From cheesy brie bites to gooey jalapeño poppers, "Savory Baking" has a place at your holiday table

Baker Erin Jeanne McDowell explains how to lean into your salt tooth and savory baking techniques this holiday

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 20, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Erin Jeanne McDowell (Photo illustration by Salon / Mark Weinberg)
Erin Jeanne McDowell (Photo illustration by Salon / Mark Weinberg)

I first became familiar with Erin Jeanne McDowell — and her smart, warm form of culinary instruction — when I found my efforts to make a decent homemade pie crust were thwarted yet again. This was several years ago and I had attempted several popular recipes for all-butter pie crusts only to have the results lacking in some way. 

That's when I stumbled across a video from Food52, where McDowell hosts the series "Bake it Up a Notch," simply called "How To Make The Best Pie Crust with Erin McDowell." As soon as she popped into frame (literally, from beneath the kitchen island) I knew I liked her style; she walked viewers through her recipe, step-by-step, emphasizing why it worked. The next day, I purchased her cookbook, "The Book on Pie: Everything You Need to Know to Bake Perfect Pies" and that was that. 

I was transformed from someone who couldn't make a decent pie crust to save her life to becoming the person entrusted with making pies for holiday meals. So when it was announced that McDowell was publishing a new book on savory baking, I knew that my home cooking was due for another transformation. 

And sure enough, "Savory Baking: Recipes for Breakfast, Dinner, and Everything in Between" has already helped me rethink the possibilities of pastry, pie and bread dough for both savory weeknight meals and holiday entertaining. It's especially appealing for folks (like me) who don't necessarily consider themselves star bakers. 

"If you understand what's going on behind a recipe, and you understand a little bit of what's making it work, you suddenly can become a lot more flexible and a lot more creative," McDowell told me during our "Salon Talks" episode. "That's something that I'm always really trying to share with people. That's what I love about savory baking, is it's a lot easier to do that than it is to just completely wing a pie out of nowhere." 

McDowell spoke with me about the differences between sweet and savory creations, how to weave baking into holiday entertaining — and how she developed the recipe for a very impressive-looking Italian "bundwitch." Watch it here, or read our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Readers might know as the pie queen. It was your recipe for pie dough that made me confident enough to try in my own kitchen.

Oh, that's amazing. Thank you so much. I mean, honestly, one of the things that I think is so funny — Don't get me wrong, 14 year old me loves being called the queen of anything, that is really an exciting thing for me — but at the same time, my whole thing with pie is really that I want more people to make it, and I feel like so many people are scared of it. So, the biggest compliment someone can give me is that I've made them confident enough to make pie. Because really, I just want there to be as much pie in the world as possible. I want there to be 100 pie queens, a million pie queens and kings, all.

There's a line in your book about savory baking that I was hoping you could expand on. You write, "It combines the pleasure and precision of pastry with the freedom and flexibility of cooking." What do you mean by that?

For me, the precision of baking really is almost a comfort. I know the people who like to bake share this also. It can be really stressful for people who don't enjoy that precision part. But for me, what I love about a baking recipe is if it's well written and everything, you should be able to follow it and you should end up with a result that is similar to what the goal was. That isn't entirely true for me with cooking. I feel like cooking is such an adventure, where it's not always about following a recipe, it's about following your taste buds on all of these things.

Savory baking is this imperfect intersection of the two, where I can still enjoy some of the rules of baking and some of the science behind it. But also there is this freedom and flexibility, and ability to make it your own, and add a pinch of this and a little bit of that, the way you do in cooking. And I find both immensely pleasurable.

For me, where they meet is also a really fun place creatively for bakers. That's something that I'm always trying to do, is remind people that even though, yes, we need to follow these baking rules, yes, the goal would be to follow the recipe with some precision. If you understand what's going on behind a recipe, and you understand a little bit of what's making it work, you suddenly can become a lot more flexible and a lot more creative. That's what I love about savory baking, is it's a lot easier to do that than it is to just completely wing a pie out of nowhere. That's possible too, but it's kind of its own thing. To be able to tweak some of these savory flavors, that's a lot more doable.

"Savory baking isn't just quiche and pizza, which are wonderful, but there's more to it than that."

What did the recipe research and development look like for this book, and how did you whittle that down the recipes?

The process of making a book for me is truly — I mean, it's part of why I do it — I love making books. It is so much fun and such a creative expression from beginning to end. I find the early parts of it very stressful because it's solitary. The further you get along into the process, the more you're working with other people. People are testing the recipes, and people are photographing them and tasting them. Then you bring in the editors and then there's all of these other exciting collaborative parts of it.

The early part, it's just me sitting in a room deciding what should be in a book. I find that process so incredibly exciting, and also incredibly stressful. Because I really want my books to be well rounded and have a really effortless assortment. Of course, it's not effortless at all. It's very well thought out. But, I want there to be an assortment of seasonality and an assortment of difficulty levels. I want there to be some projects for sure, but I also want there to be things that you can make really easy on a weeknight.

