Why It Works
- Tapioca starch forms a light, clear gel that's never cloudy, slimy, or gloppy.
- A 4:1 ratio of fruit to sugar raises tapioca's gelatinization point so the filling and crust will cook at the same rate, meaning you never have to trade a thick filling for a soggy crust!
- Tempered-glass pie plates conduct heat quickly and evenly to the dough, producing a far crispier crust than heavy ceramic or stoneware.
With all due respect to my once-smoldering passion for Fox Mulder, following a Twin Peaks marathon a few years back, Dale Cooper shot to the top of my most-wanted list. Sure, both FBI investigators are earnest, intuitive, and wickedly handsome in a two-piece suit, but Agent Cooper is clearly a man after my own heart. The kind of guy to introduce himself at the local mom 'n pop and settle down for a thick slice of cherry pie.
Forget the Black Lodge; the real mystery of Twin Peaks was how the hell everyone made such consistently killer cherry pie. More often than not, fresh fruit pies in the real world are a soggy mess. Tasty, perhaps, but best served with a spoon. Happily, a picture-perfect slice of "damn good" cherry pie is more science than fiction. So, how do we make a cherry pie that's juicy but not runny, thick but not gloppy, and (most important) worthy of Dale Cooper's praise?
Luckily, cherries themselves are wonderfully predictable. Some taste better than others, to be sure, but whether fresh or frozen, sweet or sour, juicy and plump from the farmers' market or withered as they linger in stores, cherries are just colorful bags of mostly water.
A little more than 80%, if you want to be precise. That means we don't have to guess how much liquid they'll give up—we know. Suddenly, the amount of starch our pie needs is a constant, not a variable: a fixed percentage of the pitted cherries by weight.
The Benefits of Using Tapioca Starch
Of course, the precise amount depends on the thickening power of any given starch, so, for simplicity's sake, I'm going to focus on my favorite: tapioca. I'm not talking about pearls or quick-cooking granules, but the fully powdered starch. It's widely available, easy to use, and well suited to the acidity of cherries; peaches, blueberries, and huckleberries (perhaps Dale Cooper's second-favorite pie), too.
Tapioca starch can also thicken cherry pie filling at a concentration of only 5.5%, so we don't need very much—a real victory for those of us who despise starchy pies. Combined with fruit juice, tapioca forms a translucent gel that feels silky and light, so you never have to deal with cloudy or gloppy filling. In my testing, this concentration worked with sweet, sour, or even frozen cherries.
Under normal conditions, tapioca starch begins to gelatinize around 140°F (60°C), and it can break down at temperatures as low as 190°F (88°C). That makes it lousy in savory applications, where it loses all its power in simmering stews and sauces. But those rules fly out the window when it comes to cherry pie, which behaves more like a candy than a sauce.
Finding the Right Ratio of Fruit to Sugar
Whether you're making chewy caramel or gooey marshmallow fluff, the boiling point of any syrup (including cherry pie filling) is governed by sugar. The more sugar, the higher the boiling point.
Here's where things get crazy: Sugar effectively raises the gelatinization temperature of starch by altering the thermodynamic behavior of water itself so that it requires more energy (i.e., a higher cooking temperature) before it can penetrate a granule of starch. In short, sugar enables a fragile starch like tapioca to perform supernatural feats, even in a bubbling-hot pie.
But only at the right concentration! Too little sugar (less than 15% of the cherries by weight) and the water will behave more or less as usual, allowing the tapioca to break down long before the crust has a chance to bake through and through. Too much sugar (over 35%) and the water won't be able to penetrate the starch until it's cooked well beyond the temperature of any normal pie.
In my experience, the ideal concentration of sugar is about 25%, enough to delay gelatinization so the tapioca-thickened filling and dough bake at the same rate. That's a vital consideration if you want the bottom crust to turn out flaky, crisp, and brown. (A soggy bottom crust is a sure sign that something's gone awry.)
By adding sugar to taste, as if it were merely a sweetener and nothing more, we leave our success to chance. While there's no denying the romance of recipes that call for a handful of this and a handful of that, we've all seen enough soupy pies and goopy fillings to know that the odds aren't good. But if we accept sugar as a fixed percentage of our fruit by weight, all risk of failure is removed.
