We focus a lot on the dough and crust when we talk about pies, since this is often the most intimidating part for new pie-bakers. And yet if your filling isn't delicious as well, then what's the point? Fruit filling is what makes us love pie. The opportunity to use fresh, seasonal fruit with a minimum of preparation or fuss, letting the fruit's flavors shine out clearly - it's one of the best things about baking.
So if you have some fruit around here are a few tips on making a pie filling from its juicy goodness.
• Choose a variety of fruit: Peach, apple, and berry pies are all wonderful, but we think that the best pies have a mix. Even if it's subtle (1 apple thrown into a peach pie, for instance) it gives a good variety of flavor and textures.
• Look for high pectin fruits: Pectin is the natural substance inside many fruits that causes them to thicken when cooked with sugar. Some fruits (apples, blackberries, and quinces) are very high in pectin. Other popular pie fruits (blueberries, cherries, strawberries) do not have much pectin at all and so they need to be cooked with a thickener to keep the filling from being runny. It's also helpful to add a high pectin fruit in with a low pectin fruit to help the filling thicken properly. For instance, add an apple to a berry pie.
• Thickener: The nice thing about baked fruit pies is that you don't need to do anything fussy. Custards and puddings need to be cooked in order to thicken, but fruit fillings just need to be tossed with a little cornstarch or tapioca and voilá - you've got a thick, jammy filling. Cornstarch is usually our thickener of choice, but you can read more about filling thickeners at Baking 911. New bakers would do well to stick to high pectin fruits, too, like apples (see previous point).
• Not too much sugar: Pies are best when the fruit is sweet and the sugar is kept to a minimum. We look for sweet apples (Golden Delicious are great in pies) and keep the sugar in the filling to under 1/2 cup.
• Spices: Don't forget to add a little spice! Nutmeg for berries, cinnamon for apples, cloves for peaches and apricots. Ginger can go with almost anything.
• Something bright: Most fruit pies need a little extra acidity to brighten the flavor. We usually add a squirt of lemon juice and some zest, or a splash of balsamic vinegar.
• Butter: We always dot the top of our fruit fillings with a bit of butter for richness, taste, and texture.
Here is our rough and tumble formula for a fruit pie filling.
4-6 cups of chopped fruit
1-2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup brown or white sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2-2 teaspoons spices
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
How do you make your pie filling? What's your favorite kind of fruit for pie?
Related: Recipe Review: The Cook's Illustrated Vodka Pie Crust
(Images: Faith Durand)