Best Sweet Cornbread Bake Off

best cornbread recipe

In some parts of the country, “sweet cornbread” is essentially blasphemy. But when you grow up on Trader Joe’s boxed mix cornbread (ahem, me), you develop a palate for cornbread of the sweet and cakey variety–what some people would characterize as northern-style cornbread. (But the whole northern vs. southern-style cornbread is a topic for another time. This is a great read on the topic.)

So if you’re looking for a rustic southern-style skillet cornbread, look away now! In this bake off, we were searching for a cornbread that specifically read as sweet, with a great texture to go with the sweeter flavor. Excitingly, in our test of 12 different recipes, one stood out head and shoulders compared to the rest.

best cornbread recipe

Methodology

  • 28 total tasters
  • All 12 recipes were baked fresh the day of and tasted at room temperature
  • All tasters ranked each cornbread on a scale from 0-10 for flavor, texture, and overall as a whole
  • All cornbread was baked in pans as specified by the recipe (i.e. loaf pans, cast iron skillets, 9″ metal cake pans, and an 8×8 glass Pyrex pan)
  • I arbitrarily characterized recipes as a “sweet” recipe if they had approximately 1/4 cup of sugar per regular-sized recipe of cornbread

Cornbread Ingredients

Best Sweet Cornbread Results

If we get right to it, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe was the distinct winner when it came to overall rankings (once you read below, you’ll see why).

However, when it came to flavor, Cleo Buttera’s recipe just edged out Mel’s recipe (given the small data sample, it was essentially a tie), though the texture rating brought it down to third overall. Similarly, Huckleberry seemed to be a crowd favorite during the tasting, and while it scored very well on flavor, the texture was very divisive, dropping it to 7th place.

You can see the average overall ratings in the top chart, and the average scores for flavor and texture in the bottom chart:

Best Cornbread Rankings Factors

Sugar: Looking at the average overall ratings, I think the thing that set apart the top three cornbreads was the sweetness level. A lot of cornbreads that hung out in the middle got mixed ratings, but generally lacked flavor. And the lowest rated cornbreads tended to either be not very sweet or very lacking in flavor. Of course, these cornbreads also had to have good texture and since sugar is a tenderizer, I think having a higher ratio of sugar in these recipes helped boost the flavor profile as well as create a more tender, cakey crumb (which is what we were after).

Fat: The only types of fat used in these recipes were butter or oil. Only 4 recipes used oil (or a blend of butter and oil)–the top two rated (Mel’s and All Recipes – Golden), Huckleberry and King Arthur Flour. Similar to the findings in the chocolate cake bake off where oil-based cakes did better than butter-based cakes, oil is key for a cornbread that is cakier-textured, which most tasters enjoyed (though not quite sure how to explain KAF’s sad texture rating–probably not enough sugar to tenderize to our preferred level). Generally in any baked good, using both butter and oil is a good move as you get flavor from butter and moisture from the oil–cornbread is no exception.

Cornmeal: I standardized on Quaker yellow cornmeal (which I think is a medium/medium-fine grind), which I used for any recipe that either specified medium grind or didn’t specify what type to use. For those that called for coarse/fine grind, I used cornmeal from Whole Foods’ bulk bin (Alex Guarnaschelli called for coarse and Serious Eats called for fine; everyone else was standard). I thought the fine grind would definitely make for a lighter, cakier mouthfeel but surprisingly the medium grind of Quaker did the trick for a lot of the cakier recipes! And the finer cornmeal in the Serious Eats recipe really didn’t lend itself to a finer crumb–it still felt quite coarse. I think the bigger factor over the cornmeal itself is the ratio of flour to cornmeal–a higher ratio of flour and less cornmeal leads to a cakier crumb while more cornmeal, or even a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal:flour, will lead to a coarser crumb.

Technique: One of the things I loved about this bake off is that cornbread technique is so simple, which made for a very easy testing process. The majority of the recipes used a simple muffin technique (combine dry, combine wet, and then mix the two). Only Cook’s Illustrated, Huckleberry and Cleo Buttera involved slightly more complex blending and creaming techniques. In this bake off, I don’t think technique really had a part to play in any of the results.

Analysis of the Best Sweet Cornbread Recipes

king arthur flour cornbread recipe

King Arthur Flour: a close-textured, blank canvas that would be good for savory mix ins (cheese, corn, jalapenos, etc.)

