To be the star of this year’s Thanksgiving, you don’t have to oversee the turkey. Instead, grab butter, flour, sugar, apples, and a rolling pin. Those are all the components needed to make a show-stopping apple pie—the queen of the dessert table.
A warm, golden-brown pie gets everyone’s heart beating, especially around the holiday time. But there are lots of anxieties surrounding its production: Will the filling be watery? Will the crust turn out flaky? Should I serve slices with ice cream or cheddar?
There’s no need for a “perfectionism mentality,” says Allison Kave, co-owner of Butter & Scotch (where the apple pie is filled with caramel) and author of First Prize Pies. The crust, she says, “is literally made of four ingredients”; the filling’s about four more. Baking smooths out a lot of imperfections, to the point where even if you’re a first timer, your pie will impress. “I think there’s nothing more beautiful than a burnished crust,” says Kave.
To get to the heart of the matter, we turned to Kave and pastry wiz Sarah Sanneh, partner and baker at Pies ‘n Thighs, to show us how to handle apple pies with supreme confidence.
1. Crust ingredients
In the all-American pie-crust model, flakiness is the ultimate virtue. Shortenings, whether animal or vegetable, produce optimal flakiness. But there’s a problem: “Shortening tastes terrible,” says Sanneh. Butter, clearly, tastes better. So the current practice at both Pies ‘n Thighs and Butter & Scotch is to rely mostly on European-style cultured butter, which has more fat and less water, creating the possibility of flakes if you handle the butter right (see below). However, if you want to use lard, look for leaf lard in particular, which has a good taste. Or, combine the two for a mix of flakiness and flavor. There are other bakers’ ingredients that work to add to this desired crumbly texture, like cornstarch (Kave puts in a tablespoon of cornstarch per batch).
You’ll also need some liquid: many bakers use water, some choose vodka, while Kave likes to use a makeshift buttermilk: ½ cup of whole milk mixed with 1 tablespoon of apple cider. Pie crusts are just barely sweet—a tablespoon of sugar is the right amount. For a two-crust pie, you’ll want about 3 cups of flour, 1 cup of cold butter, 1 tablespoon each of cornstarch and sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ½ cup of liquid.
2. Making the Crust
The goal here is to work the butter into the flour without melting it much or at all. If the fat liquefies for the first time in the oven, flakiness ensues. First, mix up the flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. Then use a pastry cutter to work ½-inch cubes of very cold butter into the flour until the crumbs that result are about the size of lentils, says Kave. If you don’t have a pastry cutter, use your hands to work butter and flour together, but know that you will warm the fat as you do so. Finally, drizzle in the liquid, trying to hit all the surface area.
Gently fold the dough together, touching as little as possible. It will look like “it’s barely coming together, like it wants to fall apart all over the place,” says Kave. “Some bits are dry, some are chunky, and it looks like there’s no way it could turn into anything.” Gather the dough, crumbly as it may seem, and wrap it very tightly in plastic wrap. Put the dough in the fridge. “As it chills overnight,” explains Kave, “all the liquid finds its way to the drier spots and hydrates them.” The next day, the crumbly ball will look a whole lot more like pie dough.
First, let the crust rest on the counter for about 15 minutes so that it’s warm enough not to crack when you go to roll it. Then, shape it gently into two disks, pressing each out slightly to get the circular shape started. You don’t want to overwork the dough, but don’t be so coy you’re afraid to touch it.
To prevent sticking, drop a lot of flour on the counter. Flour the top of the dough, too, as well as the rolling pin. You can always brush off extra flour later. Then, as you roll, move the dough after every roll, turning it little by little. That way you’ll catch anything that’s sticky before it’s dead stuck. (Add flour if the dough is pasting itself to the surface.) Once the dough is a few inches larger than your pie pan, pick it up and transfer it to a nearby pie plate. Don’t worry if there are tears or holes: just patch them up.
4. Choosing apples
Think about both flavor and texture when choosing apples for pie. “I like a really firm apple,” says Sanneh. That’s because she “want[s] to bake the pie for a long time” to get the crust done all the way through. Granny Smiths will hold up to a long bake without becoming applesauce. You also want to make sure the apples you choose are not too sweet.
“For some people, a Granny Smith or Mitzu is too tart to eat raw on its own. But in a pie it’s great. Don’t think about ‘what do I like to eat on a daily basis?’ but what, once exposed to heat and added sugar, holds its own,” says Kave. If you don’t see Granny Smiths, your best bet is to go to the farmers’ market and ask a vendor. They’ve probably been baking with their apples forever, and will be able to recommend a pie-worthy variety. You’ll want about 2 ½ pounds of apples—that’s 6 to 7 medium-large ones—for your pie.
5. Prepping apples
Peel, core, and slice apples for pie. To speed up the process, some chefs get out their drills. “You really want to be able to take a forkful and not have anything”—wayward skins, that is—“dragging behind,” says Kave. “You don’t want to use a knife when you’re eating a pie.” Once peeled, cut each apple into quarters. If you’re just making one pie, use a paring knife, melon baller, or apple corer to remove the core. If you’re baking a bunch, speed up the coring part by slicing out the core on the diagonal. You’ll lose some apple but you’ll save many seconds.
