Fruit pies are a common miracle—even though the best Southern bakers have been doing it for centuries, it’s not easy to preserve the consistency of gooey syrupy fruit inside a crisp and flaky piecrust. But after all, that’s what makes them so delicious (and so impressive). When your fork breaks the surface of a slice of perfectly baked pie, it cracks through the crust and glides into the filling until it pushes past the final layer of pastry at the bottom. Then, when you take a bite, the contrast between the crunchy, buttery crust and the brightness of a smooth fruit filling makes it impossible to leave the rest of your piece on the plate. If you grew up in the South, it might be easy to overlook this marvel, but making the perfect summer pie is not a challenge for the faint of heart. While it requires a certain level of know-how, there are a few tricks (and one secret ingredient) that will make the process much easier.
There are two common problems bakers face when making a fruit pie: (1) the crust is gummy and underbaked or (2) the filling is too liquidy and drains out of the crust when you cut a slice. Both of these problems ruin the fantastic combination of a soft and sweet fruit filling with a crisp and buttery piecrust. The first hurdle (underbaking the piecrust) is overcome by a simple technique called blind baking—it’s easier than you might think (and you can find a simple how-to here).
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The second problem needs a little more of an explanation. Summer fruits (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, etc.) are all full of water, and as they bake, they release their water and it melds with the sugars and spices to create a delicious syrup encasing the soft fruit pieces suspended throughout the pie. However, since there is so much liquid in the fruit, something has to be used to thicken the filling so that it’s sturdy enough to hold its shape when a slice is removed. This secret and essential ingredient to the best summer pie is quick-cooking tapioca. While cornstarch and flour are often added to thicken fillings, tapioca is best because it doesn’t make the filling cloudy and it doesn’t contribute a floury or starchy flavor to the pie. By adding the quick-cooking tapioca to the filling a half-hour before you bake it, you allow the tapioca to soften so it will absorb the liquid while the pie bakes. Once the pie is done in the oven, allow the pie to cool completely so the tapioca can set and the filling can congeal, creating a properly soft center to complement your delicious crust.