Why I chose this recipe: a standard butter-based cornbread recipe that uses milk instead of the more typical buttermilk (Cleo Buttera was the only other recipe that also uses milk + butter).

My thoughts: This recipe offers a variation to sub half of the butter for 1/4 cup of oil for a moister cornbread, which I tried. It did result in a nice cakey crumb (sticks to the mouth a bit), and I had no complaints about moisture, but it tasted virtually flavorless. This recipe is advertised as a compromise between Southern and Northern cornbread (and can easily be made savory with the right mix ins), and my guess is that it’s probably better off with added mix ins. This is a good blank canvas for stronger flavors.

Tasters overwhelmingly thought this cornbread was bland and a little dry. “No detectable flavor,” said one. Some agreed the texture was great (a few thought it was a little grainy), but all agreed the flavor could use some work.

Serious Eats: a skillet-baked, buttery but non-sweet cornbread with a bouncy, coarse crumb

Why I chose this recipe: uses brown butter and sour cream in addition to butter and buttermilk.

My thoughts: With a 1:1 ratio of cornmeal to flour and hydrated with butter, sour cream and buttermilk, this cornbread seemed promising. Browning the butter is a welcomed hands-off process–you stick the butter in a skillet in the oven until browned, before mixing in all the other ingredients. While our resulting bread had a nice sturdy crumb, it was a bouncy rather than tender crumb that had a strong butter flavor and not much else. I couldn’t really taste the cornmeal–rather, it felt like a kind of tough, coarse buttery bread.

Most tasters commented that this bread was “dry,” “so bland” and forgettable. “Dry. Do not love flavor,” said one. “Sourdough like,” said another. A few noted an odd, slightly bitter aftertaste, and several commented that it was not sweet at all. For those looking for a more Southern-style cornbread, this might be your jam.

Ina Garten: a dry, non-sweet, slightly crumbly and bland cornbread

Why I chose this recipe: another recipe that uses sour cream in addition to butter and milk.

My thoughts: The only cornbread to be baked in a loaf pan, Ina’s cornbread was intriguing to me as the photos show it being sliced and toasted, indicating a very sturdy cornbread. Interestingly, our resulting cornbread verged slightly on the drier, crumbly side with a medium fine crumb. There was a slight sweetness, but I couldn’t detect any tanginess from the sour cream. Overall, I liked the texture but felt the taste was lacking.

“Claggy mouthfeel,” said one. “Should be disqualified and saved for the savory cornbread bake off,” said another. Tasters complained that the texture was dry, crumbly and chalky, though I actually thought the texture turned more cakey. However, pretty much everyone agreed that it was very bland and almost flavorless. This may be another good candidate to transform into a savory cornbread with mix ins.

Alex Guarnaschelli: a coarse, sturdy and non-sweet rustic cornbread

Why I chose this recipe: a higher ratio of cornmeal to flour, less sugar than most, and a combination of milk + buttermilk.

My thoughts: Alex’s recipes have great reviews online, so I was excited to try hers even though I suspected the small amount of sugar didn’t bode for a great result. This recipe also uses a hot skillet method (pouring prepared batter into a hot-from-the-oven skillet) for crisp edges. Our resulting cornbread had the most open, coarse crumb of the bunch (Alex calls for coarse grind cornmeal). The flavor was very buttery but not overly corny–like Serious Eats, I didn’t pick up on much other flavor. But who knows, maybe this is a great Southern-style cornbread! (Of which I would be a terrible judge!)

Virtually all tasters commented on the large, coarse crumb of this cornbread. Some liked the hearty, spongy texture, noting that it would “hold up well to buttering” while others thought the dry, slightly tough texture was off-putting.

Jiffy: a very dry and somewhat satisfyingly flavored corn muffin

Why I chose this recipe: for a boxed mix control, similar to Pillsbury in the sprinkle cake bake off. We tried both the vegetarian and regular Jiffy mix (which contains lard). Though I think they taste every so slightly different, I think they were similar enough so that we used both interchangeably for the tasters.

My thoughts: My roommate and I used to make Jiffy in college, which was probably the last time I had Jiffy. The crumb was much drier than I remembered, but it still had the slightly addicting, sweet corn flavor that I remembered. It dissolves into a satisfying mouthfeel once you chew, and for me the nostalgia factor probably ranked it higher flavor-wise than it deserved. Overall I thought the flavor was much superior to the dry texture.

