Now’s the perfect time of year to up your pie game, with a few tips and tricks from a few of Britain’s expert pie makers.
It’s a tricky thing to get right, a good pie. The pastry in particular – even experienced chefs will admit to sourcing theirs from a wholesaler, ready to roll. I’d urge you to ignore them. Homemade pastry tastes better than what you can buy, even when it all goes to pot.
As much of a challenge as it is, we’re not here to just talk about pastry. Rather, a few tips and tricks, with the help of a few pie makers who know their stuff, to help you up your pie game as a whole. Get ready to bake it ‘til you make it.
Test your metal (pie case)
‘Over the many years of making pies,’ says Ian Hartland of Hartland Pies, ‘a few things always crop up. “My hands are too warm to make a good pastry”, “which beer should I drink it with”, and – here’s the big one – ‘“will it have a soggy bottom?” For the home baker, Mary Berry’s famous words elicit pure dread. Probably because it’s such an easy mistake to make – a warm filling, a dish or tin poorly conductive of heat, or an oven set to too low a temperature will do that.
The solution? There be many, from making sure your filling’s cool, to heating up a pizza stone on which to place your pie tin. But the main thing is making sure the exterior has a chance to warm up before the fat in pastry melts. You want to bring the heat, in other words. One of the best ways to ensure this, as Ian says, is to ‘always use a good metal pie tin.’
A highly curious (pastry) case
But the soggy bottom conundrum is all irrelevant if you haven’t, ahem, got a bottom in the first place. It’s a debate that has gripped the British public for years – how do we define this cultural item we’re so proud of? Does a pie require a bottom, or doesn’t it? Could a pie not fully encased in pastry be legitimately called a pie, or is that a bad way of describing a casserole with a lid? When consternation was at its peak, a petition on these very grounds made it halfway to parliament.
Amanda Jalland, from Brockleby’s Pies also based in Melton Mowbray, official home of the protected status pork pie, says a pie should be, as it has historically been, a full pastry shell containing the filling. ‘Romans would use meats and fish as the filling, with a mixture of flour, oil and water to keep it in place,’ she says. ‘The pastry was inedible, designed to be thrown away.’
Indeed, the pastry’s purpose was originally intended to make the filling easily portable. Puritans will stick to its roots, but some of today’s pie makers, like Ian, aren’t quite so bothered. ‘We’ll never be too hung up on the bottom or no bottom thing. Let’s have the pie eaters have the final say.’
In crust we trust
Alright, so a pie could be what you make it. As far as presentation and texture is concerned, though, this still doesn’t mean you can skip a good crust. Pastry is notoriously difficult to get right, but when you do, is oh so satisfying. The main problem, says Chris Brumby, founder of London street-side pie-slingers MyPie, is that we often don’t realise how delicate and not to be trifled with the gluten within flour really is.
‘Rolling it and re-rolling it, lots of people don’t respect their pastry,’ says Chris. ‘You’ve got one shot, or the gluten is over worked and may as well chuck it in the bin!’ Ian agrees: ‘Always remember – less work makes a better crust,’ he says. ‘And always use cold water,’ though obviously not for ‘hot water’ pastries such as pasties and pork pies.
Lastly, if you want your pie to have a shop counter sheen, running a brush lightly dunked in egg or milk over the top of the lid will do the trick. Or you could, you know, try both. ‘We use an egg yolk and milk wash,’ says Lovett Pies’ Phil Roseblade. ‘Which we find works quite well.’ If you’ve seen Phil’s pies, it’s kinda hard to argue.
It’s what’s inside that counts
Pastry’s one thing, but let’s not forget – the pie is a kind of matrimony between crust and filling. If you have one screwing it up, the whole dish falls apart. This is a big issue for Amanda. ‘Two really common mistakes,’ she says, ‘are too much pastry with not enough filling, or too much gravy and too little meat.’
As long as the home cook isn’t too vigilant in using up his components all in one go, balance in quantity is achievable enough. It’s more the quality we should be worried about. ‘Don’t be scared to season your fillings,’ says Chris. ‘Our pies contain around 220 grams of filling, and it takes a reasonable amount of seasoning to not leave it bland. Just to taste – and add little by little.’ A little goes a long way, as they say. Well, actually, perhaps not far enough: ‘We use loads,’ says Chris.
Lovett’s shortcrust pastry recipe:
- 250g plain flour
- pinch of salt
- pinch of ground white pepper
- 125g salted butter, cubed
- 60ml/5-6 tbsp cold water
- Mix together the flour and salt in a large bowl and add the cubes of butter.
- Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Work quickly so as to not make the butter melt too much with the heat of your hands.
- Bit by bit, stir in just enough of the cold water to bind the dough together.
- Roll out to 2cm thick, wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill for 10-15 minutes before using.
This article was originally published in December 2017 and has been updated.