The Serious Eats Guide to Making Gluten-Free Pie
Anyone who has attempted to bake a pie without gluten knows it can be tricky. Which flour should I use? How can I get the crust to have a flakey texture? Should I just use a boxed mix? That's why we put together the Serious Eats Guide to Making Gluten-Free Pie—to help you navigate these questions and make sure that absolutely everyone at your table gets to indulge in one our favorite desserts.
Pies are great "choose your own adventure" desserts, and you start the adventure by selecting a crust. Whether you want to make a traditional pastry crust, crumb crust, or nut crust (to name a few) here's how to make great gluten-free crusts that complement any filling, from sweet to savory.
Traditional Pastry Crust
When I think of pie, the first crust that comes to mind is a traditional flaky pastry crust. At its heart, this crust is just fat, flour, and liquid. However, that list of ingredients just begins to tell the story. Here's the lowdown on making a gluten-free pastry crust:
The Flour Blend
Over the years, I've experimented with several different flour blends for pie crusts. While there are countless blends of flour you can use, I recommend a blend of white or brown rice flour and sweet rice flour for a basic crust and equal parts millet flour, sorghum flour, and gluten-free oat flour for a tasty whole grain crust.
If you prefer to use a commercial gluten-free flour blend, check to see if it contains xanthan or guar gum. If it does, I recommend either following my xanthan gum-free recipe or the producer's recipe for pie crust. If you add additional xanthan gum to a xanthan gum-containing flour blend, you might end up with a pie crust that's heavy and gummy.
As for the starch, the best starch to use is tapioca starch. Gluten-free crusts made with tapioca starch bake up light and flaky. If your diet can't tolerate tapioca starch, corn or potato starch work nicely.
If you prefer to omit all starch from the crust, you certainly can. Just be aware that the finished crust will bake up less flaky and heavier than one made with starch.
For a flaky pie crust, use a solid fat, like butter, shortening, or lard just as you would with a wheat-based crust. If you follow a dairy and soy-free diet, use coconut oil! It makes for a tender and tasty pie crust.
Xanthan gum didn't make an appearance in my pie crust for a long time. Years ago I tried a crust recipe that contained xanthan gum and it came out well, gummy. After that I avoided xanthan gum in my crust recipes. The problem with a xanthan gum-free crust is that it often proved really hard to roll.
Jeanne Sauvage, author of Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays, persuaded me to give xanthan gum another try. I did and haven't looked back. The xanthan gum added the flexibility that my crust really needed. Now the crust rolls out easily and, when baked, makes for a slice of pie that you can eat out of hand without a plate and fork. (Not that I've done this...)
By the way, xanthan gum isn't cheap. If you don't want to buy a large bag for just for a pie or two, Hodgson's Mills sells individual packets that contain one tablespoon of xanthan gum, enough to make three double-crust pie crust recipes.
Even when made with tasty gluten-free whole grain flours, pie crust can taste a little boring if you forget the salt. Since kosher and sea salt don't measure the same by volume, make sure that you check whether the recipe calls for kosher or table salt. (My recipes call for table salt, for example).
As with wheat-based pie crusts, you want to use cold water. Really cold water. When adding the water, you want to use enough water that the crust holds together but not so much that the dough becomes wet. An easy way to ensure you don't add too much water is to add half the water called for in the recipe and stir the dough together with your hands or a wooden spoon. Then add the remaining water, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the dough holds together but isn't wet.
Putting It All Together
I love using a food processor to make pie crust. The blades cut the fat into the flour in no time. The only problem with using a food processor is that it's easy to add too much water to the dough. I think it's worth the hassle to transfer the dough to a bowl and add the water by hand so you get a feel for the dough and don't accidentally add too much water.
If you don't own a food processor, no problem. Pie crust still turns out great when made by hand. Simply rub the fat into the dry ingredients using a snapping motion with your fingers. As you work the fat into the flour, lighten the mixture by almost tossing the fat/flour mixture between your hands. Rub the fat into the flour until no large pieces of fat remain. You want the mixture to pass the squeeze test. This means that if you take a fistful of flour in your hand and squeeze, the flour holds together.
If you're unable to use your hands to cut the fat into the flour, a pastry cutter, or even two knives used in a scissor motion, work well.