The thickness of slices depends on your taste. Kave likes thin slices, since “nothing peeves me off more than under-baked fruit,” she says. For pie that’s got larger, rustic chunks, she recommends pre-cooking your chunks on the stovetop with the spices and sugar for about 20 minutes before plopping them into your crust. “Otherwise,” she says, “when you cut into that pie, the apples will be slightly raw. It’s unpleasant.”
6. Sugar and spices
In addition to apples, the filling should consist of, at the minimum, brown sugar (about ½ a cup), salt (about ¼ teaspoon), and cinnamon (somewhere around ½ to 1 teaspoon). You can ramp up this classic combination with more spices—a little ground ginger or nutmeg (but not both! This isn’t pumpkin spice), some lemon zest, and some lemon juice. French-style pies won’t have cinnamon in them at all. If you start with a store-bought or not-too-buttery crust, then add a few tablespoons of butter to the filling, too. Skip the flour, cornstarch, and other thickeners. If you pick sturdy apples, they won’t get so watery with baking. “I would rather have a slightly saucy filling than one that’s dry,” says Kave.
To improvise even more, look to the fruit drawer; both cranberries and pears heighten the fall feeling of an apple pie. The liquor cabinet produces good ingredients, too: Kave recommends a shot of bourbon or rum. Perhaps most indulgently, you can make a caramel sauce, then enrobe the apples in that.
7. Vents and decorations
To assemble the whole pie, toss the apples with their sugar and spice and then scoop everything into the dough-lined pie pan. Then trim the edges of the bottom crust to barely overhang the pan. Brush them with milk or egg wash (egg mixed with a few tablespoons of water). Roll out the top crust as you rolled out the bottom, then pick it up and place it on the pie. Finally, press along the edges to seal the pie. Use your fingers to “form a roll,” says Kave. “Then if you want to get more decorative, you can crimp: Just press your index finger out from the outside in, pushing in with one finger and then pinching the dough with the other hand all around. Or, if you angle a fork to the left and right, it forms a zigzag shape with the tines.” Brush the whole top of the pie with more egg wash or milk, and consider sprinkling with some crunchy raw sugar.
As apples cook, they give off steam. If you don’t cut some vents in your top crust, it’ll crack. For vents, cut a few inches long with a sharp knife once the top crust is on. The slits are attractive enough, but if you want to decorate your pie, let vents be your excuse. Before you place crust number two above crust number one filled with apples, you can cut out little shapes with a small seasonal cookie cutter, like a leaf or an apple. If you like, you can paste the cut-out shapes onto the top of the pie with egg wash. Lattice and braids and such are a little more advanced, but experiment with them if working with dough comes naturally.
8. Crumb Topping
Vary the crust-on-crust approach by topping your apples with crumble. You’ll just need a single pie crust for the bottom. After you fill it with apples, make a mixture like Kave does, which uses 1 cup oats, ½ cup brown sugar, ¼ cup flour, ¼ chopped nuts, ¼ salt, and ¼ cinnamon, plus a ½ cup of butter integrated with your fingers.
Also, if you like apples more than crust or crumble, you can make a single crust pie and simply bake it off like that.
Put your pie in at 425°F and leave it there for about 20 minutes, turning once. This is to brown the crust. Then, lower the heat to 350°F and keep cooking for 40 to 45 minutes, checking often at the end. Don’t rely blindly on a timer to know when your pie is done. “The juice has to be dripping out and caramelizing,” says Sanneh. That’s your sign.
For beginners, Kave recommends a see-through glass pie pan rather than “those beautiful pie plates with thick walls.” She says: “They can be a little tricky. You can’t see through, and you don’t know what’s happening on the bottom.” That’s a problem because “the thick walls don’t get hot as quickly, and they don’t conduct heat as well as glass or metal.” In other words, when you you think the pie is done, check the bottom (and the top). Ask: ‘Does the bottom look golden? Flaky? Baked? If it doesn’t, it needs more time.’ Says Kaye: “The other visual cue is bubbles: you’ll see liquid bubbling out of the pie. The bubbles will be thick and sticky; it’ll take a minute for them to pop.”
Once your pie is done, make sure it cools before you dig in. “All those juices have to solidify, and it takes a long time. Wait at least an hour before cutting into your pie, or else it’ll be a little soupy.”
10. A la mode (or with cheese)
To serve, heat up a whole cooled pie or slices at around 325°F. Warming shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes or so. Scoops of vanilla or coffee ice cream are key—don’t let anyone tell you that pie à la mode equals two desserts. “Whipped cream is good too,” says Sanneh. “It’s a mess but so yummy.” In New England and parts of the Midwest, no pie is complete without a wedge of aged cheddar (you can also put grated cheddar in the crust, or melt it on the top crust).