For the most part, people agreed this cornbread was unremarkable but fine. “Driest of the dry,” proclaimed one taster. “Sweet, savory balanced flavor, but a little stale tasting,” said another. One described it as “like fluffy pleasant air, very middle of the road.”

Cook’s Illustrated: a soft, cakey cornbread that’s slightly lacking in flavor

Why I chose this recipe: because Cook’s Illustrated. Also another butter + buttermilk recipe with the addition of frozen corn blended into the batter.

My thoughts: This cornbread was a breeze to throw together–all the wet ingredients (including the thawed, frozen corn) gets pulsed in a blender while the dry ingredients are mixed in a bowl. Fold dry into wet, add butter and voila! The resulting cornbread had a soft, cakey crumb that was lightly sweet. It reminded me of King Arthur Flour’s cornbread, but moister. Despite the addition of real corn, I didn’t detect a ton of corn flavor in this one either. For me, it landed on the positive side of mediocre.

“Classic cornbread, not a sweet cornbread,” said one. “Annoying that it’s neither salty nor sweet” said one. Overall thought seemed to be that this cornbread was so-so, with a moist, yet somehow crumbly texture.

All Recipe (Grandmother’s Buttermilk): a spongy, slightly cakey, slightly dry cornbread with a slightly sweet corny flavor

Why I chose this recipe: 9,000 reviews and a 5-star rating on All Recipes, great representation of many popular online recipes with 1:1 cornmeal/flour ratio

My thoughts: Another skillet recipe that is a breeze to throw together, this cornbread was a little stiffer than Cook’s Illustrated, but the taste was distinctly sweeter. I wished the texture was a little more tender, but this was a cornbread where I finally picked up on a level of sweetness that I was more familiar with.

Tasters thought this cornbread was “good but not great.” “Dry” was a common descriptor, with one calling it “the cornbread version of cornpops cereal: looks healthier than it tastes but somehow I can’t stop eating it.” Other issues: “dry and forgettable, too crumbly,” “buttery but still somewhat dry”. Most agreed the flavor was a little off, though some liked the level of sweetness.

Sally’s Baking Addiction: a sweet, honey-laced cakey cornbread

Why I chose this recipe: honey and brown sugar made this butter + buttermilk cornbread stand out from the crowd

My thoughts: With the most distinctive color of the bunch, Sally’s honey-tan cornbread had a distinct honey flavor with a cakey texture. This verged into slightly more moist cornbread territory (with a couple exceptions, nearly all the cornbreads we tried were on the drier side), which was a welcome change. This was also a breeze to throw together.

Many commented that this one was more cakelike, but many were thrown off by the flavor. “Is it a corny pumpkin bread loaf?” questioned one. “Sweet, bland and crumbly,” said another. A few thought it was too eggy, close-textured and too sweet. Overall, people were split between thinking it was weird and eggy vs. having a good sweetness and flavor and cakey texture.

Huckleberry: an unusually springy, rich, very moist cornbread

Why I chose this recipe: uses butter and oil plus whole wheat flour…plus milk AND buttermilk, honey, and more eggs than most.

My thoughts: This was the only recipe that called for a mixer, which seemed a bit overkill. After creaming the butter and sugar together, you incorporate 4 (four!) eggs, dry ingredients, what seems like way too many wet ingredients, and then fresh corn if it’s in season (it was not in season, so we omitted the corn). I had to bake this bread for maybe 15 minutes longer than the stated time and even after resting, it was VERY moist. Like it almost squished when you bite into it. The texture was a little chunky with a surprisingly coarse yet very moist and springy crumb that holds together well. Simultaneously sweet and salty, this cornbread was a cacophony of flavors compared to many of the other recipes we tried. This was by far the most unique cornbread we tried (for both technique and taste) and although it is undeniably delicious, it was a bit greasy for me and I doubt I will bother getting my mixer out to make this very often.

Tasters praised the crust for being chewy and crispy at the same time. Most noted the oily texutre, which some loved and some hated. Some commented that this bread was simply too dense, greasy and oily, while others loved the richness. It is significantly saltier than other cornbreads; I think it could stand to be reduced, especially if you’re watching your sodium.

