Every year without fail, I find myself googling “best pumpkin pie recipe.” With this experiment, we set out to answer the question sans the endless searching.
The recipe selection methodology was less formal than the scraping I did for the best pumpkin bread bake off or the chocolate chip cookie bake off–I basically selected all the recipes that I wanted to try anyway and added two of the winners from this epic pumpkin pie bake off.
All 12 pies were baked the day of the tasting (most crusts were made 1-3 days beforehand and refrigerated; two crusts (Flour and BraveTart) were pre-baked the night before). I made 8 of the pies, and three superstar friends helped me out with the other 4.
At the tasting, tasters ranked each overall pie, its filling and its crust separately on a scale from 1-10, and then answered the question “would you want to eat this again?”
|Overall||Crust||Filling||Would eat again?|
|Four & Twenty Blackbirds||5.97||6.52||5.85||67%|
|Joy the Baker||5.52||5.48||5.24||52%|
Analysis: Best Crust
Interestingly, the top rated crusts were all 100% butter crusts, and the recipes are honestly almost identical. However, Serious Eats had a few more tablespoons of butter and a tad more sugar compared to similar all-butter recipes. I think goes to show that a) people love all-butter crusts (even though it can be hard to hold the crimp in as well) and b) kind of obvious, but crust can really depend on how you roll it: you can over-roll identical dough recipes to be either chewy or incredibly flaky. My best advice is to work it as little and as quickly as possible. I loved the flavor of the Serious Eats crust with the pops of salt, but I wished it had been as thick as the Modern Honey crust (so I will try to roll it thicker next time).
First: Modern Honey (6.7)
Second: Four & Twenty (6.5)
Third: Serious Eats (6.5)
(Closely followed by Flour, Henry Pie and SBA)
Analysis: Best Filling
These scores pretty closely mirror the top 3 overall pies–one taster noted that “it was hard to rate the crust when I didn’t like the filling.” So really, the filling makes the pie. It was gratifying to see that all the work that went into reducing the pumpkin puree for Flour’s filling and making my own condensed milk for BraveTart’s custard didn’t go to waste–the interesting thing about the top 3 (and even top 6) scores, however, are how different they are. Flour (and the Henry Pie and Sally’s Baking Addiction) are very traditional custards; Modern Honey and Serious Eats both incorporate cream cheese and Modern Honey and BraveTart both have very thick textures a la a sweet potato casserole. Conclusion: your perfect pie depends greatly on your personal preference for texture, sweetness level, amount of effort, etc..
First: Flour (6.9)
Second: Modern Honey (6.8)
Third: BraveTart (6.5)
(Closely followed by Serious Eats, Henry Pie, SBA).
Analysis: Best Overall Pies
I honestly think that every single pie would be very well-received as a standalone pie at a gathering–even the lowest-ranked pie was superior to any storebought pie. The point of this bake off was to a) find the most crowd-pleasing pies and b) to help you find your ideal pie based on the descriptions. For reference, my ideal pumpkin pie has a mild spice level with a creamy, fairly thick filling with a medium thick, very flaky crust.
Note: if you’re looking for a super spicy pumpkin pie, none of these pies really fit the bill. One taster was a spicy pumpkin pie lover who thought they were all far too mild–so if that sounds like you, you might want to adapt the filling to include more spices.
And now, for the pies in order from #1 to #12:
Modern Honey (7.03 overall / 75% would eat again)
Just edging out Flour’s pie by .03 points for first place, Modern Honey’s pumpkin pie wowed tasters with a distinctly caramelized, sugary surface, buttery crust, and thick, almost cheesecake-like texture. This was one of two pies that incorporated cream cheese in the filling–however, Modern Honey’s recipe was distinct from Serious Eat’s Extra-Smooth Pumpkin Pie in that it used powdered sugar and a stick of melted butter vs. regular sugar and half the amount of butter in the Serious Eat’s recipe. As you can see below, Serious Eats had a much smoother texture, but I think the added cornstarch from the powdered sugar lent Modern Honey’s pie a thicker texture that many tasters loved. I’m not even a huge cheesecake fan, but this was the pie that I kept coming back to.
Make this if: You’re into a more hefty, cheesecake-like texture with a caramelized top and thicker, buttery crust. It’s easy to make, though it does have a long bake time.
