My Goals

  • A streamlined recipe that doesn’t sacrifice flavor

  • A filling with rich, meaty flavor

  • A flaky pie dough that can work with a warm filling

Steak pie in Britain isn’t made with what Americans would call “steak” (British cooks use the word “steak” broadly, so it encompasses cuts like chuck and shank), and it often lacks a bottom crust. Some might argue that it’s not a pie. But if you get hung up on what steak pie isn’t, you’ll miss out on what it is: a powerful, delicious antidote to spring’s last chilly days.

Here’s how most versions come together: Brown the meat, usually with onion and maybe bacon or mushrooms. Braise it in stock and perhaps beer for several hours, and then thicken the liquid to a gravy consistency. Transfer the filling to a pie plate and let it cool before topping it with pastry and baking it until the crust is crisp.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention vegetables. An authentic steak pie doesn’t have them, and as a vegetable enthusiast, I think that’s really smart. Why settle for a skimpy serving of long-cooked carrots and peas when you could enjoy a bright, perfectly cooked vegetable or a crisp salad alongside instead?

About that optional bottom crust: There’s no denying the heft of a meat-only pie, so I endorse skipping it. That also means a bit of time saved, though even without it most of the steak pie recipes I saw seemed too involved. Surely I could do something about that.

Recipe Testing: Four Not-So-Humble-Pies

The roots of meat pies run as far back as medieval times. While eating a pie’s crust in those days was questionable (its primary purpose was serving as a baking vessel), the crusts for four more modern versions we tried were most certainly edible. However, the quality of both crust and filling ran the gamut, and all fell short of our ideal.

Scorched

The puff pastry topping burned and turned soggy while the gravy was thin and the meat dry.

All Looks

This impressive-looking crust was tough to eat. Too many onions made the filling sweet.

Bone To Pick

The decorative bone was striking, but marrow added to the crust turned it “overwhelmingly rich.”

Slow Going

Our favorite of the group, this pie was flavorful (if a bit salty) and took hours to prepare.

A Slow Start

My first timesaving move was to opt for boneless short ribs. They offer good beefy flavor, cook relatively quickly, and require little trimming. After cutting 3 pounds of short ribs into ¾-inch chunks, I realized that searing them would be problematic. Even after dividing the meat into three batches, there wasn’t enough room in the pot for proper browning; the meat steamed. I pressed on. I sautéed an onion and 4 ounces of mushrooms until they were tender before returning the beef to the pot and adding 4 cups of broth. This was less than I’d seen in other recipes, but adding less liquid to begin with would mean less time spent reducing it on the back end; eventually I hoped to eliminate that tiresome step altogether. When it all came to a simmer, I covered the pot and transferred it to a 350-degree oven. While the filling cooked, I mixed up a half-batch of the pie dough I use for fruit pies and put it in the fridge.

Making a traditional steak pie usually involves a substantial amount of time spent reducing the gravy. We sought to make a few adjustments, looking for ways to eliminate the time-consuming step without compromising flavor.

In less than 1½ hours, the beef was tender. I fished it out with a slotted spoon and transferred it to a pie plate; I then reduced the cooking liquid to 2 cups. It was still too thin, so I whisked in a beurre manié, a paste of raw flour and butter, to thicken it. I poured the hot gravy over the meat and rolled out the dough.

Most recipes recommend letting the filling cool before topping it with the dough, but since I was trying to streamline, I went for it. Not a good idea. The buttery, moist dough melted as I fluted the edges of the pie, and it turned to mush in the oven.

It was a modest first attempt. The beef was meltingly tender, but the gravy was pale and tasted flat. I identified the lack of fond and the smaller portion of beef stock as the culprits, and that second problem was especially worrisome: I’d have to decrease the liquid even further if I wanted to skip the reducing and thickening steps, but how could I do that without losing even more flavor? And clearly the crust needed work.

Beefing Up

I decided to skip the fussy searing step and boost meaty flavor with a couple of slices of bacon and a full pound of glutamate-rich mushrooms. When the mushrooms had released most of their juices, I added the onion along with garlic and thyme. The heady aroma was encouraging, considering I hadn’t added the beef, but even more encouraging was the fond that began to form. I let it get really brown, and then I added flour, which I hoped would sufficiently thicken the gravy as the meat cooked, allowing me to skip both the beurre manié and the reducing step at the end.

