When it comes to making dinner, by virtue of my dessert-oriented profession, I gravitate toward what I like to call "secret pastries"—savory meals that ultimately hinge on making a fantastic dough. It's a category that includes dishes such as ravioli, quiche, empanadas, and pizza, as well as my personal favorite: chicken pot pie.
Of course, no matter how amazing the pastry, all the time and effort that go into chicken pot pie will be wasted if you start with a mediocre filling. You know the sort: loaded with overcooked chicken swimming in a watery sauce.
How to Get the Filling Right
Fortunately, the same steps that ensure the chicken stays tender and juicy will also guarantee a super-flavorful filling. It's as simple as giving up on pot pie as a vehicle for leftovers. Sure, we all remember how fantastic that roast chicken was the night before, but if it was perfectly cooked then, it will always be overcooked in a chicken pot pie.
Rather than using leftovers, the ultimate chicken pot pie starts with tender, juicy chunks of chicken that are ever so slightly underdone. Not raw, but around 135°F (57°C), a temperature that ensures the chicken won't be ruined by additional cooking but instead will end up perfectly done when the pie is baked. To do that, I'm fond of Daniel's technique for cold-poached chicken, only I use chicken stock in place of the water in his method. On top of that, I throw in onions, celery, and carrots, along with a small amount of garlic and herbs.
I do this because I end up using the poaching liquid in the pot pie itself, so the more I can reinforce the chicken flavor in each step, the better. In short, I'm making an incredibly intense chicken stock by using chicken stock instead of water, doubling down on the underlying flavor.
Because the stock is reinforced with additional aromatics and meat, it doesn't matter as much whether that chicken stock is store-bought or homemade, so don't hesitate to use whichever makes the most sense to you.
In either case, unless that stock is so collagen-rich that it turns solid in the fridge, it's nice to go ahead and bloom a little gelatin to fortify things down the road. A small amount of gelatin can go a long way in creating a more luxurious mouthfeel in the finished product, without forcing you to use excess flour and other thickeners that can dull the flavor of the sauce.
With the poached chicken and concentrated stock ready to rock and roll, the filling itself is fairly straightforward. I start with equal parts butter and flour by weight to make a light blond roux, which strikes the perfect balance of toasty flavor and just enough thickening power for a sauce that coats each nubbin of food.
When the roux is pale gold, I add a mix of diced onion, celery, and carrots. (Unlike my usual pastries, secret pastries are fairly forgiving of adaptations, so those vegetables can be swapped for whatever you prefer, including shallots, leeks, and even butternut squash.) I keep cooking and stirring until the vegetables have slightly softened, then stir in a splash of dry white wine and the fortified stock. From there, I cook only until the stock begins to bubble.
Off heat, I stir in salt, pepper, thyme, and Worcestershire sauce (as a wee umami bomb) to establish a baseline for the seasoning. It's good to get the seasoning going early, since the flavor of the sauce is harder to judge when it's chock-full of undercooked chicken and frozen peas.
At this stage, the sauce should taste slightly more intense than ideal, as its flavor will be diluted by the volume of ingredients added in the next step: those aforementioned frozen peas, along with diced pimento pepper, the reserved bloomed gelatin, and the poached chicken (shredded or diced into bite-size bits).
Full disclosure: I don't even like pimento on its own, but it does something magical in chicken pot pie, adding a vibrant color and smoky sweetness that make the whole dish pop. If you're not keen on buying a whole jar of the stuff, most fancy supermarkets include pimentos in their salad or olive bar, so you can load up on exactly how much you need, down to the gram.
Choosing the Right Pastry
Once the filling is made, what happens next is a deeply personal affair, a decision that can split families and destroy friendships, or, perhaps, inspire newfound love. I speak, of course, of that long-standing rivalry between Team Biscuit...
...and Team Pie.
Let us cast aside the false dichotomies that divide us! In the realm of secret pastry, we're all on the same team. Besides, the true definition of pot pie (or, as Merriam-Webster would have it, "potpie") says only that it must be covered with pastry, a requirement easily satisfied by any dough. The choice between a pie dough and a biscuit dough is simply a matter of personal preference and available time, as each method requires the filling to be handled in a different way.