New York Times: an aggressively buttery, not-too-sweet cornbread with a coarse crumb

Why I chose this recipe: the only recipe to use brown butter and all maple syrup (no sugar!)

My thoughts: This skillet cornbread uses the same brown butter method as Serious Eats. However, I think the higher rating for the NYT recipe can be attributed in large part to the generous amount of maple syrup in the recipe, which lent an addicting flavor to the final cornbread. I found the cornbread to be aggressively buttery, and fairly moist, but I wished the crumb was cakier rather than coarse (I think the higher ratio of cornmeal in this recipe as well as the lack of sugar contributed to a tougher crumb). Even with half a cup of maple syrup, it still registered on the savory side of the scale for me–I’d be curious to try making it again with less cornmeal and more flour, and with some added sugar to soften the crumb.

Tasters noted this had a different flavor profile from most cornbreads, picking up on the maple and strong brown butter notes. Many commented on the coarseness/large crumb–for some it was too coarse and grainy, while others loved the open, grainy texture. Most agreed it was nicely moist, though it was missing the corn flavor for some. The subtle sweetness was okay for some, but others wished for more.

Cleo Buttera: a dense, custardy cornbread with a pure and powerful corn flavor thanks to pureed corn

Why I chose this recipe: A riff on the relatively complex Chef Step’s recipe, but adapted for the home cook (i.e. no isolate)

Quite sweet, very corn-forward, tastes custardy and is very dense.

“Corny” was the number one descriptor for this cornbread. “Warm and buttery” said one. “Creamy” “felt like I was eating sweet corn from a can” “Tastes like buttered corn on the cob, feels like corn pudding”. Smooth and moist wtihout being greasy, muffin-like texture. Only complaint? It felt undercooked, and one didn’t like the flavor.

All Recipe (Golden Sweet): a sweet and soft, but slightly coarse texture with a reasonable corn flavor

Why I chose this recipe: the only completely oil-based cornbread I tested with 4,000 reviews and a 4.5 star rating on All Recipes

My thoughts: A breeze to make, this cornbread was a semi-close second to the winning cornbread. Interestingly, the ratios are very similar to the other All Recipes cornbread we tried–the main difference is that this recipe uses oil and milk whereas the other recipe uses butter and buttermilk. With an open but still-soft crumb, this cornbread had a pleasing sweetness and rustic cakiness. As I mentioned earlier, oil seems key for a moist and cakier-textured cornbread. I liked the sweet flavor of this cornbread, though I still would have preferred the texture to be a little softer and fluffier.

“Pleasantly cakey and corny, for those who enjoy cornbread on the dessert side of the spectrum.” Interestingly, while tasters liked the sweetness and flavor of this cornbread, most felt just lukewarm about it. Some thought it was a little too crumbly while others appreciated the close texture.

Mel’s Kitchen Cafe: a cakey, sweet cornbread that would “feel at home in a house of cake”

Why I chose this recipe: like Huckleberry, another oil + butter-based recipe, but with simple technique and more conventional measurements for everything else

My thoughts: Yet another very simple recipe in terms of technique, Mel’s recipe had a higher ratio of flour vs. cornmeal and one of the highest ratios of sugar. This resulted in a cornbread that walked the line of cake in the best way–uber soft and fluffy, with a light corn flavor and distinct sweetness, only the slight coarseness of the cornmeal kept this from feeling like a full on piece of cake. It’s a total winner for a sweet and cakey cornbread in my book–easy to make, moist and fluffy. This was hands down my favorite cornbread.

Tasters agreed, calling it “a cornbread that would feel at home in a house of cake.” “Very fluffy and flavorful” said another. Most commented that this had a nice sweetness and a light, moist texture, almost like “sponge cake,” said one. The only complaints? Some said it was too sweet and lacking a bit in corn flavor.

Best Sweet Cornbread Recipes: Recommendations

My favorite overall was Mel’s Kitchen Cafe–it’s super fast to make and super satisfying to eat. However, I realize that not everyone may be looking for a sweet, fluffy, cakey, perfect cornbread. So here are my very subjective overall category recommendations:

Best sweet cornbreads:
Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, Cleo Buttera, All Recipes – Golden
Most corn flavor:
Cleo Buttera, Huckleberry
Best not-too-sweet, skillet-style cornbread:
New York Times
For a rich, truly moist and decadent cornbread:
Huckleberry
Best cornbread for southern cornbread lovers:
Alex Guarnaschelli, or maybe New York Times if a little sugar is okay with you!
For a honey flavored cornbread:
Sally’s Baking Addiction, Huckleberry

Happy cornbread baking! As always, tag #pancakeprincessbakeoff on Instagram if you try any of these recipes–would love to hear your thoughts!

