingredient shine through, a plain crust made with vegetable shortening can be desirable.
Marion Cunningham, the author of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and an iconic American cook if ever there was one, never used anything else. — JULIA MOSKIN