A pie — or a tart — is an item cooked with a crust. The crust is usually a pastry crust made from wheat flour; there will usually be a bottom crust, and often a top crust as well. Some pies may have only a top crust (these would usually be savoury ones) but no bottom crust.
In the broadest sense of the word, anything enclosed in pastry is a pie: including fruit turnovers, empanadas, panzerotto, Cornish pasties, chicken pot pies, and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies. But the term also includes items with a non flour crust, such as Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie.
Tarts are smaller versions of pies, meant to be enough for one individual — a single serving. A small savoury tart though is almost never referred to a tart, but rather a small pie.
Early pies always had a top, but more modern pies, from about the early 1800s on, may or may not use a top crust. Sweet pies are also somewhat of an innovation: pies used to be all savoury for the most part.
In the old days, the pie crust wasn’t eaten (see separate entry on Pastry Crust.) Nowadays, a good pie is defined by its crust as much as anything: specifically, how flaky the crust is.
Though pies are made throughout Europe, it was the English who clasped them to their hearts and loved them.
Double-crust pies are pies with a top and bottom crust. In the days before refrigeration, many people preferred making them because they kept better than pies with no top crust. A double-crust fruit pie, if kept in a cooler part of the kitchen, would keep for three to four days.
Definition of a standard dessert pie
The US Department of Defense procurement policy for pies  United States Department of Defense. MIL-P-35095 (Pies, Fresh and Frozen). 3 November 1986. sets out terms for full top crust, lattice top crust, and crumb top crust pies. [Ed: open-face single-crust pies, such as pumpkin, are likely covered elsewhere.]
Their specifications might seem a bit “hard-core” for what is after all “just a pie.” Bear in mind, though, that the US Department of Defense orders pies by the hundreds of thousands a year, and likely wants to ensure that the pies will fit into standardized chilled storage spaces. Standardized pies would also allow easy and effective portion control when they are being served up.
In any event, their specifications provide a useful “basic” description of sweet pies.
They allow three sizes, in terms of width and weight:
- 8 inches (20 cm) wide weighing not less than 22 oz (623.7 g)
- 9 inches (23 cm) wide weighing not less than 36 oz (1021 g)
- 10 inches (25 cm) wide, again weighing not less than 36 oz (1021 g).
Other conditions governing quality:
- crust must not stick to pie plate;
- crust must be sufficiently rigid to allow a pie slice to be transferred to a plate without breaking or crumbling;
- bottom crust must not be more than 3/16 inch (5mm) thick;
- regular top crust must not be more than 1/8 inch (3mm) thick; a crumb top crust must not be more than 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick;
- fruit fillings can be made from fresh, dried, canned or evaporated (sic) fruit;
- a fruit filling must not be less than 50 percent fruit by weight;
- a fruit filling must taste of the fruit it is meant to represent;
- the filling can have flavourings, spices, thickeners, etc. added to it;
- the resulting filling must be a semisolid one that should not spread more than 3/4 inch (19 mm) from the cut edge of the pie within 10 minutes after slicing.
The civilian arm of the American government also sets out standards for the pies it orders. Their definitions Item A-A-20074A. Alphabetic List of Federal Specifications and Commercial Item Descriptions list of the General Services Administration’s Federal Supply Service. recognize the same sizes and weights above that the military is after, adding a smaller size of:
- 3 inches (7.62 cm) wide, weighing not less than 4.25 oz (120.5 g)
Most actual civilians would, of course, call that small size a “tart” rather than a “pie.”
Neither the military nor the civilian list seems to cover the depth of the pie plate, but then, that would be controlled by the weights asked for.
Tips for pies
You don’t have to do any of these following tips to make great pies, but they can raise a pie to visual glory.
- As you place each crust in the pie pan, brush away any excess flour;
- Pack apples or other fruit in as tightly as possible to prevent “valleys” from appearing in the top crust;
- Make an egg wash from one egg, beaten. Brush it on the edge of the bottom crust, so that when the top crust is put on, it will seal preventing leakage out the sides. Then when you put the top crust on, brush the entire top crust with the egg wash, but don’t leave any puddles.
Roman pie dishes uncovered in Kent, England are round clay pots with deep sides. Romans also made free-form pies called a “crostatae.” Italians still make these today; see separate entry on Crostate.