Best Apple Pie Bake Off

best apple pie bake off

Growing up, I did not like apple pie. Hot and mushy cooked fruit did not appeal to me as a dessert, even when surrounded by flaky crust and cool ice cream. After making 9 of them at once, however, I’ve come to realize that I grew up with chunky apple pies when my preference is for thinly sliced, very soft apples (with a filling that verges on applesaucy). As long as there is NO CRUNCH (and light on the nutmeg), we are good to go.

But of course, not all of the pies we tested met my saucy standards. So here are the nine popular apple pie recipes we tested in search of the best!

Methodology

  • 30 total tasters
  • All 9 recipes were baked fresh the day of and tasted at room temperature
  • All crust dough was made the day before
  • Apples for Sally’s Baking Addiction and Bravetart were macerated overnight
  • All tasters ranked each pie on a scale from 0-10 for pie filling flavor/texture and pie crust flavor/texture
  • All pies were baked in a 9″ glass Pyrex pie pan

Pie Ingredients

Best Apple Pie Bake Off Results: The Data

Insights

  • Bon Appetit and Flour were equal people’s #1 rank
  • Sister Pie ranked in top 3 for pie crust flavor, but dropped to second to last overall (likely due to divisive sage in the filling + slightly chewy crust texture)
  • Many people individually ranked Sister Pie in their top 4 (i.e. it was a very divisive pie with a score that was dragged down by people who rated it poorly)
  • Cook’s Illustrated ranked second for pie crust texture but fifth overall
  • Sally’s was most agreed upon for being last

Pie Filling Flavor

One important lesson I learned from this pie exercise: flavor is concentrated in the apple juice! If the recipe calls for macerating apples (or even if you accidentally let the apples sit and you end up with some juice at the bottom of your bowl), don’t dump out the juice no matter how soggy you think your pie crust will end up! Fan’s of Sally’s Baking Addiction will likely be curious to know why her amazing-looking pie landed at the bottom of the chart for pie flavor and texture. Hers was the first pie I made and since her recipe didn’t specify whether to keep or toss the liquid leftover from macerating the apples overnight, I dumped out a good amount as I was worried the crust would be soggy (I didn’t do this for any of the later pies). In doing so, I probably dumped out a ton of the flavor and also prevented the apples from steaming in the liquid as much as they would have otherwise, so take her ranking with a grain of salt!

And of course, the type of apple you use plays into the filling. Gala apples in Vanilla Bean Baking Blog’s recipe resulted in a notably sweeter filling while the Granny Smiths we used in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s pie resulted in a notably tart filling. Make sure to stick to the apple variety that suits your palate! (See some links below for recommended guides on how to choose your apples.)

Pie Filling Texture

The biggest factor that plays into apple pie filling texture is the apples. I like King Arthur Flour’s guide to pie apples as well as this overview from Bon Appetit. These guides will give you a great idea of how sweet each apple is as well as how the texture will hold up after baked (i.e. McIntosh apples are notoriously on the mushier side while Granny Smith are tart and hold their shape better when baked).

Granny Smith have typically been my go-to baking apple in the past, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Golden Delicious apples worked in the Flour Bakery recipe–adding those into the mix is a new favorite for me.

I wondered if the pie thickener would have a noticeable impact on the filling texture, but in this particular test, there’s no visible correlation between the thickener and overall pie ranking (too many other variables). Here’s a quick and easy read on the differences in thickeners from King Arthur Flour!

A breakdown of the technique, thickener and fat used in each pie crust:

Pie Crust Flavor

The best tasting crust, Flour Bakery, used egg yolks in the dough and the highest overall percentage of butter (42%) for an exceedingly crisp, flaky and rich dough. Vanilla Bean Baking Blog’s dough also used an egg yolk in conjunction with sour cream with the second highest butter ratio (40%), but ended in fourth place. Second place went to Bon Appetit, with a 36% butter ratio, while I think Sister Pie edged out Vanilla with a gouda-studded crust and a 33% butter ratio. Based on the butter trend, I would have expected Bravetart (with a 39.7% butter ratio) to have ranked near the top, but it landed closer to the middle.