Flour Bakery’s Super Pumpkiny Pumpkin Pie (7.0 overall / 75% would eat again)
This recipe comes from James Beard award-winning owner behind Boston-based Flour Bakery, Joanne Chang. With a combination butter-shortening crust and a filling that incorporates a cooked-down pumpkin puree paste, this pie had a gorgeously flaky crust and a super shiny, silky filling. Most tasters loved the well-balanced flavor of the filling, the custardy texture and the thin, crisp crust (though I would have preferred a slightly thicker crust). This pie also tied for first place in epic pumpkin pie bake off! The downside? It’s a TON OF WORK. Reducing the pumpkin takes around 45 minutes, pre-baking the crust takes 50 minutes, and baking the whole pie takes another hour. My recommendation: bake the crust and cook down the pumpkin the night before, and tackle the rest the day of. PS: it was the only recipe that called for brushing the crust with an egg white before filling, and the bottom crust was still super flaky 2 days later.
Make this if: You want a show-stopping classic pumpkin pie with a super-silky filling, a thin and flaky crust, and have a lot of time to devote to this labor-intensive creation.
BraveTart (6.89 overall / 63% would eat again)
Stella Parks of BraveTart was the source for this pumpkin-less pumpkin pie–because Stella uses freshly roasted butternut squash (commercial canned pumpkin is, for the most part, made up of a squash that is part of the butternut family). Although this pie was highly rated, BraveTart proved more divisive than Flour’s pie with only a 64% would-eat-again rating. Tasters praised it for the mild, sweet, thick filling with notes of caramel, though several complained that the filling was too mild or too sweet and that the very thin crust was overcooked (baker’s error–but in my defense, there were no instructions to cover the crust during the second baking). After it sat overnight, I noticed that the filling thickened significantly to almost a sweet potato casserole-ish, stick-to-your-mouth texture and the milky-sweet notes of the homemade condensed milk were more pronounced. Like Flour’s recipe, this is a lot of effort: you make a homemade condensed milk (which took me about an hour longer than stated to reduce all the way), a fully blind-baked crust and roasting your own butternut squash. Still, if you have the time and love a thick, richly textured pie, this pie is well worth it. I’m excited to try one of the infusing options Stella lists for the homemade condensed milk in the future (chai spice! ginger rosemary!).
Make this if: You love multi-step baking projects and are looking for a very rich and sweet pie.
Sally’s Baking Addiction (6.5 overall / 74% would eat again)
Sally is renowned for her rigorously-tested baking recipes, and it showed in this crowd-pleasing pie. Most tasters liked the mild spice mix (including special ingredient black pepper!) and the crumbly, almost shortbread-like crust. Some tasters loved the extremely light, mousse-like texture while others found it too soft or “smooshy.” Sally’s crust is a combination butter-shortening crust with almost a 2:1 ratio of shortening to butter. I expected to prefer the 2:1 butter to shortening crust ratios, but Sally’s turned out to be one of my favorite crusts. She recommends making the filling the night before to let the flavors meld, which is a great tip that can be applied to any pie.
Make this if: You love a light and fluffy custard, a shortbread-like crust, and plenty of detailed instructions.
Serious Eats (6.4 overall / 68% would eat again)
The other cream cheese pie in the mix, Serious Eats’ Extra-Smooth Pumpkin pie caught my eye not only due to the added cream cheese (for tang), but also the promise of less liquid in the filling that helps to prevent a soggy bottom crust, and most importantly, the easy pie dough technique. Kenji goes into some super interesting crust science that explains why adding flour in two stages is essential. The resulting super flaky, thick, picturesque crust with perfect hits of salt was one of my favorites. Unlike Modern Honey’s craggier texture, the filling was incredibly smooth and creamy (Julia, who made this pie, did opt for the optional straining of the custard which likely helped greatly) with a balanced, tangy, “cinnamon toast” esque flavor. Some tasters found this pie too bland for their taste, with a mushy rather than creamy texture (I don’t personally agree with this assessment).
Make this if: You want the tang of cheesecake (not just for cheesecake lovers!) but the smooth texture of pumpkin pie with a really delicious, salty crust.
Henry Pie (6.2 overall / 57% would eat again)
This is Jacqueline’s family pie: a combination of a unique crust made with just 1/4 cup of vegetable oil (no butter/shortening!) and a filling from the Butter Baked Goods cookbook. Surprisingly, some tasters loved the crumbly, salty, semi-thin crust texture. Most also liked the smooth, well-spiced filling, though some noted it was too sweet (to me, it was an average filling. Not bad, not exciting.). In terms of ease, this is one of the easiest pies to make–highly recommended if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to deal with the hassles of a typical butter crust.