Since gluten-free crusts lack stretchy gluten, they can sometimes be a pain to roll out. If the crust breaks apart while you roll, stop and check two things. First is the dough too cold? A cold dough, especially dough made with butter or coconut oil, tends to crack and break. So allow your dough to come to almost room temperature before rolling.
If the dough is at the correct temperature and still breaks, it might be too dry. Thanks to the lack of gluten, a gluten-free pie crust won't get tough if overmixed. So if the crust feels dry, gather it into a ball, put it back into a mixing bowl and add more water.
When the dough is the right texture and temperature, you should be able to roll it around a rolling pin to transfer it to the pie plate. However, this doesn't work with all recipes and often doesn't work at all with mixes. To make transferring dough to the pan easy, get out the parchment paper.
First, cut two pieces of parchment paper into 12- by 18-inch pieces. Dust one piece of parchment with rice flour and place the pie dough in the center of the paper. Coat the pastry with a generous dusting of rice flour and cover with another piece of parchment. Roll out the dough and gently peel off the top piece of parchment. Flip a pie plate onto the center of the rolled dough and slide one hand between the bottom piece of parchment and the counter. Place your other hand firmly on the pie plate. Then, in one swift motion, flip the pie plate over. Press the dough into the pan and then, gently and slowly, peel away the parchment. If any of the dough cracks, press it back together with your hands. If you're making a double crust pie, repeat this step and set aside the second piece of pastry until needed. To top your pie, quickly flip the rolled out crust onto the filled pie. Trim the edges and crimp the two crusts together with your hands or with a fork.
Crumb and Nut Crusts
Pie crust doesn't end with a pastry crust! One of my favorite crusts to make—and eat—is a crumb crust. Unlike wheat-based crumb crusts, at this time, there are no commercially available gluten-free crumb crusts on the market. So if you want one, you need to make it from scratch. That's OK because they are super simple to make. Here's the basic recipe:
1 1/2 cups finely ground cookies crumbs
4 - 6 tablespoons butter, melted
To prepare the crust, combine ground cookie crumbs with four tablespoons of butter. Stir the mixture together with a fork. If the cookie crumbs resemble damp sand, there's enough butter. If the crumbs seem dry, add more butter. Cookies like gluten-free arrowroot cookies usually need more butter; sandwich cookies, thanks to the creme filling, require less butter.
Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan. You want the crumbs really pressed into the pan. I use the bottom of a dry measuring cup to do this. The flat bottom makes quick work of the crumbs and the edge of the measuring cup fits nicely into the edge of the pie pan. Then bake the crust in a preheated 350°F oven. Of course, you don't need to bake a crumb crust, however, it holds together better when baked. So if you have the time, pop it into the oven.
Here are the best cookies to use for gluten-free crumb crusts. When you want
- a graham cracker-like crust, use Mi-Del Arrowroot Cookies or Schar Shortbread cookies
- a gingersnap crust, use Trader Joe's Gluten-Free Gingersnaps Or Mi-Del Gingersnap cookies (Gingersnap-based cookie crusts are great for pumpkin pie)
- a chocolate cookie crust, use Glutino sandwich cookies (Don't scrape out the creme filling. Just use less melted butter when making the crust.)
If you like the texture of a cookie crust but prefer the taste of nuts, make a nut crust! Made using the same technique as a crumb crust, a nut crust can be made with any ground nut. Just be sure not to overgrind your nuts or they'll turn into nut butter.
And while 100% nut crusts are tasty, they taste strongly of, well, nuts. If you want a lighter nutty-flavor, use half ground nuts and half cookie crumbs.
Gluten-Free Pie Mixes
If you don't want to make either a pastry or a crumb crust from scratch, there are gluten-free pie crust mixes available on the market. Here are two I like:
Pillsbury Pie Crust: Almost as easy as Pillsbury's no-roll premade wheat pie crust, their gluten-free pie crust comes in a little tub. Simply roll it out and bake. The resulting pie crust tastes great, not quite homemade but not bad at all.
Bob's Red Mill: Unlike the Pillsbury crust, Bob's Red Mill crust requires the same amount of work as any other pastry crust made from scratch. The only step it saves is measuring out the flour. In my experience the crust is delectable. The only minor problems? It's a little bland and just the tiniest bit gritty.
Luckily, most pie fillings are naturally gluten-free. You can use the fillings to our classic pecan, pumpkin, or apple pies as a start. Of course, always double check a recipe before using to make sure that there is no gluten hidden in the filling.