Erin McDowell Literally Wrote the Book on Pie — Here’s Everything She Learned Along the Way

updated Nov 18, 2020
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orange cream pie with forks

Like so many people who love to bake, my love of getting in the kitchen and throwing flour around comes from spending time in the kitchen with my family. While my mother is my main source of food inspiration, it was my grandma who casually pulled out a bowl of apples once when I came to visit and suggested we bake a pie. I was about 14 years old the first time we made and rolled out a crust together in her little country kitchen. If the process of pie baking itself wasn’t enough (and, let’s be real, I loved it right out of the gate) — the feeling I got when I carried that pie into a room of her friends later to slice and share was truly everything.

I was hooked on baking — and, particularly, on pie — and my passion grew the more dough I made and crusts I filled. Nearly 20 years after baking those first pies in my grandma’s kitchen, I wrote The Book on Pie. It’s one part pie handbook, one part love letter — and writing it led me to cement some of my longtime opinions, and also taught me new things about my very favorite thing to bake. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Better Butter Makes for Better Pie Crusts

I use so much butter I tend to buy whatever’s on sale — but the more pies I baked the more I realized butter choice was especially important for home bakers to understand. Most butter in the United States contains about 80% butterfat, while European butters are typically closer to 82%. This means that American butters contain more moisture (and less fat), which makes the butter firmer when chilled. This can make it slightly harder to shingle into the flour, and the final dough may be a bit tougher to roll out. While European butters are softer and can be easier to handle in the mixing and rolling stages, they also are more prone to melting/softening due to their high fat content. I continue to use both types, and it’s a matter of personal preference — but understanding how it’s working within the dough can be helpful in troubleshooting common pie problems. 

2. You’re Probably Using Too Little Liquid

I think people are sometimes so afraid of making their pie dough too wet (which can lead to a seriously tough, overly crisp crust after baking), that they make it way too dry. Unfortunately, a too-dry dough can be almost impossible to work with, often crumbling or cracking when you try to manipulate it. The key is to get a dough that comes together fully without any dry or loose crumbles, but it should not be wet or sticky to the touch. 

3. It’s OK to Flavor Your Dough

Yes, most pie dough recipes are primarily just flour, fat, and water — but there’s no reason you can’t add flavors to your dough as well as your fillings. This can be as simple as mixing in a few teaspoons of ground spices, or more complex, like making a colorful compound butter to use to prepare your dough. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. You Can Go Deep-Dish with Almost Any Pie

A standard 9-inch pie plate is typically around 1 1/2 inches deep, while a deep-dish pie plate is around 2 1/2 inches deep. Most pie crust recipes produce enough dough for a classic pie (with some scrap dough leftover) or a deep-dish pie (without much scraps left behind). There’s nothing wrong with baking in a deep dish if the recipe calls for a standard depth, but remember due to the deeper plate the filling might look a tad puny inside the crust. Try adding a topping, like meringue or whipped cream, to help fill in the crust — as a bonus, it will make for a more impressive slice! 

5. Long, Slow Chill Times Make for Better Pies

During testing, I discovered that longer chill times in the refrigerator were preferable for most steps when it’s called for: chilling the dough after mixing, chilling the dough during assembly, and chilling the final pie before it’s baked. Being patient and allowing the dough to chill for longer in the fridge produced both a better final texture and helped decorative elements like crimps, braids, and cutouts keep their shape better. The process can be sped up at almost any stage by instead opting for shorter times in the freezer — although the rushing may show in the final product. 

6. Don’t Egg Wash the Whole Entire Top Crust

I like to apply egg wash to my double-crust pies to aid in even browning and add a little shine to the final pie. But like many people, I often end up covering all or part of the edges with foil because they can brown so much faster than the top crust itself. It was one of my ultimate lightbulb moments when I realized, Then why am I brushing the edges with egg wash? Sure enough, brushing only the center of the top crust helps it to brown more similarly to the edges, without risk of burning those pretty crimped edges. 

7. Bake Every Pie on the Lowest Rack of Your Oven

I used to move my pies around during baking. I might start them in the middle of the oven, then move towards the bottom or top later if I suspected the crust needed more crisping (bottom crust) or browning (top crust). The more pies I baked, I realized that the lower third of the oven is truly the sweet spot. It helps to evenly brown the bottom crust, while also keeping the top crust farther way from the main heating elements, which helps it to brown more gradually and evenly throughout baking. 

8. Proper Baking = No More Soggy Bottoms

When I first started writing about pies, I didn’t want to harp on the processes of par-baking (partially baking a crust before it’s filled and baked again) too much, because I always heard from home bakers that it seemed complicated. But the more pies I baked, the more I learned that for many recipes, the bottom crust just can’t bake fully in the time it takes for the filling to bake. Now, I par-bake nearly every single crust pie I make! 

9. Don’t Be Afraid of Going Dark

Pie dough should never be blond — and one of the biggest mistakes I see home bakers making is taking out their pies too soon. Even just five minutes can make a difference between a crisp, flaky crust, and a blond, under-done one that is prone to absorbing moisture from the filling and going soggy. I like to encourage people to think of crusty baguettes versus the kind of pale, softer loaves you see at the grocery store. The same thing is true for pie crust: Darker brown means more textural contrast (crisp! Flaky!) on the crust, and improved structure for the final pie. 

10. Sometimes It’s Easier to Slice a Pie … Out of the Pan

If a pie is properly baked, it can actually (easily) pop right out of the pie pan. This makes it even easier to slice — just pop it onto a cutting board and slice away. Just remember to let the pie cool or chill completely as directed by the recipe before attempting the big lift. 

Ready to give it a try? Check out Erin’s recipe for Cardamom Crème Brûlée Pie.

And make sure to follow Erin McDowell on Instagram and on the web for even more delicious pie inspiration.