Advanced Apple Pie Making Techniques

It’s Thanksgiving and you promised to bring something. Something interesting, something intended to impress. Well, it’s the high end of apple season and some of the best fruit of the season is still available right? You’ve decided to make an awesome apple pie! (You can’t slink as low as to buy one of those half-stale, mass manufactured pies that taste like it.)

Among your cook books and the dozens of online sites there are a bevvy of apple pie recipes that are all pretty much the same with the exception of whether or not they’ve got nutmeg. (Hint: double down on the nutmeg and microplane it from a real, actual nut–they don’t really go bad and keep forever. Heck, why not keep one in your pocket for the entire holiday season?!) But somehow the pie never comes out quite right. The crust is a sloppy mess and doesn’t come out flaky the way your great grandmother’s most assuredly did. And when you cut into it, the insides come pouring out and make a huge mess. Served on the plate it looks like a heaping pile of slop.

What’s missing you ask yourself?

Most cookbooks either completely leave out the finer points of pastry making from their recipes or hide them in introductory sections that no one ever reads, because–let’s be honest–who even knew these sections existed?  No one besides me really reads a cookbook do they?

So in a quick synopsis, here are a few pro tips to help your pie come out the way you knew it should.

DO NOT overwork your dough!

This is the cardinal rule of pastry making.

The less you can touch your dough, the better off you’ll be. Kneading bread dough for 10 minutes or more is fine because you want to form a doughy and stretchy network of gluten chains that will make your bread nice and chewy once it’s baked. For pie or pastry dough however, you want the exact opposite. After you’ve used a pastry cutter to cut your flour and your fat together into pea sized bits, stir your dough as little as possible when you add your liquid. If you can get it all together with just five short stirs, then for god’s sake do not use six! If it takes ten or more when you first start practicing, that’s alright, but don’t touch it an eleventh. Whatever you do, don’t knead it together for 10 minutes like you’re making bread or that’s what you’ll end up with.

When working with your dough, keep everything cold.

Old wives tales about baking often insist “You will only make a good pastry chef if you have cold hands.” While I feel this is patently false, the root of the thinking to keep things cold while working your pastry is very sound advice. At all costs you want to keep the fat in your dough nice and cold. Allowing it to melt and mix further with your flour is only going to make things less flaky and will also tend to make a huge, sticky mess. Toward that end, keep everything that touches your dough cold–even your hands if you can help it.

One of the worst offenders is your counter top temperature when rolling out your dough. You take some nice cold dough and put it on a room temperature (or higher because you’ve probably got a stove nearby that’s already preheating) counter top and start working it over. The thinner you roll it out, the greater its surface area and thus the larger amount of heat it begins absorbing from the counter. The fix for this is easy! Just fill a 9×13″ (or larger if you’ve got it) cake/cookie pan with an ice and water slurry and set it on the part of the counter top where you’re going to roll out your crust. Do this for a few minutes at a time to cover the area where you’ll be working. The colder things are the better off you’ll be. Those thick and massive granite counter tops you spent thousands on can now be your best friend with their spectacular specific heat capacity.

A slurry of ice and water in a 9x13" cake pan can help cool down your counter top.
A slurry of ice and water in a 9×13″ cake pan can help cool down your counter top.

Apple Pie Architecture

Wonderful pies you see in shops and stores hold together incredibly well, in great part because they’re in cold display cases. When cut cold they tend to hold their shapes incredibly well. But as everyone knows warm deserts taste better and sweeter. (Don’t believe me? Try microwaving a bowl of ice cream and tell me it isn’t the sweetest thing you’ve eaten.)

But how can you keep the delicious, gooey goodness of your apple pie together when it’s been cut open just minutes out of the oven? Most cooks just heap their pie filling into their delicate crusts, but why? Laziness?

Instead, let’s use the structure of the apples and the sugary filling to our advantage. Layer your apple slices into the crust in alternating circular and radial patterns. This criss-cross pattern will allow them to hold not only all the additional sweetness you can thrown into them, but the structure will hold the thing together.

Layering your apple pie filling: circular apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: circular apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: radial apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: radial apple slices.

Creating this lattice structure will usually hold so well, that a pie right out of the oven can be cut almost immediately and it won’t ooze an ounce.

Just out of the oven and two minutes post-cut.
Just out of the oven and two minutes post-cut.

Take your new-found knowledge, go forth, and bake!