There's lots of questions that I ask myself. Sometimes I start with this board of loose concepts. For example, in this book, I knew that I wanted to really highlight different forms of savory pancakes and crepes, and some things that maybe people don't inherently think of as savory. So at first, I don't even have a specific flavor written down. It's just like, I know there needs to be a crepe in here, and what will that crepe be? And then eventually as it gets filled out, the pieces tend to fit themselves together.

Seasonality and ingredients is something that really guides me a lot. It's always difficult, this book came out in the fall, and I feel like it even has a fall look to it. But obviously I want there to be things that you keep making into winter, and into spring, and into summer. I want there to be some evergreen nature to it. 

That's also another way that ideas work themselves out, is being like, "Oh man, I need more vegetables," or, "I need more of this. I need more of that." And that was another thing that I really thought about with this book. My last book, "The Book On Pie," was easy to make gluten free, because as long as I had a good gluten-free dough, many of the fillings are naturally gluten free, so I had this kind of naturally inclusive book.

I had to work a little bit harder to make this one inclusive, and while it won't make absolutely everyone happy, there's a ton of vegetarian variations and a ton of easy swaps if something isn't vegetarian. I really wanted it to resemble something that could appeal to a lot of people that are looking for something savory to bake, and also hopefully inspire people to think outside the box, that savory baking isn't just quiche and pizza, which are wonderful, but there's more to it than that.

Speaking of outside the box, a recipe that stopped me in my tracks was the Italian Sub Bundt, which I'm already planning to break out when I go home and see family for the holidays because I think everybody's going to find it so fun. Could you talk about the development of that recipe in particular?

That is a fun one, because my parents actually test a lot of my recipes with me. It's been a really special thing they started with my first book, "The Fearless Baker," and a little less testing on "The Book On Pie," just because pies can be so finicky. They really worked hard on this book with me as well, and they loved that recipe. And I knew if they loved it, that we had something special on our hands.

I really want to be able to think of baking equipment that you already have, that you enjoy using for sweet purposes, and remind you that just because you enjoy making something sweet doesn't mean that you can't also bake a savory pie in that pie pan, or some kind of savory cake in that spring form pan. That one really actually started from the concept of, "How do I use this bundt pan?" And one of the things that I love about a bundt pan is that it provides portion markings for you.

For something like a sandwich, and something where a three-foot long sub actually isn't really that practical of a party food, because you have to cut it all up and everybody get whatever. But in this case, we can build it in sort of a wedged sandwich situation. I think the filling to bread ratio is spot on, and it's easy to eat. So for me, that was a really fun example also of reimagining something pretty classic, like a party sub, but trying to take it to a new place.

What are some pantry staples that you would recommend folks who are going to make a real run at savory baking should keep around?

One of the best things that you can do is keep a well stocked spice cabinet because that really comes into play in multiple ways. We can flavor doughs that we might normally think of as sweeter, or even just, they might not actually have any sugar in them, but we might equate them with desserts.

Even a pastry dough, a puff pastry dough, obviously there's so many savory things we can do with that. By just adding some dried spices to it, we can also add a ton of savory flavor, and those are shelf stable. So some of the ones I use the most in this book, smoked Paprika plays a really big role in this book. I love it for adding a little bit of the depth of a smokey flavor, obviously. One of my brother's ex-girlfriends accused us of putting paprika on everything. My whole family loves paprika. 

"Don't make something for the first time when you're having friends and family over. It's just too stressful."

I love that it's an accusation.

She accused us of putting paprika on just about everything. I also come from the Midwest, and I really love the use of onion and garlic powder to boost allium flavor in something. I think a lot of people sometimes can look down their nose at that a little bit, that it's not fresh. But there's a time and a place for fresh onions and garlic. There's also, I feel like, a time for the dried product. In baking, whenever we can add something that's dry, we don't even really have to adjust the recipe at all. Whereas when we're adding something with moisture, it could actually really change things.

A well-stocked spice cabinet is another great place to go. A few others that I really love that I used in this book, like Vadouvan curry [powder], which is a really oniony mild curry. But also I think I used a lot of jerk seasoning, and a lot of spicy things like cayenne. And I also used a lot of flaky salt, and a lot of coarsely ground black pepper. I think black pepper is under-appreciated as a flavor in and of itself. There's a lot of black pepper finishes in this book. A spice cabinet would be a great place to start. And when you're looking for one other thing that'll up the ante: cheese.

There we go. You're preaching to the choir at this point, but I completely agree. Speaking of beginners, I found this book very accessible across the board. But let's say that somebody's coming in, no experience, and they're looking for a low-stress way to move their way into savory baking. Is there a particular recipe that you would recommend?

I'm so bad also at picking just one recipe because it's like picking your favorite child. But I actually designed the book intentionally so that the first two chapters are really the easiest places to start. Anything from chapter one or chapter two is really going to be a great place to get your feet wet, even if you're a total beginner. But I also found that a lot of really seasoned, experienced home bakers were diving into that chapter too. Because as you mentioned, a lot of those recipes are really easy and accessible. They're weeknight friendly, and they also have a lot of flexibility to them to make them your own.

