It’s summer, time for berry pie! For a few years I had an illegal pie cart called Pie Fridays http://www.piefridays.com) . I’d wheel it out onto the streets of San Francisco every weekend. I made all sorts of pies from Key Lime to Double Chocolate Raspberry Crumble. But I always loved the berry pies in summer.
I’ve put my ten thousand hours in at pie making so I thought I’d pass on some of my knowledge in case anyone hasn’t been able to get their pies just right. I’ve listed what I think are some of the most common problems below with my solutions. I think this may solve most of your pie dilemmas.
*Please note that baking a pie is not like baking a cake where you just pop it in the oven, set the timer and then don’t fiddle with it again except to insert a toothpick to check for doneness 45 minutes later. Pie baking is an organic process that requires constant attention and the willingness to make constant adjustments based on the pie’s needs. Let’s begin.
Soggy top crust
There are two things that are probably causing this, heat and not enough thickening agents. When you first put your pie in the oven, blast it for 8 to 10 minutes on about 425 and then reduce temp to 350. This will give the crust sort of a protective start of crispness that the juice of the cooking berries won’t be able to permeate.
Now let’s talk about the berries’ juices. You can make all the temperature adjustments you want but if you don’t have enough thickeners in your pie filling, you will always get a soggy crust. The filling will just be like juice sloshing around inside the pie, soaking into the crust as the crust slowly, like a victim of quick sand, sinks into the wet filling, never allowing it to crisp up and get brown.
I make a large pie of about 8 cups of berries but if you use 6 cups, reduce your thickener a bit. So for 8 cups of fruit I add two full tablespoons of cornstarch and two full tablespoons of tapioca. I use both because too much cornstarch and the pie will be grainy and still be loose and too much tapioca and the filling will be like jam, which grosses me out.
The final thing that I do to ensure a golden crust is at the very end of the baking process, if for some reason I feel it hasn’t browned enough, I will blast it for 3 or 4 minutes at 450 to get that final brownness. Obviously do not go off to check your emails or watch tv during this time.
Two things cause this. The first is not enough or the correct type of thickener and the second is not baking the pie on a high enough temperature or for long enough. For the thickener info, please see the third paragraph above.
In regards to temperature and timing, if your filling never gets hot enough, the thickener never kicks in all the way. So like I said above, blast your pie for 8-10 minutes on 425 when you first put it in and then reduce temp to 350. This will jump start the thickening. Then, if you notice that three quarters of the way through baking, the pie still seems very liquidy even though you’ve put enough thickener in, boost the temp back up to 425 for another ten minutes and you’ll notice the filling (that you can see through the holes you cut in the crust) has become noticeably thicker. Reduce the temp to 350 again.
If you swear you have done every single thing right and you still have a loose filling, you may have cut into it when the filling was too warm. I know, I know, it’s soooo hard to wait for pie but with the exception of apple pie, your pie must be absolutely cold when you cut into it or else the filling will spill out of it and your pie gets ruined because once a liquidy slice is taken out, the remaining liquidy pie innards fill up the rest of the pie plate, leaving an empty shell of a pie floating in its own guts.
Soggy bottom (tee hee)
Okay, you’re probably noticing a trend here, hot starting temp and enough thickener in the filling is very important for a good bottom crust so read the above instructions for guidance. If your bottom crust is still soggy then it could be that your oven rack is too high or your crust is too thin or you’re baking in a metal dish.
First of all, I always bake my pies in a glass dish, not a metal dish for this reason. As the baking progresses you can check in with your pie to make sure its bottom crust is baking properly. Half way through, pull it out and look at the bottom crust. If it’s still gross and doughy and white looking put it down to the bottom rack for about ten or fifteen minutes until you check it and it’s golden brown. Return it to the middle rack for the remainder of the baking.
Regarding oven rack placement, I put my rack in the middle level but maybe your oven heats unevenly so you need to find the sweet spot for your racks based on your oven temperature.
But what about crust thickness? I make my pie crust a bit thicker, at least as thick as the height of about two nickels stacked up. If the crust is too thin it just can’t handle all the liquid before it thickens and the liquid will permeate the bottom crust during baking, resulting in a SOGGY BOTTOM!
Burnt crust, loose filling
You might be saying right now, “But Sunde, my pie always ends up getting burned while I wait for the filling to cook!” First, please follow all of my above instructions and then make sure you remember that pie baking is a long and sensitive process.
Keep your pie in the center of your oven, away from the sides. Don’t shove something else in there with it to save time so the pie is forced to get scorched to close to the hot wall of the oven.
Except for necessary temperature blasting that I’ve mentioned throughout this essay, pies are a slow and low baking process where the most patient baker will be the victor. Sometimes, a big pie might take over an hour to bake at 350, and that’s okay. Be patient!
It doesn’t taste that great
Yes, of course any pie will taste decent. But you want your pie to taste magnificent! Always taste your fruit before making your filling and adjust the recipe accordingly. Is it early in the season and the berries are still tart? Add more sugar. Maybe it’s peak berry season and everything is super ripe, add a little less sugar.
If your pie is still tart, use my berry math. In a mixed berry pie I always have strawberries and blueberries be the majority of the pie because they don’t break down in baking and they have a nice, solid general sweetness that will be like the melody of the pie. Then I put in the blackberries or raspberries as the harmony that brings out all the right tart and jammy notes of the pie. Raspberries break down into just liquid so if you add too many, your pie may not end up being as solid as usual but I loooooove the flavor that raspberries add. I usually only add one or one and a half containers of raspberries.
Sometimes modern day berries can be a little bland. Here’s a hot tip: Blackberries go well with a little cinnamon and nutmeg is a great compliment to blueberries. Don’t be scared to add a little something that isn’t sugar to your berry pie. Not too much because you don’t want to over power your berries but definitely experiment with what tastes good to you.
Don’t use the convection option! Pies don’t get properly browned when the heat is swirling around all willy nelly. Pies need direct heat blasting onto the crust for it to brown properly.
I don’t us any wash on my pie. I don’t brush on milk, cream or egg and milk mixture. I know it looks amazing in magazines, the golden brown shiny crust probably with little strawberries on vines cut out on top. But I have found that any wash seals up the pie, not allowing the moisture of the filling to leave it, resulting in a bit of a steamed crust, that doesn’t live up to its flakiness potential. I just sprinkle on an abundance of organic, unbleached crunchy sugar and adjust my temps so that it browns beautifully. It won’t be shiny like Martha’s but it will have sparkling jewels of sugar all over it.
Okay! That’s about all I can think of. Now go bake the best pie of your life!