Pie weights are a common baking tool used when pre-baking a pie or tart shell. This process is also called blind baking.
Although pie weights made from ceramic are available in stores, there are plenty of substitutes you can use in a pinch.
What Is Blind Baking?
You may want to blind bake a pie crust when the filling cooks more quickly than the crust, meaning if you cooked them together, either the crust would turn out underdone or the filling overdone.
And then there are certain pies, like cream pies, custard pies, or chiffon pies that aren't baked at all, so the crust needs to be baked by itself, then cooled and filled.
Additionally, when you're making a fruit pie, the filling can leak juices which soak into the uncooked pie dough and cause the finished pie to have a soggy bottom crust. Blind baking a pie crust will help prevent this common baking problem.
But you can't simply line a pie pan with crust and bake it. If you did that, the crust would bubble, blister and puff up or shrink, making it impossible to use. The key to blind baking is you need to weigh the crust down with something to hold it flat.
That's where pie weights come in.
Types of Pie Weights
The most common type of pie weights consists of nothing more than a multitude of plain ceramic balls around 3/8 of an inch in diameter. A standard cup (by volume) of these translates into about a pound of weight, which—distributed across the bottom surface of an unbaked pie crust—is enough to keep it nice and flat during baking.
Another type of pie weight is a chain of stainless steel balls. These work exactly the same way, except that the balls are connected, making it easier to add and remove them.
Finally, there's a nifty contraption built rather like a perforated steel disc, which fits snugly atop the bottom of the pie crust and holds it flat. This disc is ringed with a collar of heat-resistant silicone which fits over the rim of the crust to prevent it from burning.
How to Use Pie Weights
When blind baking, the pie crust is usually lined with parchment paper (or a substitute) and the pie weights go on top of the parchment, then the whole thing is baked. Make sure to spread the weights around so they're evenly distributed from the edge to the center and not all just piled in the center.
A single set of weights should cover an entire standard pie or tart crust, but if some of your weights have gone missing or it looks like your coverage is uneven, either purchase another set or see below for alternatives in a pinch.
Common Pie Weights Substitutes
Now, even though pie weights are cheap and easy to find, that doesn't matter if you want to blind bake a pie crust right now. If that's the case, there are a number of substitutes you can use.
Uncooked beans or rice: This is probably the most commonly recommended pie weight substitute. Just line the bottom crust with parchment, cover with uncooked beans and bake.
Note that baking the beans this way means you can't cook those beans later. The good news is you can use them over and over as pie weights. You can even tie them up in a cheesecloth bag to keep them together, and simply place the cheesecloth bag on the parchment. Again, make sure to spread the beans around.
Uncooked rice or popcorn kernels will also work the same way.
Steel ball bearings: If it's more convenient for you to visit a hardware store or machine shop than a kitchen store, you can use steel ball bearings as pie weights. They may actually even work better than ceramic weights since the heat from the steel will help to cook the top of the crust to an extra crispy doneness.
You could also use glass marbles, but make sure that they don't crack or break (although the parchment paper should offer some protection from glass fragments).
Sugar: For a novel and multipurpose pie weight substitute, try filling the parchment with ordinary white sugar. The sugar will weigh down the crust just as the beans or rice will, but the cooking process imparts some caramelization to the sugar and you can actually use the roasted sugar afterward.
Two pie plates: And finally, honorable mention goes to this counterintuitive solution: Lay your crust across the pie pan, then nest a second pie pan on top of it, press them together, and bake the whole thing upside-down. It might be helpful to spray the bottom of the second pan with baking spray.