When a recipe calls for blind baking (baking or partly baking a pie crust before adding a filling) it can be very frustrating if you’ve made the perfect pastry shell, only to discover that the dough has risen in the pan during baking. The beautiful flat shape you so carefully created can become distorted and turn into a kind of thick giant cookie with no room left for the filling. Alternatively, an unweighted pastry crust may shrink away from the sides of the pan, once again spoiling the shape and leaving you with a pie shell that is too small for the intended purpose. The point of blind baking is to seal the dough and prevent leakage of liquids, and if you want to prevent the dough rising or shrinking, the solution is to use pie weights.
• What are pie weights?
Pie weights come in many forms. They can be metal, glass or ceramic balls, for example. In fact, they can be made of almost any heavy material that can cope with the level of heat involved in oven baking, without breaking or changing shape. They must be small in size individually so that they will spread easily and evenly into whatever space the pastry or pie crust occupies. Naturally they must be made of non-toxic material since they will potentially come into contact with foodstuffs, and they must be capable of being used again and again. For this reason many cooks favor organic pie weights such as dried beans, peas, rice, barley or lentils, which can be re-used almost without limit and are likely to be cheaper than the manufactured pie weights you can buy in a culinary supplies store.
• Preparing to use pie weights
Once you have created your flawless unbaked pie crust, prick the base all over with a fork so that there will be a way for steam to escape once you remove the weights. Then cut out a square of parchment paper or foil slightly larger than your pie crust. If you choose to use foil you will first need grease the side which will touch the pastry, using cooking spray or butter. Place your foil or parchment square on top of the pastry. The purpose of this is to create a disposable layer between the pastry and the pie weights, because the weights would otherwise sink into the raw pastry and get cooked into the pie crust. Yes, your crust is probably circular, but your paper or foil doesn’t need to be. In fact, square is better, as explained below.
Now slowly pour your chosen pie weights onto the paper or foil, allowing them to spread around. If they don’t quite reach to the edges of your pie crust, pick up the pan and gently shake it from side to side until the whole base is covered with weights. The surplus paper or foil at the edges will prevent the weights coming into contact with the vertical or angled sides of your pastry shell.
• Baking with pie weights
Put your pie shell in the oven, with the weights in place, and bake for the amount of time specified in the recipe. When you remove your pastry from the oven, the pie weights will be very hot, too hot to handle directly. Wearing oven gloves or mitts, carefully gather the surplus edges of paper or foil and lift it off the pastry with the weights trapped inside. This is where the square shape comes into its own, because the four corners are easier to grasp than a uniform circle.
• Storing your pie weights
Pour the pie weights into a heatproof container to cool. You may choose to store them in a heatproof container, in which case you can return them directly to their container while they are still hot.
Organic pie weights (beans, rice &c) can be re-used because the frequent exposure to heat dries and cooks them so much that they will not deteriorate or become moldy. They can be returned while hot to a glass storage jar, but metal, ceramic or glass weights are best stored in a metal container unless you plan to cool then first. Whichever kind of pie weight you use, do not put the lid back on the storage container until the weights are completely cool, to avoid the development of condensation and moisture. Discard any organic pie weights which accidentally come into contact with the pastry, but simply wash and dry the inorganic ones if this happens.
Pie weights are the perfect solution for trouble-free blind baking. Once you start using them you will no longer have a problem with empty pie crusts becoming distorted or over-risen. Glass, metal or ceramic weights only need to be purchased once and will usually last you all your baking days. Dried beans, peas, rice, barley or lentils can be used for almost as long, but since they are relatively inexpensive you may decide to replace them every few years if you are a regular pie baker. Just remember to place a layer of parchment or greased foil between the pastry and the weights and you can’t go wrong.