Scientifically Sweet: Time for Pie

Friday, November 5, 2010

Time for Pie

Is there ever a time where pie is not welcome?

I think it is pretty much always a good time for pie.

But, Autumn...well, Autumn just loves pies. It's something about the brick red and rust colours in the leaves that match the tones in the warm brown baking spices.

Yes. That must be it.

This Spiced Pear and Apple Pie features a hot kick from fresh ginger and a dose of warm, cozy, inviting spices. It truly is a beautiful thing.

Before we get to the recipe, though, I must address something...
I'm not sure I've ever discussed pie dough with all of your beautiful faces yet.

This seems like a perfectly good time to do so.


Prepare yourselves for the post that will change your life, because you are about to become the mom, dad, sister, brother, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, grandma or grandpa who makes the best pie ever!

KEY INGREDIENT 1: Butter and Shortening (Trans fat free, please)
Fat tenderizes because it is insoluble in water, so it coats flour particles and prevents them from cross-linking and forming a gluten network. Shortening has a higher melting profile than butter. That means that it will withstand the temperature of your fingers (because you are making the dough by hand, right?) and resist melting more so than butter. This provides more insurance that your fat will remain solid in the dough, and solid fat is required for flakiness. But, don't replace all of the butter with shortening because shortening is essentially flavourless and butter is sensational. Making pie dough is a balancing act between function and flavour.

Lemon juice or white vinegar will lower the pH (increase the acidity) of the dough. Acidity may interfere with bond formation between gluten proteins in the flour, resulting in a softer, more tender texture.

There are few key ingredients in a tender, flakey pie crust. The major secrets are in the technique.

TECHNIQUE 1: Keep it cold!
The bowl, the flour, the fat, your hands - keep them cold! Flaky pastry requires pliable solid fats so the trick is to avoid melting. Melted fat becomes oily, leaks water and tends to stick to the dough.

TECHNIQUE 2: Large pieces of fat
Finely dispersing some of the fat evenly into the dough so that it resembles coarse crumbs will coat and separate small particles of flour from each other to achieve a tender texture. Leaving some larger pieces of fat will function to separate different layers of dough from each other to achieve flakiness.

TECHNIQUE 3: Not too much liquid
Use just enough liquid to make a cohesive dough. Too much water will promote gluten formation and elasticity.

TECHNIQUE 4: Chill the dough
Resting the dough in the refrigerator will firm up the fat and allow the water to become absorbed and more evenly distributed. This makes the dough easier to work with. Rolling chilled dough will press solid fat into flattened sheets which will separate flattened layers of dough for flakiness. The end result is a laminating effect with layers of flour aggregates that are mostly untouched by the fat alternating with layers of fat particles embedded with flour. Some gluten develops in the layers of flour and the fat layers melt upon baking to leave spaces between sheets of dough.

TECHNIQUE 5: Hot Hot Hot!
Initially it is important to bake the pie at a very high temperature (400-425 degrees F) to both set the dough layers before the fat melts completely and to set the crust before the fruit filling makes it soggy. This rapid heating also causes the 15% water in the butter to evaporate so that the steam separates dough layers.

Congratulations! You're one step away from graduating from Pie Technique 101.
The final test - make this pie and love it.

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  1. Those are great tips! I never had any idea you had to worry about the acidity of pie crust. I somehow have a feeling, though, that even if I followed all the tips on your list, mine wouldn't look like yours, though! I'm drooling just looking at it!

  2. Thanks Kathryn! You should give it a go - I'm sure it will turn out lovely.

  3. What great tips! Love this pie and can't wait to put your tips to good use!

  4. Hi Christina, just found your blog and I'm loving it! I like the fun step-by-step tutorials with the scientific explanations to the dishes. Very innvative concept!

    In you "gluten-free" post you mentioned you sell at a Farmer's MArket here in TO. Which one?


  5. Peggy - Thanks. I hope the tips come in handy next time you make a pie!

    The Bird Cage - I'm glad you enjoy the blog and thanks for stopping by. I was a vendor at a Farmer's Market in London. However, I do sell those Gluten-Free Fudge Brownies online at


  6. Fantastic tips and a great pie.

    I’d love for you to submit one of your beautiful photos, and a link to your post, to my new vegetarian photo gallery showcasing the best vegetarian dishes and recipes on the web.

  7. Christina,

    I saw this pie on Foodista and had to come check it out! I love your explanations of why you do each step- the scientific approach is such a refreshing thing to read!

    Thanks for the fabulous recipe!

  8. The scans of the recipe are low quality and I don't understand the quantities. Is that 1 2/3 or 1 3/4 cups of flour?
    Why not type the recipe or at least scan at better quality? This is frustrating.


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