Whenever I serve a homemade pie, it seems to have a curious effect on people. First, delight. But then, despair, as my guests detail their pie woes, from custard pies that crack as they cool to crusts that are tough or too crumbly.
When a pie lets you down, it’s very disappointing, especially at Thanksgiving. To spare you that grief, I’d like to explain how to avoid five common problems. Once you know your way around them, you’ll be well on your way to pie success.
Read Your Thanksgiving Pie Questions Answered for more pie tips & tricks and visit The Guide to Thanksgiving Dinner for hundreds of recipes, menu planning tools, and how-to videos.
Challenge: A tough crust
This ubiquitous problem results from two common mistakes: adding too much liquid and overworking the dough. The moment liquid—in this case, water—meets flour, a strong, elastic protein known as gluten begins to form. And as you mix and knead the dough, you make the protein stronger and your crust tougher.
Piecrust recipes are designed to keep gluten at bay; they use very little liquid and call for minimal mixing. Unfortunately, recipes can’t tell you exactly how much water to add or exactly how long to work the dough—you need to get a feel for these things. But as a general rule, less is best. Mix in liquid very sparingly, using just enough for the dough to hold together when you squeeze it, and handle the dough as little as possible.
Challenge: A crust that shrinks in the oven
If this happens, chances are your dough hasn’t had enough rest. Blame gluten, that stretchy protein that forms when wheat flour meets water. Even though pie dough contains very little water, some gluten does develop when you mix the dough, and this elastic protein makes the dough rebound when you roll and shape it. But if you let the dough rest in the fridge for several hours after you’ve mixed it, you’ll give the gluten strands time to relax and adjust to their new shape, so the dough won’t resist when you try to roll it out. Then, more important, the dough needs to rest again after you’ve rolled it out and shaped it into a piecrust. With all this rest, the dough will shrink less when you bake it.