We recently spent some time answering your questions about pie—how to bake it, how to store it, how to weave its crust into the prettiest lattice you ever did see. But as The Takeout’s resident pie expert, one thing I know above all else is that there are always more pie quandaries just around the bend. Pies are fickle, but I assure you, they can be tamed.
So, we’re back at it with even more wisdom and encouragement to get you baking the best pies of your life. Both beginner and expert bakers should be able to find some answers here. (And if you don’t see what you’re looking for, send along your own burning questions in the comments.)
I love to bake pies, and strawberry rhubarb is my favorite. However, try as I might, I still have trouble keeping it from getting watery. I’ve tried so many tips I’ve found online and nothing has really worked as I’ve hoped.
Wateriness is a common problem when it comes to fruit pies, and the culprit behind it all is—you guessed it—the natural water content of the fruits being used. Strawberry rhubarb is possibly the worst offender in the American pie canon, as strawberries are about 91% water (just like watermelon!) and rhubarb (technically a vegetable) is 93% water. These two are pretty much begging not to be made into pie, so no one should ever beat themselves up over a less than perfect attempt.
Now that you know the reason behind your soupy pie, the solution becomes obvious: before you bake, remove as much water as you possibly can. The best, most gentle way to do this with delicate strawberries is by macerating your filling ahead of time.
This leads me to my dirty little baking secret: I never measure sugar when making a fruit pie filling. It’s true that baking is a science that often relies on precise measurements, but that rule mainly applies to situations where you’re trying to achieve a particular structure like a foamy meringue, pillowy bread, or spongy cake. Fruit pies, for the most part, are very loosey-goosey with their definition of “structure,” and they’re thickened by an added starch, as well as the fruit’s natural pectin—so an imprecise amount of sugar won’t make or break the pie.
Part of the reason sugar is in your pie filling is to help accelerate the process of breaking down the fruit during the baking, but mostly to add flavor. And, as any person who has ever tasted a strawberry can tell you, sometimes they are sweet and juicy and the very definition of perfection, and sometimes they are so sour that your mouth puckers into itself like a dying star. I am a professional recipe writer, not a psychic, and there is no way for me to know what kind of berries the universe has blessed you with for your pie-making adventure. What you need here is not measurements, but process.
First, prepare the fruit. In this instance: Halve your strawberries and cut your rhubarb into small pieces. How much do you need? You’re going to need to use your eyeballs for that. Determine how much filling you want, figure that macerating is going to reduce the volume of the fruit by about a third, then cut up enough strawberries and rhubarb (proportions up to you!) so that, post-sugaring, you’ll have your ideal amount.
Toss the strawberries and rhubarb in a bowl with a few tablespoons of white sugar—just enough so things start to get wet—then leave everything alone for about an hour at room temperature to do its thing. Strain the excess liquid from the fruit*, then give your filling a taste. Add sugar and other flavorings as your favorite recipe suggests, then toss in just enough cornstarch to coat until barely milky white, and you’re good to go. Put it in your pie crust, bake until done, cool to let the filling thicken and set.
*Save the excess liquid in the fridge to mix into seltzer for a refreshing spritzer, or stir into lemon juice and water to make strawberry-rhubarb lemonade. Just because it doesn’t belong in your pie doesn’t mean it belongs in the trash!
Most of the time when I blind-bake a pie crust, I have the fluted edge flush with the lip of the pan, but it ends up slumping in the oven. Do I need to add more pie weights (I use pennies), or just let the gluten relax more?
You’ll be happy to know that this is an easy fix!
1. Once you’ve put your pie crust in the pan and shaped the edges as you like, pop it in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. This will harden the butter, which will then take longer to melt in the oven. The longer that takes, the more time the dough has to set up; by the time the butter finally liquifies, a firm, solid crust exists, and it sucks all that butter up into beautiful flaky layers.
2. Before putting the crust in the oven, dock it well with a fork (about every inch or so) to keep steam from building up, which can misshape the dough toward the end of the blind-baking process.
3. Switch from pennies to white rice, which has an inoffensive smell as it bakes, and also gives you tasty, toasty rice to cook with as a nice bonus. Line the crust with foil, not parchment, which is less prone to tearing apart when you’re removing the weights.
4. Bake in the center of the oven at 425 for 20 minutes, remove the pie weights, brush the whole crust with some egg wash, then pop it back into the oven for 3-5 minutes until it’s golden brown.
I’m an experienced baker, but the one thing I always have trouble with is lemon meringue pie. I like to make mine with “sky high” meringue. It looks beautiful going in and coming out of the oven, but as it cools, a layer of liquid forms between the meringue and the filling, and by the time it cools completely, it’s a watery mess. I’ve tried different methods: putting the meringue on hot filling, putting it on cold filling, doing an Italian meringue, different oven temps, cream of tartar, etc....pretty much everything I’ve found in troubleshooting guides, but that damn liquid layer forms every time. I mean, it still tastes good, but it’s texturally and visually unappealing. I’ve all but given up.
Have you tried adding a little bit of starch? I learned this from Shirley Corriher’s BakeWise, which is in my top two cookbooks of all time. (The other one is Shirley Corriher’s CookWise). In it she gives three suggestions:
1. In a recipe for Italian meringue, she adds 3 tablespoons of a gel made by cooking 1 tablespoon of cornstarch into 1/3 cup of water while the meringue is still hot.
2. In a recipe for French meringue, at the very beginning she adds a teaspoon of tapioca starch for every two egg whites used, along with a small bit of sugar before whipping to peaks.
3. In a recipe she stole from another baking goddess, a certain Ms. Alice Freaking Medrich, she makes a slurry of 2 tablespoons of tapioca starch to 1/4 cup water and adds it to a Swiss meringue when it reaches soft peaks, then continues whipping it to firm peaks.
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