How to Elevate Your Holiday Pies, According to the Pros

varietie of pies from "Pies for Everyone" by Petra Paredez

Victor Garzon

With holiday baking just around the corner, it's time to start practicing rolling pie dough and weaving your lattice-top crust. Here are some simple tips from the pros to elevate your pie flavors and presentation.

Freeze Your Butter

The right butter can make or break your pie crust. Higher fat content butter creates a richer texture and provides more flavor. Chef Kieron Hales from Zingerman's Cornman Farms freezes butter overnight and uses a standard cheese grater to coarsely grate it when he begins making his pie crust. "When you cut the butter into the dough, it will remain colder," he says, "which helps with the leavening and results in an incredibly flaky and delicious crust." Aim for pea-sized chunks of butter within the dough.

Keep the Dough Cold

"Work quickly and keep the dough cold," says pastry chef Aya Fukai of Aya Pastry. "Once the dough becomes warmer at room temperature, it will be extremely difficult to work with and shape." If you have trouble rolling out the dough and working quickly enough, Fukai suggests wrapping the dough and returning it to the refrigerator, then coming back to it when it's cold again for better results.

Nix the Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is a common ingredient in pecan pie recipes, but it's not a natural food and can sometimes make pies cloyingly sweet. "Corn syrup is all sweetness and no character," says Petra Paredez of New York City's cult-favorite pie shop Petee's Pie Company. In her cookbook Pie For Everyone, Paredez shares her recipe for pecan pie using browned butter, honey, and organic brown sugar. "Browning the butter caramelizes the milk solids, giving it a toasty, nutty flavor," she says. "We like to use local apple blossom honey or wildflower honey in our pie. Honey has a natural acidity that gives the filling more balance."

brown butter pecan pie from Petee's Pie in New York City

Victor Garzon

Get Your Sweet Potatoes... Sweeter

In Louisville, Kentucky, Dawn Urrutia makes 300 sweet potato pies a week during the holiday season at Georgia's Sweet Potato Pie Company. She recommends roasting sweet potatoes at 500 F for an hour, flipping them at the mid-way point for an even roast, to coax out the most flavor. "I will roast my potatoes until the caramelized sugars start oozing out of the foil," she says. "We call this sugary goodness liquid gold." She then mixes in butter, pure vanilla, almond milk, sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon with a hand mixer to achieve a fine pudding-like texture for her filling.

Pre-Roast Apples

Consider roasting your apples before baking an apple pie for a more toothsome texture. "We always roast our apples until al dente before baking the pies to get a more consistent product," says pastry chef Nathaniel Reid of Nathaniel Reid Bakery. "You will also have less pie collapse. When you roast the apples, it cooks out some of the moisture so that less steam is created inside your pie when you bake it. This helps to avoid big air pockets within your pie."

Introduce New Flavors

Fukai uses Japanese sweet potatoes, which are sweeter and nuttier than American sweet potatoes when making sweet potato pie. "Its flavor is very similar to roasted chestnut," she says. Instead of traditional pie spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, Fukai uses condensed milk and a touch of dark rum in her pie filling as is typical in Japan.

For a more approachable way to introduce Asian flavors, Fukai suggests choosing a tried and true recipe and thinking of Asian ingredient substitutions. For example, substituting key lime juice with yuzu to make a yuzu meringue pie or replacing cinnamon with ginger to make a pear ginger pie. "You can also incorporate Asian ingredients into the components being served with the pie, such as miso caramel sauce to go with a classic American apple pie or black sesame ice cream to go with a strawberry pie," she says.

Play With Sweet and Sour

Consider putting a tart twist on your holiday pie by making a vinegar pie, an old-fashioned recipe that's fallen by the wayside but can be easily revived with modern flavored vinegars. At Bulrush in St. Louis, chef Rob Connoley makes his own vinegars from foraged produce like pawpaw and rhubarb. He's even made a bourbon barrel-aged black walnut sap vinegar pie. If making your own vinegar is too much trouble, Acid League has quite an assortment of flavored vinegars to try, like strawberry rosé and orange marmalade, available online and at Whole Foods.

"Stop cooking as soon as the first bubbles appear," Connoley says. "Otherwise the liquid will overcook and you'll get curd." However, if you're using a recipe that includes cornstarch, you'll want to cook it a little longer. "Be sure to cook the pudding a full minute after it starts to sputter to ensure that the cornstarch is cooked. Then strain the pudding through a wire mesh strainer to remove any chalazae, the little squiggly thing that attaches to the yolk. This will give the smoothest texture."

pastry chef olivia taylor holding an apple galette

Olivia Taylor

Impress Guests With Galettes

"Galettes are elegant and easy, but time consuming," says Olivia Taylor, pastry chef at Inn on the Square in Greenwood, South Carolina. There's no top crust, so you just fold over the edges once the fruit is arranged within. The time-consuming part is arranging the fruit just so. Apples or pears need to be carefully peeled, cored, and cut into thin, uniform slices. Whether you layer your apples in rows or opt for a concentric design like Taylor, the fruit is on full display. "With no crust on the top, you can spend the extra time forming the rose petal designed center," she says.

Garnish With Gjetost

Apple cheddar pie is not nothing new, but Gjetost, a Norwegian brown cheese made from goat's milk, makes a great pie garnish too, with its nutty, fudgy undertones. “It adds a salty sweet element that isn't as aggressive as a finishing salt,” says Amy Gorski of Sixteen Bricks in Cincinnati. She grates Gjetost atop her cajeta pumpkin pie, and says it's also a great pairing for chocolate or caramel pies.

Got Leftovers? Make Ice Cream

Paredez stores fruit pies, chess pies, and nut pies covered at room temperature to be eaten with a few days. "I think the flavor and texture are better before they're refrigerated," she says. Custard pies need to be refrigerated if they aren't eaten within a day. Remnants of leftover pie can be chopped into small pieces and put in the freezer, then folded into freshly churned ice cream. At Petee's, Paradez makes pie ice cream with salty chocolate chess and brown butter honey pecan pies.