Make this if: You want a quick, low-hassle crust (no dealing with butter or shortening) and you like sweet pumpkin custards. This is probably the best taste payoff for the least effort.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds (6.0 overall / 67% would eat again)
I was excited about this recipe, which hails from the pie goddesses at Four & Twenty Blackbirds bakeshop in New York. With a beautifully uncracked, deeply orange filling and a truly delicious all-butter crust, this pie had notes of caramel and butterscotch that some loved. Many praised the “good pumpkin flavor” and “great crust.” Although it requires a lot of ingredients (a teaspoon of molasses here, 1/3 cup of carrot juice there), the recipe wasn’t quite as involved as the Flour or BraveTart recipes, though it does require you to make a brown butter-based butterscotch sauce that gets whisked into the pumpkin mixture. I noticed these notes deepening as the pie sat, but I wonder if I didn’t cook the butterscotch enough because I feel they could have been heightened. It also requires straining the filling through a fine mesh sieve for a flawlessly uniform filling. Interestingly, some tasters noted a custardy, flan-like texture, while other tasters simply thought this pie was undercooked. PS. The linked recipe doesn’t specify par-baking details, so I followed these crust instructions (essentially bake at 425 with pie weights for 15-20 minutes until pale but just starting to brown).
Make this if: You love a soft, flavorful pumpkin pie texture and are a brown butter and crust fiend.
All Recipes (5.9 overall / 64% would eat again)
One of the most photogenic pies with a crust that held its crimp through baking and didn’t crack at all, this recipe pretty much pegged what I think of as classic pumpkin pie texture. Heavy on the yolks and condensed milk, the filling is mild–almost too much so for most tasters. Most tasters thought the crust didn’t really taste like anything, although most loved the flakiness of the crust. One taster called this a “solid traditional pie,” and I generally agree–it’s not the most exciting, but it’s pretty and easy to make (no blind baking!).
Make this if: You want a solid, mild, easy-to-make traditional pie with a beautiful crust.
Cook’s Illustrated (5.54 overall / 52% would eat again)
Aside from Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Serious Eats, this was the only other pie that called for straining the filling; accordingly, the beautifully colored custard was silky smooth and particularly moist. It called for fresh ginger and I’m wondering if mine was old, because the flavor didn’t really come through in the filling–and neither did a lot of other flavors (like the candied yams–not convinced those added anything). Many tasters found the pie bland and, hilariously, suspected it was a healthy pie due to the creaminess and bland flavor (“tofu?” wrote one taster), though several did praise the buttery crust. (Fun fact: the vodka crust was actually developed by Kenji before he went to Serious Eats. I still slightly prefer his easy pie dough). This pie actually bears a lot of similarities to Flour’s pie (they both cook the filling before baking) and the crust is very similar, just a tad more salt, sugar, shortening–plus vodka. Also, you can my pie came out with huge cracks. I sent an email to Cook’s Illustrated to see if they could explain why my filling had cracked so much, but I didn’t get a super helpful answer. So.
Make this if: You’re a Cook’s Illustrated junkie and want a beautifully moist, vibrantly hued pie. (I would recommend increasing the spices.)
Joy the Baker (5.51 overall / 52% would eat again)
Joy’s pie stood out for its buttermilk crust and a filling that was similar to Sally’s Baking Addiction, but with less sugar and heavy cream. This was probably the closest to a “spicy pie” of the bunch, thanks to a heavy dose of cinnamon, ginger and fresh grated nutmeg. Ultimately, the crust looked beautiful and was flaky and easy to work with, but didn’t carry that much flavor, and I personally didn’t enjoy the strong ginger and nutmeg overtones.
Make this if: You love ginger and nutmeg a whole lot and want an easy-to-work crust.
King Arthur Flour’s Golden Pie (4.9 overall / 29% would eat again)
This pie tied with Flour’s pie for first place in that pumpkin pie bake off, and stood out for its whole grain crust (utilizing oat flour and whole wheat flour) and a filling sweetened entirely by honey. Unfortunately, this pie became a victim to my baking errors: I ran out of honey and subbed maple syrup for half, and my whole wheat flour may have been stale. The custard tasted weirdly watery and soggy when I first tasted it, but once it sat overnight, the filling settled and was much better. On the plus side, the crust was a dream to work with (hence the fancier crimp); on the downside, it burned very easily despite being covered with foil the entire time (which was a pain to arrange). I think this pie could have fared better had I used fresh whole wheat flour, but I’m not convinced that the all-honey custard would have won over the majority of the tasters.
