Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pie Fillings and You

Now that you've unlocked the secrets to flaky pie crust you probably need something to actually put in that pie. This is going to be about fruit pies, but I might do another post about other types of pies.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie with some pieces cut from it

I almost feel like I'm cheating or something by writing about this. I've been making fruit pies for so many years that it's like second nature almost. Fruit pie fillings are crazy simple to put together. Seriously, even if you're one of those people that gets a bit nervous if you don't have a recipe, you can do this. Many times I'll decide I want to make a pie and then head over to the market and see what kind of fruit catches my eye and that's what type of pie I'll make.

I highly recommend buying fruit that's in season, especially if you can get to a farmer's market or something like that. The great thing about buying from a farmer's market or one of those pick your own places is that you're getting fruit that's been ripened naturally. Even when you're buying in-season produce from your local grocery store, it might have been shipped in from somewhere else and it's likely been picked when it was green. You'll get the best flavor out of your fruit if it's been allowed to ripen before it's harvested.

But what if it's the middle of winter and you're just dying for a blueberry pie? Go for frozen fruit. The great thing about frozen fruit is that you can get it any time of year from pretty much anywhere you might live. It's a great solution when nothing's in season or all of the produce looks a bit dodgy at your local market.

When you're deciding on a fruit for your pie, don't be afraid to be creative! Combine a few and see what happens. Strawberries and mangos go together quite nicely in a pie as do apples and blueberries or figs and strawberries. (Fresh figs are pretty awesome in pies, actually.) If you're combining fruits, think about the flavors of each. Do you want an equal amount of strawberries and rhubarb or do you want just a little bit of rhubarb to complement your strawberries?

Now that you've got that down, you need to know how much fruit to buy. Keep in mind that fruit shrinks a bit when you cook it so get a little bit more than you think you'll need. Also, it's totally acceptable to pile up the fruit into a mound that goes a bit taller than the edge of your pie dish. I do that with apple pies most of the time, actually. It'll cook down a bit and besides, the crust will keep your filling in there nice and snug.  Here's a good trick to figuring out how much fruit to buy. Just pile it up inside your pie dish before you do anything to it. Account for the spaces that aren't being filled since your fruit isn't cut yet when you're doing this, though. If you're already at the store and your pie dish is at home, just go to the aisle with those aluminum pie pans and pile some fruit in it when you're in the produce aisle, then put the pan back when you're done. Most grocery stores have those hanging around somewhere.

Now you want to think about sweetening your pie filling. Taste a little piece of your fruit. How sweet is it already? Sometimes I'll leave out the sugar entirely if I'm using really sweet fruit. If you're adding sugar, you want to start out planning to use 1 cup of dry sugar. Depending on how sweet your fruit already is, cut that amount down a bit. The rhubarb in the pie I just made was quite tart and the strawberries were greenhouse strawberries and not quite as sweet as I would have liked so I went ahead and added the whole cup of sugar. If you just plain old like things super sweet, then go ahead and always add the whole cup. No worries.

You can also switch up the type of sweetener that you're using. Use brown sugar, white sugar, sucanat, agave nectar, maple syrup, etc. Different sugars will give a touch of a different flavor to your pie. If you're using liquid sugars, you may not need an entire cup. I'd start with about a half cup of those and maybe mix in a bit of granulated sugar with it so everything doesn't get too soggy.

What else to add to your pie? I like to add a bit of vanilla to mine, pretty much all of the time. Sometimes I'll use real vanilla beans, but mostly I'll just use some vanilla extract. You can also experiment with using some other extracts as well. Lemon, orange, chocolate and maple extracts can be especially delicious in a pie. Add them along with your vanilla or instead of. I usually add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla with 1-2 teaspoons of whatever other extract I'm using.

Lemon juice is your friend! I find that adding a bit of something acidic like lemon juice gives your fruit such a fresh boost. Sometimes I'll use apple cider vinegar instead if I'm feeling crazy. You only need a few tablespoons. Usually I'll use the juice of one lemon or 2 tablespoons of vinegar. If you're making an apple pie, I would especially say to use the lemon juice. It'll add so many nuances to the flavor.

You're going to want to add a thickener of some kind as well. I usually add about a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour or a few tablespoons of arrowroot or cornstarch. Why? Because this will mix with the fruit juices that get released during cooking and give you a nice thick sauce around your fruit. Just make sure to mix it into your fruit evenly and you're good to go.

Adding a pinch of salt is usually a good idea, too. Not much, just a touch. If you have some of those flavored salts, that might be really awesome in a pie. Someone was telling me about lavender salt the other day, I would love to try that!

Now you can get creative and add some more stuff. Lemon zest, orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, hazelnuts, raisins, cranberries, chocolate chips... anything!

Sometimes after I've put the filling in the pie dish and before I put the top crust on, I'll dot a bit of Earth Balance on top. It adds a nice bit of flavor to your pie. I've never met a pie that didn't like that little addition. I don't always do it, mostly because I forget, but it's delicious when I do.

Really, it's that easy!

For the strawberry rhubarb pie that I made the other day I used 2 containers of strawberries, 3 stems of rhubarb, 1 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon vanilla, the zest of one orange and a pinch of salt.


  1. I am so making a pie this weekend!

  2. Another pie post, awesome! I really really need to make pie now!

  3. I've got a ball of dough in the freezer right now.. gonna make blueberry pie!

  4. Hi Sara!
    Just wanted to let you know I finally got a juicer!! After your inspiring post and your help, I did some of research and ended up getting (for my birthday, that was yesterday) a Philips HR1861/00, which was the one with the highest watts available where I live. I used it today and was quite happy, although I still need to figure out what to do with the pulp. I made some broccoli/watercress/pear juice and have no idea what to do with its pulp, lol.

  5. I'm so excited for you, Camila! I'm still not sure what to do with the pulp, either. I have a recipe somewhere for using carrot pulp. The rest could be good for making vegetable broth, I guess.

  6. Kaitlin, How did your pie turn out?