The perfect pie dish: Does it exist?
As a professional baker, I have made thousands of pies, early in my career as a pastry chef at Joanne Chang’s flagship location of Flour Bakery + Cafe and later as the general manager at Mission Pie in San Francisco. While cranking out dozens of pies per day, I never considered the perfect pie dish for the home baker. We baked only in disposable aluminum, with pretty good results.
But these days I do most of my baking in my home kitchen, primarily testing recipes for the Globe but also for fun. 2016 became the year of pie for me. I started with my cousin’s rehearsal dinner, creating a pie bar for 120 people. I became obsessed. Every u-pick adventure I went on with my kids turned into an excuse to make another pie. Every party, every event: a chance to bake more pie. If I was baking for a large event or giving a pie as a gift, I stuck with what I knew: disposable pans. The trick to baking with a disposable pan, if you must, is to always bake with the pie pan on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. The parchment allows for easy cleanup when the filling inevitably boils over (as it does in every fruit pie), and the sheet pan, which helps to promote even baking, also allows you to move the thin pan without issue while it is hot. Once the pie has cooled, you can remove the pie from the sheet pan easily.
When testing recipes for the home baker, however, I use the nondisposable pans most home cooks turn to. Digging though my collection of bakeware, I became increasingly frustrated: I could not find one pan that would fit most pies. Sometimes my pans were too deep. The crust was thin and overbaked; fillings were shallow and didn’t come all the way to the top. I once attempted to bake a pecan pie in my deep-dish Le Creuset (a gorgeous pan), and I had to nearly triple the filling recipe. Other times, particularly with fruit pies, I had way more filling than my pan could accommodate.
So I set out to find the perfect pie dish.
The most common suggestion, from baking colleagues and well-known authors, is a standard 9-inch Pyrex dish, probably similar to the pan our grandmothers would have used. Simple is best. Avoid deep pans (unless a recipe specifically calls for it); the standard depth is no more than 1½ inches. Stay away from fancy rims, which tend to hinder rather than help when it comes to crimped edges. Slightly sloping sides work to ensure a well-fluted rim will stay put and not slump into the dish. Glass heats slowly and makes for even cooking. Rookie bakers will appreciate that they can see exactly how quickly the crust is browning (or not).
Holly Ricciardi, owner of Magpie Artisan Pie Boutique and author of the cookbook “Magpie,” also reminds bakers that “a hugely important step is to chill [your] pie before baking.” Pyrex goes easily from freezer to oven. Yet Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” cautions that a frozen glass dish must go into a fully preheated oven. If the oven temperature is still rising, the glass may crack. It is also important not to put cold glass directly on a preheated stone. One of the other advantages of a glass plate is the low cost, making it the ideal general-use pan for the baker who only intends to use it once a year or even to be given as a gift; skip the flimsy disposable pans, and give away your pies in a Pyrex for less than $10 each.
But glass has its critics, too. Chang feels that “glass bakes too fast.” Others would rather have the ability to bake on a stone, which helps the oven retain heat. A dark metal pie pan is another good option, especially when combined with a stone. Dark gray metals absorb heat instead of reflecting it. Again, choose a pan with sloping sides and a significant rim. Brittany Vock, production manager at Mission Pie (where they bake more than 30,000 pies per year), writes via e-mail: “A good sized lip (¼ inch or more?) is so important for having a quality crimp on the edges of your pies! A thin lip tends to allow for the crust to melt off the sides of the tin or is simply not enough space to work with while you’re crimping.”
This is also a reason not to choose nonstick metal. There is plenty of butter and grease in a pie crust to keep it from sticking to the pan when serving. The nonstick surface might cause a beautifully fluted edge to slide down into the pan. Instead, select a traditional surface from manufacturers like Chicago Metallic.
What about those eye-catching, brightly colored, gigantic ceramic dishes that are so popular in cookware stores like Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma? Some bakers love these, and their beauty makes them hard to resist. Chang, a Harvard math grad, often bakes pies at home in a large ceramic dish that she received as a gift: “It has pi written on it, which you know makes me love it even more.” In my quest for a pretty but functional pan, the ceramic dish obviously sets the bar for looks, but it is not the right choice for every pie. Ricciardi says, “I have so many gorgeous ceramic pie dishes because I cannot help but buy them, but I don’t use them.”
Custard pies are best baked in a wide, shallow dish. If you must bake a custard pie in deep ceramic, try making a 1½ times batch or maybe even doubling the recipe and extending the baking time. A standard 9-inch pie plate should hold about 4 cups of fruit or liquid. A ceramic dish can hold 6 cups. Ceramics are a great option for a party, when you want to show off an oversize fruit pie, but definitely not the choice for trying out an old family recipe. Lauren Tarzia, public relations manager for Williams-Sonoma, writes, “For fruit fillings, I put the fruit directly into the pan before cooking it to roughly measure if it’s the right amount.” That way, the baker can choose how to best multiply a recipe meant for a smaller pan.
So here is the bad news: There is no one perfect pie dish. But there’s good news, too: With practice, a baker can make great pie in just about any dish. As Kate Lebo, the author of “Pie School,” writes: “Just gotta get to know your plate!”
Karoline Boehm Goodnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org