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Pie Secrets: How to Bake a Masterpiece

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Pie Secrets: How to Bake a Masterpiece

In the movie Waitress, an oppressed, small town character played by Kerri Russell infuses the pies she bakes for the local diner with metaphorical ingredients. Naming her confections for the deep sources of frustration in her life, such as “I hate my husband pie” made with bittersweet chocolate you neglect to sweeten, Russell wields ingredients like machetes in her own form of culinary therapy.

For the rest of us, making the perfect pie may be a little less formidable, though it is no less a form of expression. In fact, according to the experts, pie baking is a way to say “thank you,” “I miss you,” or “I love you” through the perfect marriage of body and soul, in this case flakey crust and fragrant fruit. Achieving the desired result, however, is a journey as varied as the bakers who take it.

For multi-ribbon county fair and state championship winner Kevin Knapp of Maine, it’s important not to overwhelm the fruit filling with excessive spices that can mask it. Knapp also relies on a fork, not a food processor, for the flakiest of crusts, noting the real technique is in how one cuts the shortening into the flour and binds it with the water.

“You want the peaks of the shortening to be like a small pea, and water is mixed in a tablespoon at a time,” Knapp said of his prize-winning method.

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Baking alongside her Long Island, NY grandfather since she was 8 years old, pastry chef instructor Katie Liguori puts the onus on pie dough’s tactile element in attaining the perfect pie. “You have to learn what the dough is supposed to feel like, whether it’s too dry, too soft, or needs more water,” Liguori said, “and never knead pie dough as it becomes extremely tough.”

Liguori also emphasizes the importance of using ice cold water in the dough-making process, explaining that hot, warm or even lukewarm water from the tap will melt the shortening. She also advocates the use of shortening in her crust over butter, believing the latter breaks down too easily.

For owner Nancy Stern of Cape Neddick, Maine’s Pie in the Sky Bakery, whose evolving pie menu includes varieties such as wild Maine blueberry, lemon chess and peach raspberry, butter is better. Though customers sometimes mention they think lard makes for a very flakey crust, Stern maintains butter provides both the desired flakiness and a wonderful flavor. Additionally, Stern and co-owner husband John replace pie dough’s requisite ice water with orange juice, which they say ensures a fool-proof crust. Adding a hint of apple cider vinegar helps the ingredients mix together well and further ensures a never-fail crust, according to the couple whose bakery produces about 7,000 pies a year.

With fall upon us, let the loving gift of fresh pie be your motivation to celebrate the seasons’ fruitful bounties with family and friends.

Here’s Pie In the Sky Bakery’s recipe for perfect pie crust:

Combine 2 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 8 oz. of unsalted butter (room temperature), and mix thoroughly for at least 5 minutes. Add in 4 tablespoons of cold orange juice and 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. Mix until it forms a ball or pulls cleanly from the side of the bowl in a mixer. Do not over-mix! Weigh to desired size. For a deep 10″ pie plate, you’ll need 10 oz. for the bottom and 8 oz. for the top. Roll out dough between two sheets of waxed paper and form the bottom into the pie plate. Save the top to close the pie after adding the desired filling, and bake according to your recipe.

Liguori Family Apple Pie

2/3 cup shortening
2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
6-8 tablespoons ice cold water (will probably use all the water)
Milk for brushing dough
8-9 cups fresh apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced (recommend McIntosh & Cortland together)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoons nutmeg
1/4 teaspoons almond extract
lemon juice to sprinkle on apple slices
few pats of butter

In a large bowl, mix together flour and salt. Cut shortening into the flour mixture using a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add water until a soft dough is formed; usually all the water will be used. Make sure dough is not dry to the touch. Do not knead!

Cut dough in half and roll out both halves until about 1/4 inch thick and able to cover the bottom and top of a pie. Line pie dish with bottom crust.

Combine all ingredients for apple pie filling, minus the butter. Fill bottom crust with apple mixture. Add the pats of butter and place remainder of dough on top. Seal edges together so filling doesn’t leak out. Cut four slits on top, brush with milk and bake at 350° for 40-45 minutes or until bubbly and brown on top.

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1 jon { 05.13.16 at 9:37 pm }

My grandmother used to use 1/2 chilled lard and 1/2 unsalted butter cubes in her pie crust and she always put a tbsp of vinegar in the ice water she used and her pies won first place every year at our country fair in TN. she also gave me the original recipe for stack cake before she died. I don’t think I have ever found it anywhere online or in books.I am anxious to try your recipe and I am sure it will be great. Thanks for the recipe very much.

2 Marlene Byrne { 05.13.16 at 6:14 pm }

Would you like to share your great grandmothers pie crust recipe ? Sounds different, I’m interested in it. thanks

3 John T. Benm { 05.13.16 at 6:00 pm }
Could you please send me an email with the recipes please? Thank you and may God bless you.

4 Susan Higgins { 09.27.15 at 1:01 pm }

Hi Joan Jacobs: We have a tip for when baking cream-filled pies:
And we also think this site offers excellent tips for your problem (for fruit fillings, etc.)

5 Joan Jacobs { 09.27.15 at 9:07 am }

I love making pies but always have trouble with the bottom crust. It’s always under cooked or just soft and mushy. How can I get my bottom crust to be crisp and well done without burning the top crust? Thanks for your help. Joan

6 Ms.T { 09.06.11 at 3:55 pm }

I always uses lard and it produces some of the flakiest/tender crust. I’m thinking of trying the Vodka though in place of water just to see how it comes out…Interesting, thank you David.

7 Kathy OConnor { 08.21.11 at 4:06 am }

I have used both the butter & shortning they each are equaly good, Martha Stewart has a great pastry pie dough she calls Pate Brisee..good recipe using a food processor.

8 david { 08.17.11 at 2:52 pm }

i keep a bottle of vodka in my freezer and us it in making my crusts instead of iced water. it evaporates differently and more quickly than water and produces a much lighter and flakier crust. no, you cannot taste it. also, butter always. shortening NEVER! what is that stuff, anyway?

9 Martha Federle { 08.17.11 at 11:35 am }

I use shortening (but would love to try lard), mix the ingredients with a fork rather than a pastry blender or food processor, cold water 1 tbsp at a time, and let the dough sit in the bowl, covered, for 10 minutes before rolling it out. I wouldn’t think of putting anything with a flavor in it except the basic ingredients; orange juice or vinegar may be ok for some, but I’ll stick to my tried and true, and perfectly flaky crust.

10 Heather { 08.17.11 at 10:56 am }

My great-grandmother’s recipe calls for boiling water, and I was skeptical until I tried it. Now, people ask me for my pie crust recipe all the time, and are also shocked that I use boiling water (my great-grandmother’s recipe). It comes together three times faster than an ice water recipe, and turns out perfectly every single time.

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