Make this if: You love the flavor of honey and whole grain crusts.
Libby’s (4.7 overall / 27% would eat again)
We paired the classic Libby’s filling with Crisco’s all-shortening pie crust since Libby didn’t specify a pie crust recipe and I was curious to pit an all-shortening crust against the all-butter crusts. This is the only pie I’d made before–it’s a super easy pie to make, and hits all the right notes in terms of a classic pumpkin pie texture. However, tasted in relation to all the other pies, most found the spice mix too mild, and although the crust looked beautifully flaky, it tasted like a storebought crust–that is, it didn’t really didn’t taste like anything. I wouldn’t make the crust again (would use any other all butter or combo crust) and probably wouldn’t use the filling again unless I was in a rush and had an inspired idea for a better spice mix.
Make this if: Your alternative is a storebought pie.
My personal dream pie would be the Serious Eats pie crust with Modern Honey’s filling.
HOWEVER: if I was making a pie for…
…a traditional family gathering and had a lot of time, I’d make the Flour pie.
…a traditional family gathering and didn’t have a lot of time, I’d go with Sally’s Baking Addiction or Modern Honey or Serious Eats.
…a traditional family gathering and had even less time, I’d do Henry Pie or All Recipes, depending on the ingredients on hand.
…a trendy foodie Friendsgiving, I’d make the BraveTart or Four and Twenty Blackbirds pie.
Lastly, in case you are not a pie expert like me, here are some techniques I learned that will hopefully help you too!
- Transferring pie dough into the pie pan: Have you ever tried to roll dough around a rolling pin to transfer it? It is literally impossible for me. Joanne instructs you to fold the pie dough into quarters in order to transfer the dough from the counter to the pie dish, where you unfold and crimp the pie. It works brilliantly as long as you work fast (dusting the surface with flour also helps) and is how I will transfer pie dough from now on.
- When your pie is done: Through the process of baking 8 pies in one day, I became intimately acquainted with the pumpkin pie jiggle. To me, the distinction is this: if there are alarmingly large ripples (like water underneath a layer of ice), leave it in. If it’s just wobbly in the center the way your stomach might look after eating 8 pies, and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, take it out.
- Crimping: These videos were super helpful. Crimping is also 100x easier when you chill the dough beforehand (once you roll out the dough and move it into the pie pan, stick it in the fridge). I found that blind baking the pie crusts often caused the crimp to fall out, but this could just be my novice baking mistake.
- Pie weights: Stella Parks uses sugar instead of dried beans or pie weights–she notes this is a no-waste alternative because you can then use the roasted sugar just like regular sugar. Using dried beans can be wasteful because the beans can take on an acrid aroma after baking. The sugar can be a little messy though, so as an alternative, I read somewhere that you can layer coffee filters over your crust and fill it with rice. This makes for great pie weights and also allows for the rice to become a little toasty and buttery from the butter that oozes out of the crust–perfect for cooking.
- Blind baking: I didn’t notice a big difference between crusts that were blind baked vs. crusts that were not during the tasting, but the blind baked (i.e. twice-baked) crusts were much more susceptible to burning, so I would recommend covering the crust with foil or a pie guard even if the recipe doesn’t say so. Also, when I tasted some leftover pie two days later, I noticed that the Flour crust (the only one brushed with egg white to prevent crust sogginess) was significantly flakier.
- Overnight rest: We made all the pies the day of because I assumed fresh pie was superior, but I actually found that I liked some of the pies better after an overnight rest in the fridge–cold custard takes on a fudgier texture and the flavors have more time to mingle and meld. You can also get a head start on melding flavors by mixing the filling the night before baking.
- Glass pie pans: are best for baking because they distribute heat evenly and you can easily see through the bottom to check whether your crust is browning. Placing your pie on a preheated baking sheet can also help prevent a soggy crust. Aluminum pie pans are less desirable because their thin walls can’t conduct as much heat and thus it will take longer for a pie to bake.
- Excess filling: I had a significant amount of excess filling from a number of pies and also felt as though I was overfilling several of the pies in order to fit them into one pan (and the longer-than-called-for baking time reflected this). To avoid this, here are some ideas for leftover pie filling: crustless pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin bread pudding, or any of these.