Interestingly, Sally’s Baking Addiction and Cook’s Illustrated were the only recipes to incorporate shortening. Sally’s crust ranked last (with ~13% butter, 21% shortening) while Cook’s landed in the middle with nearly the opposite ratio: 23% butter and 13% shortening. Of course, everyone has their preferences when it comes to shortening, but according to overall taster preferences, my takeaway is that egg yolks greatly help improve the flavor and texture of the dough. Also, the more butter the better.

Pie Crust Technique

Across all 9 recipes, 3 main techniques were used to incorporate butter into the dough:
food processor, stand mixer and by hand.

When you look at the pie crust texture rankings, pie crusts made by hand (Sally’s Baking Addiction, Sister Pie and Bravetart) had pretty much the lowest overall rankings. The number #1 rated crust was made with a stand mixer, though I think this was due to ingredients (egg yolks) rather than technique. My guess is that a food processor will give you pretty similar results to a stand mixer. My takeaway: also you can use your hands if that’s what you’re used to, a machine of your choosing will help get the most consistent, best-textured pie dough.

Analysis of the Best Apple Pie Recipe

sally's baking addiction apple pie recipe

Sally’s Baking Addiction: high apple-to-crust ratio with a shortening/butter crust

Why I chose this recipe: one of the only contenders that used both shortening and butter in the crust.

My thoughts: As a deep dish pie, this recipe calls for 6-7 large apples (about 3.5 lbs), which was on the higher end of the scale (Sally recommends a mix and I used a mix of Granny Smith and Honeycrisp). Because the recipe doesn’t specify whether to include the juices, I poured some of them out after macerating the apples overnight, which likely diminished the flavor and led to slightly crispier apples (not my personal preference). The flavor was sharper than others (maybe due to lemon) and the shortening/butter crust was thick and flaky but the overall flavor was quite bland.

Taster reactions: Noted that the filling was on the crunchier side, which some people liked and some didn’t like. Several noticed a floral flavor (which I think was probably the slightly higher amount of cloves, nutmeg and allspice in the filling). Many commented that this was also too lemony (2 tablespoons was higher than average). All in all, next time I would definitely reserve the juice if you try this pie, and I would tweak the spices to your personal preference.

Sister Pie: a unique pie featuring sage-studded apples and a gouda crust for those looking for something new and different

Why I chose this recipe: a highly unique combination of sage-flecked apples and cheese-infused crust.

My thoughts: With just 1 oz of aged gouda in the crust, the cheese flavor was subtle but imparted a subtle savory flavor. While I loved the flavor, the texture was the tiniest bit chewy, which could be attributed to my texture (this pie crust gets processed by hand), but more likely it’s due to the tiny shreds of cheese melting in the crust. For me, the sage was a bit strong (next time, I would reduce the sage by half or use a pinch of dried sage instead), but I loved the soft and saucy texture of the apples.

Taster reactions: As noted above, Sister Pie was one of the most divisive. Some people loved the slightly savory flavor that the sage imparted on the filling while others hated it. Many likened the texture of the filling to corn syrup–some liked it, while others found it “slimy.” Most liked the crust (some agreed it was a little chewy), but the filling is really what pulled this towards the bottom of the ranking due to that fresh sage.

Rose Levy Beranbaum apple pie recipe

Rose Levy Beranbaum: a tart filling with a cream cheese-based crust and a high crust-to-filling ratio. Perfect for crust-lovers!

Why I chose this recipe: a unique crust that incorporates cream cheese.

My thoughts: I used the recommended pastry flour for the crust and dutifully followed the directions to first macerate the apples, then reduce the leftover juice. With 2.5 lbs of apple, Rose’s was one of the least apple-y, which is perfect for those who prefer more crust. Rose doesn’t specify which type of apple to use (just “baking apples”), so I used all Granny Smith, which led to a delightfully tart apple filling. Texturally, the apples broke down into very saucy texture, which I loved. Interestingly, this was the only recipe that didn’t call for an egg wash/sugar sprinkle, though the naked top didn’t stand out as much as I expected. While the crust was on the doughier side, it was still flaky, but had an aftertaste I didn’t love.