With that revelation, the ultimate cherry pie is no Lynchian mystery. It's a simple fact of life.
So, if we're adding sugar as a fixed percentage by weight, not by taste, how does that account for cherry varieties that might be sweeter or more sour than others? I use a couple of methods to adjust sweetness in my pie. The filling can be doctored to taste with lemon juice and salt—I use a heavy hand with both; most fruit pies are criminally under-seasoned—and both will help bring balance and complexity to the filling. If you're dealing with extremely dark cherries, which are particularly sweet, I highly recommend giving lightly toasted sugar a try.
Baked for just an hour or two at 300°F (150°C), sugar undergoes some low-level caramelization that will dramatically reduce its sweetness without adding any overt caramel flavor at all (its color should still be pale ivory). If anything, toasted sugar helps coax out the almond-y notes inherent to cherries, adding a bit more complexity to the pie. On that note, don't toss out those pits! Steeped with a little cream, they're a pitch-perfect (or should I say pit-perfect?) complement to your pie in the form of cherry pit whipped cream.
So pour yourself a cup of strong coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night, and prepare to settle down with a damn fine slice of cherry pie.
How to Make an Old-Fashioned All-Butter Pie Crust
For the Filling:
28 ounces pitted cherries (5 heaping cups; 790g), from about 2 pounds whole fruit (6 heaping cups; 910g) (see notes)
1 ounce fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons; 30g) from 1 small lemon
7 ounces sugar (1 cup; 195g)
3/4 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
1 1/2 ounces tapioca starch, such as Bob's Red Mill (1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon; 40g)
Old-fashioned flaky pie dough, rolled and chilled as per the directions for a double crust
For the Egg Wash (optional):
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 ounce heavy cream (1 tablespoon; 15g)
1/8 teaspoon (1/2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
To Serve (optional):
For the Filling: Combine pitted cherries, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and tapioca starch in a large bowl, folding with a flexible spatula until well combined. Scrape into prepared pie shell and top with remaining dough, using a solid sheet, cutouts, or a lattice-top design. (Check out my tutorials here.) Trim away excess dough and refrigerate pie to ensure top crust is completely chilled, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 400°F (200°C).
For the Egg Wash (if using): Whisk egg, egg yolk, cream, and salt in a small bowl. Brush over chilled top crust in a thin, even layer. This will give the crust a glossy, golden sheen, but it is not necessary in any way.
Place chilled pie on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake until crust is golden, about 1 hour, then loosely cover with tented foil. (Alternatively, an empty baking sheet can be placed on the topmost rack of the oven to serve as a shield.) Continue baking until filling is bubbling even in the very center of the pie, about 15 minutes more. If crust completely covers filling, bake until pie reaches an internal temperature of 213°F (100°C) on a digital thermometer. The time can vary considerably depending on the thickness and type of pie plate, the amount of top crust, how long the pie was refrigerated, et cetera.
To Serve: Cool pie until no warmer than 85°F (29°C) on a digital thermometer, about 3 hours depending on the type of pie plate (at higher temperatures, filling will be runny and thin). Slice into wedges with a sharp knife, pressing firmly against bottom and sides of pie plate to ensure the under-crust is completely cut. If you like, serve with cherry pit whipped cream. Wrapped in foil, leftovers will keep up to 3 days at room temperature; warm 10 minutes in a 350°F (180°C) oven to revive crust before serving.
9-inch pie plate (preferably tempered-glass), pastry brush (if using egg wash), rimmed half-sheet pan, digital thermometer
Update: Due to disparate sourcing practices, tapioca starch manufactured in Asia may be derived from plants other than cassava, which have different gelling properties. Look for products that mention cassava by name on the packaging, such as Bob's Red Mill. For the most flavorful pie, reach for a mix of sweet and sour cherries—a blend of fresh and frozen works just fine. Fresh cherries can be pitted (I love my OXO cherry pitter) and refrigerated up to three days in advance. Or, use an equal weight of frozen cherries, thawed until softened. If you like, reserve cherry pits for a batch of cherry pit whipped cream, the ultimate garnish for cherry pie.
Active time will fluctuate depending on complexity of design.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 16g||21%|
|Saturated Fat 6g||31%|
|Total Carbohydrate 78g||28%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 37g|
|Vitamin C 7mg||37%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|