Pie lovers and “Great British Bake Off” fans alike are all too familiar with the dreaded soggy bottom. Sure, your pie will still taste OK with a soggy bottom, but it’ll be impossible to cut into a clean slice that doesn’t spill into a mess all over your plate.
Enter the baking steel, a handy tool that bakes and browns your pie crust. In some cases, using one can also replace the need for blind baking (pre-baking your crust before adding the filling) or at least shorten the time needed. Let us explain the magic of a baking steel.
What does a baking steel do?
A baking steel is a heavy piece of steel that holds and conducts the oven’s heat directly to whatever is placed on top of it (in this case, a pie plate). It’s effective because steel is a better conductor of heat than air ― and when you’re baking pie crust, getting that direct heat on the bottom crust will help it to brown and bake through faster, which is key to preventing soggy bottoms. It works similarly to the concept of a ceramic pizza stone, but baking steels have a higher thermal conductivity than ceramic.
“Baking steels are helpful, especially in a non-convection home oven, because most ovens have hot and cold spots and a steel will help even out the heat once the oven is preheated,” Kierin Baldwin, a pastry chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, told HuffPost. “Where they really shine is when you are baking items that do best with a lot of heat being conducted from below. Placing your pie plate directly on the steel to send a lot of heat directly to the bottom of your pie crust will help it bake through before the juices in your pie have a chance to make it soggy.”
Depending on the type of pie you’re making, a baking steel can replace the need for blind baking. However, if you’re making a custard pie (like pumpkin pie) that needs to bake at a lower temperature than, say, a fruit pie, you’ll still need to blind bake ― but you can use the baking steel to make it go faster. “For custard pies, your crust definitely still needs to be blind baked beforehand since it would not be baked through by the time the custard sets if you baked them together,” Baldwin said. “The good news is that a baking steel can make pre-cooking a pie shell easier by cooking the bottom of the crust faster during par baking.”
Beyond pie, baking steels are a great tool for cooking foods like pizza and cookies, which are thin and bake quickly. Baldwin pointed out that larger foods with longer bake times, like bread, can end up a little too dark on the bottom if you aren’t careful.
How do you use a baking steel?
Preheat, preheat, preheat. You won’t be able to reap the benefits of a baking steel if it isn’t hot. Ron Silver, chef and owner of Bubby’s in New York City, recommends preheating your baking steel for at least an hour before placing your pie on top. “For pie, I’d preheat the baking steel 50 degrees higher than the baking temperature,” he said. If your recipe calls for preheating the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, set the oven to 475 and let the baking steel heat up with the oven, then turn the oven down to 425 when it’s time to put the pie in.
Baldwin also stresses the importance of a good, long preheating when using a baking steel. “I keep an infrared thermometer in my kitchen and check the temperature of the surface of the steel after about 30 minutes,” she said. “When in doubt, let it preheat a bit longer to be sure, since an under-heated baking steel will do nothing for you.” Baldwin preheats her baking steel to the baking temperature of the pie, not higher. You can experiment with your own pies at home to see what works best with your baking steel and oven.
As for pie plates, Baldwin is all about the cheap aluminum kind. “These are not the disposable kind, but are reusable, lightweight metal pans that are next to impossible to destroy,” she said. When using a baking steel, she advises against ceramic or glass pie plates as thermal shock can cause these materials to crack. “I also find that they take longer to heat in the oven, which lessens the effect from the baking steel,” Baldwin said.
What to look for when shopping for a baking steel
Baking steels come in a variety of shapes (round, square, rectangular), dimensions and thicknesses, and at a variety of price points. “It’s important to keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish when using a baking steel, whether you’re using it for pizza or a pie,” Silver said. “Making sure the steel is safe and durable under any broiler, grill or in the oven is key.”
While a thicker baking steel will get hotter and hold heat better, it will also make the baking steel heavier and more difficult to wield. “Quarter-inch rectangular models, which are just about the thinnest ones on the market, weigh about 15 pounds,” Baldwin said. “Check the weight and be sure you want to lift that in and out of your oven. Thicker steels will hold more heat for longer, but for most home cooks a basic quarter inch steel should be just fine.”
Shopping for a baking steel? Here are some great options. (Plus, a couple of recommendations for aluminum pie plates that work great with steels.)
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