Once we decided to skip the time-consuming step of browning the meat, we experimented with ways to boost the beefy flavor normally obtained through the buildup of fond. We conducted several side-by-side tests to determine which auxiliary ingredients added the most beefiness.

Next I deglazed the pan with ¼ cup of beef stock, and when the fond lifted, I added ¾ cup of beer for more complexity. I opted for a straightforward ale (I grabbed a Newcastle), which would boost flavor without being obtrusive. Then I added the rest of the beef stock, a mere 1½ cups this time.

Which Ale?

You might assume Guinness is the go-to for this recipe, but we found that for the broadest appeal, English pale and brown ales were best. Bitter, hoppy, or floral beers were too pronounced while American lagers were barely noticeable.

Before adding the beef, I decided to use the test kitchen’s trick of tossing it with a little baking soda (diluted with water). We typically do this because baking soda changes the meat’s pH and makes it more tender. The meat in my previous pie was plenty tender, but the higher pH would also boost browning, deepening the color and flavor of my gravy.

Adding baking soda to the raw meat made it more tender and had the added benefit of enhancing browning, lending the dish added flavor and a rich brown color.

Worried that some of the limited moisture would evaporate before the meat cooked, I covered the Dutch oven with foil before putting on the lid and moving the pot to the oven. After 1 hour, I stirred the meat. It was almost tender, but the cooking liquid was still a little thin, so I replaced the lid but not the foil and returned the pot to the oven for 30 minutes more. After a total of 1½ hours of oven time, the meat was beautifully tender and the gravy was a deep, glossy brown, thick enough to coat the meat generously—no reducing or thickening required. And the fond, extra mushrooms, beer, thyme, and garlic had done wonders for the flavor. It was time for the crust.

Many recipes call for allowing the filling to cool before placing the pie dough on top, but we were determined to develop a sturdy dough that could be placed on top of the warm filling and still cook up tender and flaky.

The test kitchen’s Foolproof Pie Dough is my go-to for fruit pie, but its high moisture and fat content made it too soft to place on a warm filling. For a dough that was sturdy yet flaky, I chose a dough we’ve used for chicken pot pie that includes an egg for strength; it also substitutes sour cream for some of the fat. Less butter meant less fat that would melt with heat, so I was able to place this dough on the warm filling with no problems. And how did it bake? Beautifully. The edge held its attractive crispness, and the crust was flaky but substantial. Now that I’ve got this recipe in my back pocket, I’m looking forward to the next chilly day.

Keys to a Faster, Better Pie

Here’s how we streamlined the recipe without sacrificing any flavor.

Meatiness without browning meat

It’s faster to brown mushrooms, onion, garlic, and flour until a really dark fond develops. Beer and bacon deepen the flavor even more.

No Beurre ManiÉ

Adding flour early on means no need for a flour-and-butter paste to thicken the sauce later.

No Reduction

We skip a lengthy sauce reduction by adding less liquid from the get-go and allowing for evaporation partway through cooking.

the right pie dough

Standard pie dough is too delicate to put on a hot filling, which must be cooled. With help from an egg and sour cream, our dough can stand up to the heat.

Keys to Success

  • A streamlined recipe that doesn’t sacrifice flavor

    We start with short ribs, which require little trimming compared with the often-used chuck roast. We skip the optional bottom crust, and we add less liquid to the pot to begin with so we can avoid the lengthy reduction time and fussy thickening step. We also find other ways to boost meaty flavor so we can skip browning the meat.
  • A filling with rich, meaty flavor

    In lieu of browning the meat, we add bacon, onion, garlic, beer, and plenty of mushrooms to enhance the flavor. Deeply browning some of these ingredients creates a flavorful fond we can incorporate into the sauce.
  • A flaky pie dough that can work with a warm filling

    To save even more time, we make a sturdier dough so we don’t have to wait for the filling to cool before topping it. An egg gives the dough structure and, together with some sour cream, also contributes fat. This allows us to decrease the amount of butter so that the raw pastry isn’t as soft but will still bake up flaky.