As summer pie season begins to blend into fall pie season, and as the new season of The Great British Baking Show has launched, bakers everywhere are faced with one common dilemma: It's pie season, and many pies require blind-making a crust. Whether it is a deep crust destined for a swath of something creamy, or a shallow tart shell that will be filled with fresh fruit, the blind-baked crust is an essential for avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom.
Baking a crust before filling ensures a pleasant crispy crust experience, but you can’t just thwap a raw crust into a hot oven and wait for it to brown. Without a filling, that thin pastry you worked so hard to perfect will essentially melt and slump into a sad pile. So you are going to need something to put into the crust as a placeholder, to help the dough keep its shape.
Enter the land of the pie weight. Companies are selling all kinds of things for you to use to prevent your crust from puffing up on the bottom and sagging on the sides. Your grandmother would have used either beans or rice, usually kept in a special jar for just piemaking. So I thought I would do a full round up for you to determine the best thing to use to weight down your pie for blind-baking.
For this very unscientific test, I bought seven identical commercial pie crusts in tins. This would ensure that all the crusts were the same dough, and identical thickness. It would also prevent me from having to make seven batches of crust. I baked them all in the center of the middle rack of my oven for the same amount of time.
Watch: 3 Ways to Shape a Pie Crust
I started with the newfangled technologies. The most common one you see are ceramic pie weights. These pale beads of clay are meant to be placed on top of a piece of parchment inserted into your pie. They are a good natural conductor of heat, so they actually help with the baking part and not just the weighting down. They usually come in one- or two-pound packages, which means you can buy the amount you need for the kind of baking you do.
Another newer one is a chain of large stainless-steel beads, designed to be spiraled around the bottom of your crust on top of a piece of parchment. Some companies have decided to take advantage of culinary grade silicone in order to make products that don’t need parchment liners at all. The first of these is a string of silicone hearts, to be used much like the stainless chain, the other looks more like a giant drain catcher, with a flat perforated bottom and little petals that go up the sides.
I did want to honor grandmother’s everywhere by testing the old standbys, rice and beans, and then added a trick that I have used often, granulated sugar. Sugar, as anyone who has ever burned themselves on caramel, is a seriously good conductor of heat. Granulated sugar will simply get a little bit golden, which makes it not only still totally usable for any regular sugar application, but also the teeniest bit more delicious.
Here's what happened: The ceramic pie weights are classic for a reason, they just work. They fill up the whole crust, so the bottom stays flat and the sides neither slump nor puff. They conduct heat so that it browns and cooks evenly. And since you use them with parchment paper, you don’t need to worry about cleaning them, you can just pour them right back in their container for another use.
The two chain styles, both steel and silicone were disastrous. Difficult to get organized, not weighty enough to fully protect the bottom, and so shallow that they didn’t protect the sides at all. They also left weird indentations in the bottoms of the crusts.
The large drain catcher thingamabob actually worked pretty well, didn’t need parchment, kept everything intact. It did leave serious impressions, which bothers me for reasons I don’t fully comprehend. It is dishwasher safe.
Rice and beans both are bad heat conductors, so the crusts baked with them took longer to be properly cooked. While they both kept everything flat and flush, I still don’t really recommend them. For a natural crust filler, I’m sticking with sugar. It conducted the heat as well as the ceramic beads and got into the corners a bit better for nice sharp edges. I use the sugar once or twice and then bake with it; it is particularly good for meringues. The sugar may clump a bit, as steam from the crust gets into it through the parchment paper, but the clumps break apart easily. My number one choice is still the sugar, with ceramic beads a very strong second and the large drain catcher third. Happy baking!