It's not only a great introduction into baking, there's recipes like the cornbread that don't even need a mixer. You can just mix it right in a bowl. I love to suggest people make buttermilk biscuits because they usually think that they're way harder to make than they are. If that seems too scary, there's also my drop biscuits, which are so simple and easy to make.

I have a section on using different flavored butters to baste and add flavor, so add garlic butter or maple butter to something like a corn muffin or a cornbread. There's so many options, and I feel like that's a really good place to start. 

What are some of your favorite weeknight recipes or recipes that you make when you're feeling busy or stressed?

One of the ones that I love to make because it's so simple but feels like so much effort and love and care has gone into it when I finally put it on the table, is the weeknight focaccia, which actually has the weeknight in the name. It's called Weeknight Focaccia because it only takes a few minutes to mix it by hand, and then it sits overnight. So the idea is, you can do that on any weeknight, or on a lazy weekend is also great. But it really takes any meal that I'm making into this... "Wow, and I also made homemade bread," kind of place.

Some of the other ones that I turn to probably the most are the thick chewy noodles for soup, especially this time of year. I'm battling coming off the back end of a flu, and so I have been eating so much soup, and those thick chewy noodles are so easy to make. They remind me of something my mom made for me growing up. And I think people think of making fresh pasta or fresh noodles as being a very time consuming, intimidating thing. But these are so simple, they don't even have to be totally the same size. Very rustic, very simple.

"If you understand what's going on behind a recipe ... you suddenly can become a lot more flexible and a lot more creative."

Another one that I think might surprise people at how weeknight friendly it is, is the Lahmacun, which is in chapter four. This also kind of goes by other names. I've heard people kind of refer to it as a Turkish pizza, though it's kind of far from being a pizza. It's a very, very thin dough and then you take a spread of ground meat that's been seasoned right on the top. Because it's so thin, it only takes a few moments to cook. The recipe makes six. Honestly, it comes together like that, but it's a very impressive, pretty amazing thing to bring to the table.

I finish it with lemon juice, and parsley or other fresh herbs. Then I love to finish it with pickled chilies also, add a little spice to it. So that's another one that we make all the time. And even I remember one time I said, "Oh, I'll make Lahmacun for dinner." And someone was like, "And you're going to start that now?" And they couldn't believe when I was pulling them out of the oven not too long after.

We're in the holiday season, and in addition to the Italian Sub Bundt, I already identified a couple other recipes that I'm planning on making for family. There's the smoked salmon breakfast buns and the savory monkey bread. What other recipes do you point to in the book as fun to serve up around the holidays?

One of the best chapters to go to is chapter five, which is the Bites chapter. There are so many little handheld appetizery, snacky sorts of things in there. One thing that I like to encourage people to try to do is make your own crackers. And the spicy cheesy crackers are really delicious and very addictive. It can feel kind of intimidating to make something like that. But again, the yield is really huge. So it's great for making for gifts. And also, you can cut them into fun shapes this time of year. It's kind of a fun thing to do. You can pair it with a cheese or charcuterie board where you don't have to necessarily do any cooking for the rest of that. So it's a nice thing to do.

I'm also really into a lot of the things that are wrapped in puff pastry, like the Brie bites with pepper jelly, which I just did an episode of "Bake It Up a Notch" on that also, so people can check that out. That recipe is available online as well as in the book. The jalapeño pastry poppers, which is like, if a jalapeño popper was wrapped in puff pastry. They're really so good. There's just so many things like that in those chapters that also I feel like hopefully will spark ideas for people. There's mini quiche and lots of mini bite size things that I think are so fun this time of year. And also things that refresh pretty well so that you can make them ahead and not be necessarily wrapping lots of things in puff pastry while your family is hanging out.

More broadly, how do you approach cooking for groups? Any tips for amateur bakers as they're getting ready to have family and friends over for the holidays?

One of the biggest pieces of advice, and I feel like everybody says this, but don't make something for the first time when you're having friends and family over. It's just too stressful and it takes away the most enjoyable part of it for me. I love to think about things that can be made ahead when I'm having friends and family over. And what's so great about savory baking is, so many things can be made ahead, because they're baked. Unless it really needs to be served warm, like maybe the Monkey bread which is so wonderful to serve warm. A lot of things, even the savory pies, I recommend them cooling completely. Most of the breads, I recommend them cooling completely, though who can resist warm bread? I will not be judging you if you just tear into that bread while it's warm.

I think that there's definitely a lot of possibility when you simplify things a little bit, like picking a few things that can be made ahead. In my book, I have these instructions of make ahead and storage, how things can be stored, even how they can be refreshed in some cases. Pairing that, in some cases, with things that do take some of the effort off your plate, like a great cheese plate, or maybe buying the dessert from your favorite bakery, so that you're not having to bend over and do a million different things.

The real difference between professionals and people at home, is that in restaurants, we're always prepping one, two, even three days ahead. That is where some of that flavor comes from because we might start marinating something two days before we're actually going to cook it. When you make yourself a list around the holidays like that, it actually sometimes becomes really obvious. Like, "Oh man, I can do all these things three days ahead. Then I only have these five things I have to do two days ahead." And it just kind of breaks it out in a really nice way.


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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