This post originally appeared in the November 7, 2022 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
A few years ago, on a random boring Sunday, I walked into my kitchen and decided I was going to once and for all learn how to make a pie. I was already a dedicated baker of other things, but pies had always terrified me. So much to be afraid of! How cold does the butter have to be? When have I worked the dough too much? How much water is too much water? Why can’t I roll out a perfect circle? And why, when this thing goes in the oven, could I never achieve the perfect crispy, flaky base? I was determined to get to the bottom of my fear and conquer it.
I’d be lying if I said everything worked out great and that years later I am a first-rate pie expert, no notes. But I will say that, after deciding to get better at pies, I started absorbing little tricks and hacks. I learned that Sister Pie uses apple cider vinegar in their dough; Claire Saffitz laminates hers like pastry; Petee’s dissolves the sugar and salt in boiling water first. But most importantly, I learned from baker and cookbook author Erin Jeanne McDowell (whose newest book, Savory Baking, was released in October) that her pies achieved the coveted crispy bottom because she bakes them on a preheated baking steel. “I love to use something on my oven rack to help conduct heat and ensure I get a crisp bottom crust,” she told the Strategist. Dozens of pies and three years later, I can tell you that this is the most important pie tip I’ve learned on my journey. Blind-baking on a baking steel means, as an amateur pie baker, you can say goodbye to soggy bottoms.
First, some definitions: Blind-baking or par-baking is the act of pre-baking a pie crust before filling it; blind baking typically refers to baking a pie crust all the way through before loading a crust with a precooked filling (like a custard or ice cream); par-baking typically means you’re only partially baking the pie crust before filling it with something that needs to be cooked down (like in a fruit pie). And a baking steel is a thick piece of steel that conducts the heat of your oven, transferring that heat to whatever you put on it (like a pizza or a pie plate). Blind-baking on a baking steel means the bottom of your pie crust will be getting more direct heat than the ambient, air-circulated temperature of your oven. Any baking steel will do (I have this one) — just make sure that it’s on the middle shelf in your oven and that you preheat it for at least 20 minutes, but preferably longer, before loading your pie dough.
Different recipes recommend different temperatures and timing for par- or blind-baking, so follow whichever recipe you’re working from. Then, once you’re ready to either par-bake or blind-bake your crust, roll it out into your pie pan as you normally would, line with pie weights, then set that dish either directly on the steel or on an aluminum baking sheet on the steel. (As McDowell points out, don’t put a ceramic or glass pie plate straight from the freezer onto the steel, for risk of cracking. You can avoid this by baking in an aluminum pie plate.) Bake until your pie crust is appropriately browned — just keep an eye on it and adjust as needed. For example: Do a shorter par-bake if you’re making something like an apple pie, as you don’t want it to get overly baked before beginning that extra hour or so in the oven while the fruit cooks.
The brilliance of the technique is that if you are going to be baking your pie crust (at least partially) in advance anyway, adding in the baking steel pushes your crust to a crispier, firmer texture, one that is impervious to more liquidy fillings. Adding a baking steel is like an insurance policy against a damp, gummy pie base. You’ll find that once you have your crust baking on a steel, it will come out perfectly flaky and browned. Your pie will be ready for whatever you want to fill it with, easy to cut and serve, and no one will be able to see your inexperience (or your nerves). Once you’ve conquered that fear, the world is your pie plate.