On the Gelling Problem

Several readers have written in to say they’d love to make a pecan pie, but they’ve been burned too many times with a filling that didn’t gel. There’s only one place to look for an answer to that problem: the eggs, as they’re solely responsible for creating the gel that all custards depend upon. The way I see it there are two potential areas of failure.

First, the pie might simply be under-baked. I was surprised yesterday when I made a second pie in a different pie plate and the pie took much longer to gel. I’d given away my good ceramic pie plate the day before, so I went with a simple pyrex job — the kind you can find in most grocery stores. Imagine my surprise when instead of 50 minutes the pie took 70 to finish. The only thing I can think is that the ceramic plate — which is much heavier — held the heat better when I removed the crust from the oven for the filling step. The low oven might have made it harder for the filled pie warm through once that heat was lost. This is just a guess of course.

The other possible problem is of course over-heating the eggs. This could happen either before or after the pie goes in the oven. Many recipes I’ve seen (including my own) call for adding eggs to other filling components that have been pre-cooked. If these other components are over 140 degrees when they’re combined with the eggs they’ll start cooking the egg white proteins, the ones that are primarily responsible for thickening the filling. Which means it’s possible for egg whites to be curdled before they even go into the pie shell. Of course they can also curdle while they’re in the pie shell during baking, which is why a low oven is so important.

That’s the extent of my thoughts on the issue. If anyone else has any ideas, please weigh in.

25 thoughts on “On the Gelling Problem”

  1. Another reason for this might be the butter. Some of my family members struggled with pecan pie that wouldn’t set for many years. I then suggested to them that they use real butter instead of margarine in the recipe. It really made a difference in the final product and it set up perfectly the first time.

    1. That’s interesting. For the moment I can’t figure out why that would be but I’ll think it over!

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. I accidentally bought some “low fat” margarine once, and it was… difficult… to adjust for in recipes (read: those were the weirdest, fluffiest chocolate chip “cookies” I’ve ever made). When you’re changing the percentage of fat to water, it can mess things up in interesting ways. Just a possibility. Butter and margarine make and break emulsion differently as well, I think (esp. different temperature-wise).

        1. Hey KC! I had that same experience with cookies. It’s the higher melt point of the fat that does it. Keeps the batter rigid for longer…but it was sure a surprise the first time I did it!

          Thanks for the comment!

          – Joe

        1. Hey Chris!

          Margarine has no water at all…it’s all fat. But that’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

          – J

  2. I love my ceramic pie plates. (Got’em both in a thrift store or I wouldn’t have owned one as they’re pretty spendy new.) I haven’t had a soggy bottom crust since I started using them. First time I used it I thought it was a fluke that my pumpkin pie (yeah, pumpkin!) had such a perfectly crisp crust, but every one since has been perfect, too. It had to be the pie plate as nothing else has been different, ie..same crust recipe, same shelf in the oven, same temp. My only gripe is that they are both deep dish and some fillings are too scant for the shell. Guess I’ll have to keep my eye out for a standard size ceramic for the smaller custard pie recipes.

    I still use my pyrex and they are fine, just takes a little more time.

    1. Hey Susan!

      Yes some of those Émile Henry pie plates are FIFTY dollars. Crazy. But then ceramic really does make superior pies. Failing that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with pyrex. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. I was very lucky this past holiday season and found two beautiful Emile Henry pie plates at Home Goods for about $15 a piece. Both were flawless as far as I could tell.

  3. Joe… I don’t have a ceramic pie plate but planned on using either a regular tin (a la quiche Lorraine type) or a Le Creuset (cast iron?) dish. Do I have to adjust the oven temp and time? If so, to what is your suggestion. Ta!

    1. Hi Susan!

      I’d use whatever’s heavier, in this case the case iron. Baking temps should be the same, time may vary! 😉

      – Joe

  4. Joe,
    I have been baking pecan pies and other treats since I was very young. I don’t claim to be an expert. But, in my experience, pecan pies are done when a cake tester placed into the center of the pie comes out clean. Of course the cake tester will come out clean if it’s overcooked as well. To prevent this I generally start watching the pie closely around the 50 minute mark. At this point if the pie is still “jiggly” in the center I let it go til it’s firm but not “solid”. I realize that what I am describing is not very precise, but pecan pies are funny that way. Sometimes they are done in 50 to 60 minutes. Sometimes it’s about 75. I don’t prebake my crust. I don’t precook the filling. I use half the sugar of the classic ” Karo” recipe along with some other tweaks. I also brown the butter and mix it into the toasted pecans. I use this method as a basis for other nut pies as well. I agree that ceramic pie pans yield superior results. Thanks for your awesome blog!

    1. Hey Carlos!

      Great stuff. And yes I had the same experience with timing. I like your method and your formula. I’ll try that one of these days!

      Thanks for the comment and the kudos! Cheers,

      – Joe

  5. Maybe also the volume of the eggs? There are large eggs, small eggs. I remember a local restaurant that couldn’t get its fresh pasta to hold together — and they finally figured out that that they had to measure the volume of the eggs, because specifying the number of eggs to use could mean not enough egg.

    1. That’s a great theory, Ted. As you point out, sometimes eggs are small. It’s sound advice to ensure they your eggs are least of the “large” variety. Nicely done!

      – Joe

          1. Not that I’m aware of. If your hens aren’t laying, you’re pretty much flocked.

  6. All I can say is I’m still pretty stumped. I use a ceramic pie plate, I weigh my ingredients, I bake the pie past the recommend baking time, yet my pie still comes out very liquidy. It may just be the recipe I’m using ( old fashioned pecan pie on the King Arthur flour website) since it is based on brown sugar rather than corn syrup. However, I have always found King Arthur flour recipes to be exceptional. What should I do???? Bake for less time instead of more ( because my pecans often do come out slightly burnt ), or maybe bake at a lower temperature? Thanks….. all ideas are welcome!

    1. Huh. No idea Kim, it occurred to me that perhaps the extra acid might be causing the proteins to curdle early in the mixing step. But then I added vinegar and didn’t have the same problem. All I can say is try a different recipe and see if you can get a different result.

      Let me know how things go!

      – Joe

  7. I tried a crust made in cast iron and it wasn’t flakey. It seemed like the butter melted out of the crust because it was chewy and oily. I had heard cast iron was awesome for pie crusts, but not in this case. Any idea what happened?

    1. Hey Porsche!

      Cast iron isn’t as good for pie as some people think, especially if the crust isn’t par-baked before the filling goes in. The trouble is that iron is a terrible heat conductor. It warms only very slowly, and that gives the fat plenty of time to melt and run before the crust starts to firm. Go with a regular pie plate next time and you should have a better experience.


      – Joe

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