Welp, it’s the end of summer pie season and I never got around to posting this pie math essay in time for summer fruit season but I am posting it just in time for holiday pie season. I am absolutely not a mathy person but there are a few creative endeavors that I think of in terms of math. I do it in my head when I mix paint or have to explain a paint color to someone. If Britt asks what Cerulean Blue is my answer is:
“mostly blue, a dot of green and a dash of black.”
But to make it look like a math equation I could write it like this!
.90 Blue + .7 Green + .3 Black = Cerulean Blue
Cooking and baking is the other time I do mathy equations in my head to come out with a balanced, tasty treat or meal. Especially for pies, it’s so important to have a proper combination of tart, sweet, salty, spicy and fatty. Otherwise it can just be a gross, bland, mushy mess with crackery crust.
I hear you saying, “Oh not my pie!” Okay fine not your pie but the reason I don’t like pie is because most pie is like this. And people still adore pie, imagine if the flavor combinations were balanced–you’d be in heaven!
If you’re thinking back on all the so-so pies you’ve ever made and then served to your guests and are shuddering right now then this essay is for you! Okay, so I have categorized all the flavor components of pie into 5 categories: Tart, Sweet, Spice, Salty and Fatty. You will draw from these five categories to make sure that they are always represented. The exceptions are citrus pies (they won’t have the spice) and pumpkin (they won’t have the tart element).
Here’s a mathy equation for a fruit pie:
80% sweet + 18% tart + 1% spice + 1% salt = perfection!
Some of these flavor elements change based on the season or can fall in both categories. Like plums and apricots can be tart or sweet because their skins can be really sour but their fruit is sweet. Or if they aren’t perfectly ripe, they can be added as a tart element instead of a sweet one. Okay, let’s get started!
Pie Flavor Categories
Grny Smith Apples
Pink Lady Apples
Here are some pie charts (ha ha) depicting the approximate percentage of each you need to have a balanced slice of pie.
As you can see, you always want the sweet to be the overall base flavor. But sweet without tart, salty or spicy is so gross and you can only bear a bite or two. You always have to counterbalance the sweet with the other components. Below are some extra details that I think about when making a pie.
- Citrus pies
There’s a cool trick I learned when making any type of citrus pies like lemon meringues, keylimes, or lemon or orange custard pies. Sometimes, depending on the season, citrus can run a bit sweet and combined with Sweetened Condensed Milk or a ton of sugar and butter, the tartness can be overwhelmed leaving you with an overly sweet, flat tasting pie. But if you add more citrus juice, you’ll water down the filling and anyway the citrus is too sweet already so it’s not going to help.
Turns out that tart and salt are experienced the same way on the tongue. Add salt bit by bit and suddenly it will brighten up the pie and bring out the tart of the citrus. I learned this trying to perfect my orange custard pie with dark chocolate cookie crust. It just tasted flat and almost carroty. I had already added lemon juice but it didn’t help. Salt was the key. Usually it will be maybe just an 1/8 of a teaspoon but maybe more, maybe less. You just have to taste, taste, taste.
- Spices will take the place of tartness in winter pies.
Okay, so winter is coming. That means pumpkin, apple, pear, pecan, walnut and sweet potato pies. Obviously, except for apple or pear pie where you can add cranberries or blackberries or a squeeze of lemon, there is no way to add tartness from the fruit in the chart above. That’s where spices and salt come in. They will take the place of the tartness that fruit can provide. The heat that spice adds will take the edge off of the sweetness but so will the salt for the reasons in the citrus pie paragraph. Don’t be shy with ginger because nutmeg and cinnamon have a level of sweetness to them so adding ginger is a very essential element in pumpkin and also pear pie. (In pear pies I use freshly grated ginger and it’s chef’s kiss.)
Obviously we all love fat but the same rule applies to fatty pies like cheesecakes (I consider these to be pies and bake them in a regular pie pan with crust going all the way up the sides.) or pecan pies. If there’s no lemon involved then cut the fat with salt and or spices.
Generally, the fat that I’m talking about is an accent to the pie slice while serving it. They are not in the pie but served on the side. A creamy side is perfect to calm down the tart or spice and goes hand in hand with the sweet. Oh my gahd, whipped cream is so amazing with strawberry rhubarb, I think about it all year. Or a nice slice of sharp cheddar leaning on an apple or pear pie is a beautiful accent.
In closing, there are exceptions to these instructions depending on ripeness of fruit, type of pie and personal taste. But I hope this helps during holiday pie season and beyond. Happy pie making!
PS-Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering why I blab on about pie all the time it’s because I had an illegal pie cart for a few years called Pie Fridays. ( www.piefridays.com ) I literally baked so many pies I burned a hole through the metal bottom of my oven. Here I am and here are a few pies!