Taster reactions: My tasters, on the hand, generally thought this pie was too tart (feel free to balance with your ideal mix of apples to get some sweetness). A couple again noted a “floral” flavor but I’m pretty sure they were picking up on the nutmeg. The main complaint was “too mushy” and soft, but most agreed that that the crust was flaky and tasty–it’s a perfect pie for soft-apple-filling lovers.

bravetart stella parks apple pie recipe

Bravetart: a gorgeously picturesque, classic pie with a slightly tart, cinnamon-spiced saucy filling

Why I chose this recipe: because Bravetart. (Stella is amazing!) Also this had an optional overnight maceration technique.

My thoughts: This was perhaps the most gorgeous pie to come out of the oven with a gorgeously glossy crust and a picturesque domed lid (though unfortunately the apples sunk down a bit below the lid after resting). Stella uses a straightforward, all-butter crust recipe that was easy to prepare and had gorgeous layers during the roll out. Apples must be macerated either at room temp for 3 hours, or overnight for up to 8 hours. Even though she calls for a relatively thicker sliced apple (1/2″ vs. 1/4″ on some other pies), in the end even the bigger chunks of apples were soft and everything had melted into a perfectly saucy, applesauce-y consistency that I thought was a tiny bit tart but well-spiced. For me, the texture and texture of the crust didn’t really stand out, but it’s still a good candidate for a “make ahead” pie.

Taster reactions: “Middle of the road, for middle America,” declared on taster. Tasters loved the flaky crust (“al dente sour croissant” said one), and many noted the tartness of the filling–a few said it was a little too tart and they would have preferred it sweeter. Many liked the cinnamon flavor, and a good number commented that the filling was too mushy.

cooks illustrated apple pie recipe

Cook‘s Illustrated: a bright and straightforward apple filling with a flaky crust. One of the easiest pies to make!

Why I chose this recipe: the vodka pie crust!

My thoughts: After Flour, this was my second favorite crust. I used the Cook’s Illustrated vodka pie crust recipe and it turned out beautifully flaky on top, and nicely doughy under the apple juices. Though I was alarmed at the overall amount of juice produced by the apples (we let them macerate for about an hour before assembling the pie), it resulted in a nicely saucy, not watery, texture. Overall, there was a bright apple flavor (helped along by lemon), with slightly crisp apples in spots (I couldn’t find McIntosh apples, so I used Golden Delicious instead). This recipe uses an alarmingly small amount of spices (I was skeptical at the 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon), but if you are an apple purist, this is a great pie for you! Surprisingly, I really liked the simple, straightforward flavor of the filling. Technique-wise, this was actually one of the easiest to make as it didn’t call for any reductions and required resting times, though I did have to refrigerate the pie for a few minutes to get the dough firm enough to crimp the edges.

Taster reactions: Tasters praised the crust (“fave crust texture so far”) but were divided on the filling. Some loved the bright, simple acidity of the apples and balanced, mild flavor of the filling. Most liked the balance of citrus in this pie but a couple thought it was too much. Others compared it to a McDonald’s apple pie or frozen supermarket pie.

artful baker apple pie recipe

The Artful Baker: a complex, technique-driven pie with a puff pastry-like crust and a beautifully textured apple filling

Why I chose this recipe: calls for a unique thickener (salep, or glutinous rice flour as a backup), and also a boiling of the cores/peels of the apples to make a juice that gets combined with macerated apple juice into a reduction.

My thoughts: This pie is definitely a labor of love. It calls for macerating apples for 30 minutes, boiling the peels and cores down for 10-15 minutes (mine took more like 45 min), reducing the combination of macerated juice and apple stock into an apple butter, chilling the crust, freezing the pie, etc. etc. I mentioned this in my insta stories, but spreading the apple butter in layers over the filling was quite difficult (akin to spreading frosting in a layered Milk Bar cake) and if I were to make this again, I would try just tossing the apples in the apple butter mixture with my hands. Texturally, the crust was fantastic (thick, crunchy and flaky), but tragically, I found the flavor bland except for the sugar (the filling was notably sweet) and the apples were also a bit crunchy for my taste. With 4.5 lbs of apples, this was the most apple-laden pie in the mix. It’s a very labor-intensive pie and while it was stunning and I will definitely utilize the “apple stock” process in the future, not sure the flavor quite paid off for me.

