If you've never blind-baked a crust, the term itself is a little confusing, but it's just another way of describing a prebaked crust. It's a technique that's primarily reserved for meringue and custard pies that don't bake long or hot enough to develop a crisp and golden crust, but it can also help improve color and crunch in some types of open-faced pie, especially those with a crumb or streusel topping.
The process of blind-baking is easy enough, yet misinformation abounds, turning what should be a beautiful pie crust into a warped and greasy mess. It's not that I've got a problem with ugly pie; it's that these imperfections stem from butter melting in less-than-optimal ways, preventing the dough from reaching its crisp and flaky best. On top of that, shrinkage means a pie shell won't hold as much filling as it should, increasing the rate at which the remaining filling will bake, leading to cracked and curdled custard pies.
Such problems don't have to be par for the course, and are easy to avoid when you know how to handle the dough.
Tip 1: Start With the Right Recipe
Pie doughs that pull every trick in the book to avoid gluten development lack the strength to hold themselves upright in the oven. That makes blind-baking an uphill battle, as the dough is much more likely to slump out of shape. The right sort of gluten development is nothing to be afraid of, especially as it helps a pie stand tall in the oven.* My Old-Fashioned Pie Dough has enough gluten development to keep it upright during a blind bake.
* More on my pro-gluten theory of pie here.
Tip 2: Choose the Right Pie Plate
Heavy ceramic pie plates conduct heat too slowly, inevitably resulting in a crust that's less flaky and crisp than it should be. Instead of creating flaky layers, the butter seeps out into a pale and mealy crust.
It's not something you can avoid just by cranking up the heat to blind-bake at a higher temperature, because protecting stuff from heat is what ceramic does best (hence our penchant for ceramic potholders). The absolute best option for blind-baking is a tempered-glass or aluminum pie plate.
Sure, these humble pie plates may not be as stunning as lacquered ceramic, but they conduct heat quickly so the butter melts at just the right rate, producing a crust that's flaky and crisp. You can read a more in-depth look at those options here.
Tip 3: Roll, Shape, Then Chill the Dough
Before you blind-bake, it's essential to start with a cold pie shell. Not simply because the gluten in the dough needs a chance to relax, but also so the butter will melt at the proper rate. Done right, blind-baking allows the water in the butter to escape and puff between the layers even before the gluten matrix sets the dough's shape. If not properly chilled, the butter will ooze out of place without actually puffing the layers, creating a mealy texture in the dough.
To keep things nice and cold, many recipes start with a lump of dough that's been refrigerated an hour or two before rolling, shaping, and blind-baking. Problem is, that nicely chilled and relaxed dough gets warmed up and stressed out during rolling and shaping, encouraging it to shrink and shrivel in the oven unless it's given another chance to chillax.
To save time, I prefer to make, roll, and shape the dough all in one go. That's a snap so long as the dough temperature stays between 65 and 70°F (18 and 21°C), the range you'll automatically nail when "room temperature" is at or below 73°F (23°C). In warmer conditions, you'll want to take a few proactive steps to manage your dough temperature.
After shaping the decorative border, refrigerate the pie dough for at least two hours before blind-baking to ensure it's perfectly cold and relaxed.
Tip 4: Bake Low and Slow
Most recipes will have you blind-bake in two stages, starting the pie dough with weights and liners in a super-hot oven (between 400 and 425°F/200 and 220°C). Once the dough is lightly browned, after 15 to 20 minutes, the crust comes out of the oven, the weights are removed, the dough is docked, then it's put back in the oven and baked 15 to 20 minutes more.
Not only does this feel remarkably like doing the hokey pokey ("You put your pie crust in, you take your pie crust out, then you grab a fork and you poke it all about"), the results aren't that great. High heat encourages the pie dough to shrink and puff, reducing its capacity for filling, distorting the decorative border, and creating air pockets all over the bottom and sides of the crust.
I vastly prefer blind-baking for an hour at 350°F (180°C), with pie weights in place the entire time. First of all, it takes zero effort on my part—I stick the dough in the oven, then pull it out when it's done. But second, blind-baking at a more moderate heat reduces shrinkage and puffing, for a golden-brown crust that's perfectly flat along the bottom and sides.
As it turns out, I'm not alone. Chefs like Nancy Silverton and Wolfgang Puck have been advocating the low-and-slow approach since the mid-'80s. Ultimately, it doesn't take much longer than a high-heat approach, but the effort-to-reward ratio is unparalleled and the results even more golden and crisp.
Tip 5: Aluminum Above and Below
Most blind-baking techniques call for the pie to be lined with parchment, but it's not the best option. For starters, it absorbs butter, so your pie weights get dirty every time. Beyond that, it's too rigid to conform to the curves of the pie plate, making it easy for air bubbles to deform the bottom and sides.
I love aluminum because it keeps my pie weights clean and hugs every curve of the dough. It can even be folded over to shield the edges of the crust from excessive browning; no "pie shield" required. Per tip #3, it's essential that the pie shell be thoroughly chilled before you add the aluminum liner, as it may stick to a softer dough and/or deform its shape.
I also recommend placing the pie on an aluminum baking sheet to prevent smashing the decorative border with a wayward oven mitt on your way in or out of the oven. Aluminum baking sheets also conduct heat along the bottom of the pie plate, helping the bottom crust to brown.
Tip 6: Forget Weights, Use Sugar
My kitchen and budget are too tight to accommodate a bag of ceramic pie weights or marbles, and I'd rather save rice and beans for dinner. It's not that weights aren't essential, only that my go-to choice is far less traditional: plain white sugar. For one thing, it's something that any baker has in abundance, and, at seven ounces per cup, it's wonderfully heavy. It's also more granular than any other option.
That lets sugar settle into every nook and cranny of the aluminum-lined crust, distributing its considerable weight across the bottom and sides of the pan, and butting up against the taller edges, too. As a pie weight, sugar completely eliminates the risk of slumping, shrinking, or puffing, and obviates the need for docking. The result? A laissez-faire method that gives me a crust deep and flat enough to hold every last drop of filling. When you're done, simply cool the sugar to room temperature and transfer to an airtight container.
With sugar, you won't waste money on inedible pie weights or janky beans you'll have to throw out someday. After cooling, it can be used just like regular sugar in any recipe, or reserved for a few more rounds of pie duty until it turns pale tan. By that point, the toasted sugar will have enough character to add delicious complexity to traditional meringue, mellow the sweetness of blueberry pie, or round out the flavor of classic banana bread. If the idea of baking sugar freaks you out, read up on the concept here.
Regardless of whether you choose my pie crust recipe or yours, these techniques will go a long way toward improving the quality of your blind-baked crusts, so you can count on a crispy foundation for all your meringue and custard pies.