Tested: What Makes a Great Cherry Pie?

Today is national cherry pie day, which is as good a reason as any to dive into the world of cherry pies. The folks at King Arthur Flour gave me another. They sent me some swag to experiment with as I went about my baking.

Since this was my first time making a cherry pie, I wanted to test each of the components. By my count, there are three main elements of a cherry pie: the crust, the filling and the fruit itself.

Of course, as with any recipe, there are many different permutations one can make, and it’s hard to test every single variation to decide conclusively which is the best. Here’s how I set up my experiment: I was going to bake two pies. My control would have basic crust, fruit and filling. The other would use a fancier dough technique, the “best” berries and the “best” filling. Let’s see what I learned.

Before I started I watched the Pie Essentials DVD, one of the items King Arthur Flour sent me. The tutorials on the KAF website or in their cookbooks are fantastic, but it’s not quite the same as watching someone mix together and roll out dough right in front of you. I had a lot of anxiety the first few times I made pie dough and I wish I had this DVD then … things would have gone smoother and I would have been calmer. Susan Reid, the editor of KAF’s Baking Sheet newsletter, is a great host.

The DVD has lots of tips for non-beginners, too. I knew how I wanted to compare crust techniques when I learned about fraissage, a method of smearing the butter in the flour to make an extra flakey crust.

Next, I had to learn about cherries. Cherry pies are traditionally made from sour or tart cherries, which are only available fresh during a few weeks in the summer. Frozen sour cherries are the obvious second choice, but they aren’t widely available eight months after the previous year’s harvest is over. That left me with traditional canned cherries. Then I learned that testing by Cook’s Illustrated (read the complete article here) determined that jarred Morello cherries from Trader Joe’s were actually the best option when fresh sour cherries weren’t available. I stocked up on jarred cherries. These would be my “best” cherries in my experimental pie.

Fruit pies need a filling thickener, or else the juice will run all over the place. There are lots of thickeners available, from cornstarch to arrowroot. The most commonly recommended all-purpose thickener is quick-cooking tapioca. King Arthur sent me a package of their pie filling enhancer to try. It’s a combination of modified food starch and superfine sugar (so the thickener doesn’t clump when mixed with liquid) with a little ascorbic acid, to enhance the flavor of the fruit. I would use the tapioca in my control pie and the filling enhancer to make my “best” filling.

This was my final experimental setup: Traditional medium-flake pie dough and canned cherries with tapioca thickener vs. pie dough using fraissage technique with jarred Morello cherries and KAF pie filling enhancer. I needed a trusted pie recipe to use with my testing, so naturally I turned to a reliable source.

And the results?

The dough. After making my dough, before shaping it into discs and putting them in the fridge, I took portions of the dough and smeared it with the heal of my hand. This is the fraissage technique. The dough for the other pie I didn’t smear. I noticed a difference even before baking. The dough was easier to shape, and when rolling it out I could see long streaks of butter. After baking, the crust that had the fraissage technique (at left in the photo) was noticeably flakier. The crust separated into glorious layers with every forkful.

Verdict: If you prefer a less-flakey crust, this technique isn’t for you. I love flakes, and I found the extra step to be well worth the effort.

The cherries. When I compared a jar and a can of cherries, I thought I could declare a winner right away. The jarred cherries (at left in the photo) were a wonderful dark color. They were full and plump. The canned cherries, on the other hand, looked plastic. They didn’t hold their shape as well, and just looked a lot more sad. The jarred cherries were packed with some sugar, while the canned cherries were just packed in water. Eaten plain, the jarred cherries were certainly sweeter, but not horribly so. They still had a nice tart bite. The canned cherries were definitely more sour.

Cooking changed everything. I used the same amount of sugar in both pies, which may have been a mistake, but I was interested in testing specific ingredients and methods, while leaving everything else constant. The pie with the jarred cherries wasn’t that much sweeter; instead it had a slightly off fake-cherry cough syrup flavor.

Verdict: Eating bites from each pie individually I couldn’t tell much of a difference, but back-to-back, the canned cherries were the sure winner.

The thickener. Quick-cooking tapioca has one count against it from the start. It requires grinding in a spice or coffee grinder to ensure a smooth sauce. The pie filling enhancer is ready to go. When I cut into the pies, the differences were apparent. The sauce in the tapioca pie was much thinner, and the pie collapsed more easily. The filling enhancer (at left in the photo) kept the pie together, and the sauce pooled beautifully, without being too thick and yucky.

Verdict: This one is a no-brainer. The pie filling enhancer is easier to work with and gives better results. On an ounce-per-ounce basis, it even costs about the same.

In the end, the fruit is the star, and flavor is most important. Even though they don’t look as pretty, canned cherries are the best option. My ultimate cherry pie has an extra-flakey crust thanks to the fraissage method of mixing the dough, uses pie filling enhancer for the thickener, and sticks with canned cherries.

We’ve just scraped the surface on what I’ve learned from baking cherry pies. I have recommendations for must-have gadgets, plus my own take on the classic cherry pie recipe. I’m turning cherry pie day into cherry pie week!

  • Anonymous

    Have to disagree about the pie thickener. I feel like, through many tasting opportunities (ha!) to be a cherry pie aficionado, and there’s nothing more I hate than that gooey mass of gelatinous slime of prepared pie fillings whether it’s apple, cherry, or any other fruit. Bob’s Red Mill has a tapioca flour (
    http://www.bobsredmill.com/tapioca-flour-mtx1532.html) that I think would be excellent. I especially abhor cornstarch in lemon meringue. I will have to take your word the King Arthur’s wouldn’t turn me off.

    Little trick to getting pie cherries for all year. Many orchards that produce sour cherries will  pick and pit the fruit into gallon containers for sale fresh during the season at amazing prices. You can then get these home to divide and freeze for whenever you want the rest of the year. I think sour cherries are much better than sweet for pies.

    • http://themanlyhousekeeper.com Mark Evitt

      I agree with you on pie thickener – gelatinous slime is horrible. I’m sure if you used too much of KAF stuff you would get bad results. I used 1/4 cup of thickener in my pie and it turned out well.

  • http://www.theapronarchives.com/ Aimee

    I loved your side by side cherry pie testing!  Great way to tackle the challenge!  KAF is one of those brands you want to sing about from the rooftops – I just love them – and learning the fraissage method at their Baking Education Center last summer changed my pie-making life.  Such a difference!

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