Drop biscuits are by far the faster and easier option for chicken pot pie, coming together in five minutes flat. They add an undeniable heartiness to the dish, and their fluffiness contrasts brilliantly with the creamy filling below. When they're made with tangy buttermilk, that touch of acidity cuts through the richness of the filling as well. Plus, biscuits can be dolloped over a hot filling, so the whole thing bakes in less time, too.
My drop biscuit method is dead simple: Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together with a bit of sugar. (The sugar doesn't make the biscuits sweet—it helps with browning and provides a subtle counterpoint to the salty filling.) Next, toss in some chunky cubes of butter, smash each one flat, and continue rubbing to create a coarse meal. Stir in some buttermilk, and you're done.
In this recipe, the pH, viscosity, protein composition, and complex flavor of cultured buttermilk play a vital role. With substitutes, like milk mixed with lemon juice or vinegar, the biscuits will spread more, brown less, and lose their fluffy charm. (For more information, check out these side-by-side comparisons of buttermilk substitutes in drop biscuits.) What's more, the sharp taste of acetic or citric acid from the vinegar or lemon juice will give the biscuits a harsh flavor.
Using a spoon or small scoop, dollop the biscuit dough over the filling in tablespoon-size portions. (It doesn't matter if the filling is piled into a two-quart casserole or split among several ramekins; you can divide it up however you prefer and portion the biscuit topping accordingly.)
Transfer the dish(es) to a rimmed half sheet pan and bake at 400°F (200°C) until the filling is bubbling-hot and the biscuits are golden brown—about 45 minutes if the filling was warm when you started, and about 15 minutes longer than that if it was prepared and refrigerated in advance.
If you value the roof of your mouth, let the pot pie rest at least 20 minutes before serving. The filling will be scalding when it comes out of the oven, so don't burn your tongue, and give that sucker a chance to cool. I promise it will still be piping-hot when you dig in.
A chicken pot pie topped with a crisp and flaky double crust is time-consuming, but it's as elegant as it is rich, befitting a special occasion. That beauty is more than a surface treatment, as my whole wheat pie crust will bake up flaky and crisp even along the bottom. That's due to the whole wheat flour, which also gives the crust a heartiness that can stand up to the meaty filling.
The only way to keep that layered dough flaky and light is to cool the filling until it's no warmer than 50°F (10°C). The process can be sped along by cooling it in an ice bath, or spreading it into a large baking dish to increase its surface area before chilling it in the fridge. Or, you can turn the cooling process into a make-ahead asset, since the filling can be prepared and refrigerated a day or two in advance. (As can the dough, which needs to be rolled and relaxed about two hours before use.)
Once the dough and filling have been prepared, assembly is fairly simple. Line your baking dishes with a layer of dough, fill each to the top, and top with another piece of pastry, trimmed to size. (Here, I'm using six two-cup ramekins.) Crimp the edges with a fork to seal the top and bottom crusts together, then brush with an egg wash.
If you're feeling fancy, the dough for the top crust can also be cut into thin strips and woven, following the steps in my lattice tutorial.
If you're topping with a solid sheet of pastry, cut a few vents in the crust to help steam escape—it won't have any trouble slipping out of a lattice on its own.
Place the pot pies on a half sheet pan, and bake at 400°F until the filling is bubbling-hot and the crust is golden brown, about 75 minutes. This is considerably longer than it takes to make the biscuit-topped pot pie, but the cold filling and extended bake time are absolutely vital to getting the crust crispy along the bottom and sides.
The filling will be at a boil when the pot pies come out of the oven, so do give them a chance to cool. Aside from being dangerously hot, the filling will be fairly runny when it's above 200°F (93°C), so letting it cool will give it a chance to thicken up as well. That's why I don't recommend baking chicken pot pie in a pie pan, as the filling won't be thick enough for clean slices until it's just about lukewarm.
Regardless of how it's topped, this secret pastry is one of my favorite comfort foods once the weather turns cool, and easily customized with whatever vegetables and seasonings you love best.