Pie tins (and bread tins, for that matter) didn’t come along until the 1700s. Before then, pies were rectangular. You spread out your dough in a long, rectangular shape and pressed the sides up to make thick, sturdy edges to hold the filling in. Old recipes referred to this as making a “coffyn of paste.” The concept of round pies appears to have originated with the colonists in America, and may well have started with someone deciding to try baking a pie in a round cast-iron skillet.
In the Middle Ages, the crust wasn’t meant to be eaten, it was just a container to cook in. You broke it open and ate the stuff inside and left the crust. The crust would have been made from cheap flours such as rye. Its purpose was just to keep all the moisture in and stop what you were cooking from drying out. Later recipes had the crust made from wheat flour, which would have been more expensive, and butter, so by that point the crust would have been eaten.
Olive Cromwell banned mincemeat pies.
Though there’s nothing more American than apple pie, it’s actually a British dish brought over by the colonists. Queen Elizabeth I was already eating it in England as apple tree cuttings were being brought over to America by the colonists.
It’s a myth that Queen Elizabeth I made the first cherry pie. It’s hard to know who cooks up these howlers, but cherry pies were being made long before that. Though Elizabeth probably enjoyed eating cherry pies as much as anybody, the chances that she spent any time in the kitchens at any of the seven palaces she lived in from time to time are slim (the palaces are, by the way, Hampton Court, Greenwich, Nonsuch, Oatlands, Richmond, Whitehall and Windsor).
In the days before refrigeration, cream pies were made less frequently than fruit pies, because they spoilt very quickly.
Literature & Lore
“In many families a feast would be incomplete without pie and they are served even on ordinary occasions at least two or three times per week. ‘Handy as pie for breakfast’ is an old saying we consider obsolete in application at present time, but in spite of the warnings of those who go out, even unto the byways, calling upon all those who still indulge their appetites contrary to the advanced rules of hygenic eating, we find a surprising number of our stout-minded and old-fashioned folk still cling to the notion that pie is a nice and handy relish for breakfast.
However, there are pies and pies. The English custom serves a meat or game pie, either hot or cold, for breakfast, and this is certainly more to be commended. Pie being among those dishes considered rather indigestible, even for the hearty and robust, should be given plenty of time during the most active hours of day for digestion: therefore, the morning or midday meal is the proper time for pie-eating. The immunity enjoyed by those, who, in certain rural sections, still observe the custom of serving pie for breakfast, may be accounted for by the active, outdoor life they lead which calls for a larger amount of “staying” food than the less active and less exposed workers could possibly accommodate with comfort of safety.” — Table and Kitchen Column. Trenton, New Jersey. The Trenton Times. Thursday, 23 January 1902. Page 6.
“[In Victorian London, piemen] either had fixed pitches, or were flying piemen, walking the streets carrying a tray about three feet square, either on their heads or hanging from a strap around their necks. In the 1840s, the Corn Laws [Ed: import restrictions on grain] kept the price of flour high and, with it, the cost of pies. To maintain their price at the expected penny, the piemen were forced to scrimp: their pies were made with cheap shortening, or had less filling, or poor-quality meat. Many of the legends of cats’-meat, or worse, in pies spring from this period. In 1833, Sam Weller advises the horrified Mr Pickwick, “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you…. is quite sure it ain’t kittens,” but in summer ‘fruits is in, cats is out’. The legend of Sweeney Todd, the barber who murdered customers for his neighbour to bake into pies, was also created in the Hungry Forties. Even the repeal of the Corn Laws did not help, because once flour became cheaper, pie shops began to open, which damaged the street-trade of the piemen even further.
Their customer base became confined almost entirely to boys, who worked in the streets, eating coffee-stall breakfasts, shellfish at lunch, hot eels or pea soup for dinner, perhaps with a potato, and a pie to fill in the gaps when they could afford it. What the boys loved about piemen was their method of charging. A pie cost a penny, but all piemen were willing to toss a coin for one: if the customer won, he got the pie free; if the pieman won, the pieman kept both pie and penny.” — Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. London: Atlantic Books. 2012. Page 285-286.
Pie was spelled “pye” in Middle English. “Coffyn” was the word for crust.