Decorative Crust 101: How to Make a Lattice Pie

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

We all know it's what's on the inside that counts, but whether you're making a pie for the holiday weekend or simply just because, sometimes it's fun to go all out. So, before I crack into my favorite recipes for summer fruit pie (cherry's comin' up shortly), I thought I'd pause for a quick crash course on lattice-top designs.

These are great for any sort of super-juicy fruits, because the semi-open-faced design allows for evaporation, resulting in a thicker, more concentrated filling. Even if you've never made a pie, much less a lattice, I swear you can do it. It's basically the same technique we all picked up making construction-paper placemats in the second grade.

All you need is the right dough, one that can flex and bend without cracking, crumbling, or stretching out of shape. If you've had a bad experience with lattice designs in the past, it may simply be that your recipe of choice wasn't well suited to the job. More important still is knowing that your pie dough can handle all that...handling, and still bake up tender, flaky, and crisp.

It's a tall order, but I'm proud to say that my Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough is more than up to the task, and super easy to make by hand; all you need is a rolling pin and a pie plate.

As soon as you've whipped it up (which takes all of five minutes), half the dough is rolled into a 14-inch round, draped across a plate, and trimmed to size; the scraps can be rerolled and used for cutouts, if you like. Some folks like to leave the excess dough hanging over the edges to fold up and over the top crust when it's done, but I prefer to tuck it in to reinforce the walls of the pie.

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Roll the remaining dough into a 10- by 15-inch rectangle—a giant field from which you can harvest all the lattice you could ever need. But not yet! The dough needs to be rested in the refrigerator for at least two hours to allow the gluten to do any shrinking it's going to do (like jeans, pie crusts are best when preshrunk). The cold dough is also much easier to handle because it won't smush or squish out of shape.

Regardless of the type of filling you choose, press it into an even layer: a nice flat foundation for your design. Cut the dough sheet into a dozen 10-inch strips, each about one inch wide. I'm a sucker for the rickrack design of a fluted pastry wheel, but you can use a pizza wheel if you prefer.

Lay half the strips across the pie in vertical columns, spacing them about an inch apart.

Nerd alert: In weaving terms, the vertical columns are the "warp," and collectively, they form a "warp field." So please, use these weaving terms as often as you can! For example: "Warp six, engage!"

Since we can't actually weave strips of dough through our warp field, the over-under-over motion of each horizontal row has to be simulated. That just means folding back every other vertical column before laying down each horizontal row. That's it!

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Once you've placed the first horizontal row, all the vertical columns of dough that pass underneath it are folded back, and the rest returned to their original positions. From there, the pattern is repeated until the whole pie is covered.

It's easy to go cross-eyed trying to take in the whole thing, but wherever you are in the process, just remember: You only pull back the vertical columns that pass under the horizontal rows. In motion, that looks a little something like this...

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When you're done, the excess dough can be trimmed away with a knife for clean, smooth edges (as in the video above), or smashed with the tines of a fork to create a fringe like the one in the pie below—my personal favorite, because it generates a ton of crunchy bits, too.

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With that basic weaving technique under your belt, you can step up your game simply by adding more vertical columns of "warp" to create a tighter field in step one, then weaving in extra horizontal rows to match. If you're really feeling fancy, try laying down the horizontal rows at a 45-degree angle, creating a diamond pattern instead.

Another simple way to mix things up is to alternate between thick and thin strips of dough, creating a pattern that evokes a sense of plaid. Instead of crimping or stamping the edges, you can also make a border by cutting out a bajillion half-inch pieces and tiling them around the pie.

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In fact, tiling is a fantastic way to cover a pie without much fuss. It gives you all the advantages of a complete double crust (namely: more crust) while allowing you to flex a little creative muscle at the same time. With my recipe, you can cut about 40 two-inch pieces, plus a dozen or more half-inch rounds, from the chilled sheet of dough reserved for the top crust.

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When you're done, depending on the complexity of the design, it may be a good idea to refrigerate the pie for about 30 minutes, which coincides nicely with the amount of time it takes to preheat the oven. This guarantees the butter is nice and cold, so the dough bakes up crisp, light, and flaky rather than greasy or dense.

As a finishing touch, I like to egg-wash my dough, which helps the top crust bake to a deep, burnished gold. Since the wash is generously salted, it adds a hint of flavor, too.

Even so, it's a mostly cosmetic step that you can skip if you'd prefer a paler crust (like the pie on the far right below). Opting out of an egg wash can also be a good idea when you're using frozen fruit, as the filling will typically require much longer to bake, an extended timetable that helps the crust brown better on its own.

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The important thing to remember is that decorations should be fun, adding to the excitement of a fresh summer pie. Any technique that adds to your frustration is one that's better left behind, so don't hesitate to keep things simple. In the end, all that matters is that your pie is covered with a deliciously flaky crust.

On the flip side, if you enjoy a creative challenge, know that my dough is patient, so there's no rush as you try to work out your favorite design. The under-crust itself is in no danger of turning soggy from a cool fruit filling, and, however you flip, fold, or pinch the dough on top, you can always pop it back in the fridge if it gets too soft.

So grab some butter, roll up your sleeves, and get ready for the summer of pie.