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Pie Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Fine Cooking Issue 74
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If you’re a beginning baker, there’s probably not much you find more intimidating than making a pastry pie crust. Take heart in knowing that no one is born a great pie maker. The cure for pastry intimidation is experience plus an understanding of pastry mechanics.

We can’t help you with the experience part—other than to keep publishing tempting pie and tart recipes—but we can aid you in the area of general pastry knowledge. To that end, here’s a handy chart that will help you troubleshoot the next time a pie doesn’t quite hit the mark. If you’d like more troubleshooting charts like this one, check out Fine Cooking’s book, How to Break an Egg: 1,453 Kitchen Tips, Food Fixes, Emergency Substitutions, and Handy Techniques—this chart is excerpted from the book.

The problem Possible causes Fix-it tips for now
or next time
Pie dough is still dry even after adding all the cold water specified Pieces of fat cut into the flour were left too large. Dough needed to be kneaded briefly. Flour required more hydration due to type or seasonal variability. First, try mixing the fat into the dough with your fingertips. If still dry and crumbly, add more cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time. When the dough just starts to look like it’s coming together, stop and knead briefly to form a cohesive mass. Small pieces of fat should be visible in the dough.
Chilled pie dough cracks when rolled out Dough was too cold or not kneaded enough, making the edges of the dough disk ragged and dry. Also, the dough may not have rested enough to allow the flour to hydrate evenly.  If there are many cracks and the edges seem dry, gather the dough into a ball. Chill for 20minutes and try again: the rolling should be easier now that the dough has been mixed more from ­handling. One or two cracks can be fixed by brushing with water and rolling the edges together to seal. Next time, allow the dough to warm up slightly if very cold and roll as evenly as possible near the edges to prevent cracking.
Baked pie crust is tough Dough was kneaded too much after the water was added. Or, the dough wasn’t relaxed after rolling. Next time, stop mixing as soon as the dough just begins to come together after the water is added. Don’t rush the process. Then let the dough rest after rolling in the refrigerator for at least 25 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate and the gluten structure to relax.
Baked pie crust is crumbly and mealy Fat and flour were overmixed in the dough: visible pieces of fat should remain in the dough. When baked, these pieces will melt, leaving air pockets behind and thus making the crust flaky. Also, the dough may contain too much fat. Next time, stop cutting in fat when most of the pieces are pea-size. Some pieces will be smaller, but the baked crust will resemble ­crumbly shortbread if the fat is thoroughly mixed in. If still crumbly, reduce the amount of fat.
Pie browns poorly Crust was underbaked or contained bleached flour. Doughs that include an acid like lemon juice or vinegar to make rolling easier will brown less readily. Next time, use unbleached flour for the crust. Brush milk or sugar on the dough to facilitate browning if you use an acid in the dough.
Bottom crust is soggy and pale Not enough heat was directed to bottom crust. Or, the cut fruit and sugar sat too long before the pie was assembled, causing the fruit to release its juice before baking. For custard pies, the shell was not adequately prebaked. For crisp crusts, bake pies and tarts on a preheated baking sheet situated near the bottom of the oven. Next time, don’t let the fruit and sugar mixture sit more than 15 minutes before baking. Prebake the crust for custard pies whenever possible.


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