Taster reactions: Tasters remarked on the texture of the apples (loved the size of the apple slices) and crust. “What is this, apple sauce in a puff pastry?” asked one taster. Tasters almost unanimously loved the crust texture, though some agreed and found it rather bland. “Tastes like Costco apple pie,” said one. Others commented on the “good sweet/tart ratio” and “interesting spices.”

vanilla bean baking blog sarah kieffer apple pie recipe

Vanilla Bean Baking Blog (Sarah Kieffer): a sweeter, cinnamon-heavy apple filling paired with a very flaky and sugar-studded crust

Why I chose this recipe: Sarah won my cinnamon roll bake off, so I had to try her pie as well! Her cookbook recipe also features an interesting crust recipe with an egg yolk and sour cream.

My thoughts: Sarah has a creme fraiche apple pie on her blog and a slightly different recipe listed in her book–I was originally planning to try the creme fraiche pie, but when I reached out to ask, she recommended I use her book version. The book version basically differs in that it uses an egg yolk and a tablespoon of sour cream in the crust (which are optional but recommended). This yield a super flaky crust that managed to be simultaneously crunchy and light on the edges yet substantially doughy when nestled against the apples. Though I found the crust flavor a little bland, the texture was among the best we tried. The filling was on the sweeter side (for me, missing some of the bright tang from others) and the nutmeg came on a bit strong, but the apples were perfectly soft.

Taster reactions: “Definitely a sweeter pie,” said one taster. Tasters agreed this filling was more cinnamon-heavy and sweeter than others–some liked it spice-heavy, others wanted more lemon to balance. A few complained the crust was a bit chewy while others loved the crunchy sugar over the top. It hit a “solid”/middle of the road comments from several tasters, and really stood out as the best pie to some.

Bon Appetit: a mammoth pie with plenty of flaky crust encompassing buttery, well-spiced apples pooled in sauce

Why I chose this recipe: uses an apple cider reduction in the filling.

My thoughts: Even after a good 4-5 hours of resting, a ton of juice pooled at the bottom of the pan when I first cut into this pie. But as it was exposed to air, the juices quickly absorbed into the pie, transforming into a saucy texture. I loved the thinness of the apple slices, though I still detected a surprising bit of crunch. We used all Pink Lady apples, tossed in a mix of white and brown sugar, lemon juice, and a reduction of apple cider (I couldn’t find apple cider in October, so opted for unfiltered apple juice from Whole Foods) infused with vanilla bean. Using a whopping 3 sticks of butter, it’s no wonder that this pie results in plenty of thick and flaky crust, though my main (and common) complaint is that didn’t have as much flavor as my favorite pie crust.

Taster reactions: Still, some tasters found the pie crust memorable–one called it the “best flavored pie crust so far.” Most loved the contrast of flaky pie crust with the flavorful filling that had a great balance of spices and lemon. The effort of the cider reduction along with a heavy dose of cinnamon and cardamom clearly paid off as tasters rallied around the flavors in the filling, praising it with descriptors like “caramel apples,” “mulled wine,” and “Vanilla Christmas” with a “buttery, smooth mouthfeel.” A few complained that the crust was a bit soggy, but that might be due to those who were late to the tasting.

Flour bakery apple pie recipe

Flour Bakery: a tart, not-too-sweet filling perfectly complements a buttery, flavorful, delicate crust for a winning combination!

Why I chose this recipe: Flour Bakery won my pumpkin pie bake off, so it seemed necessary to test their apple pie recipe as well. Plus, the crust recipe was very unique, using 2 egg yolks and milk.

My thoughts: The moment I took a bite, Flour’s pie instantly stood out as my favorite crust. Flour’s crust recipe calls for 2 egg yolks and milk instead of the typical ice water to hydrate the pie dough, and it led to an incredibly buttery, crisp and flavorful (finally!) crust. Although this pie calls for blind baking the crust (a bit of a pain), the recipe allows you to prep the apples at the same time so it’s actually an efficient set up. The filling is tart and not too sweet, making for a delightful overall combination. Note: we weren’t able to procure McIntosh apples, so we used a combination of Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp.

The only complaint? We just wished there was more pie! The crust recipe yields a relatively small amount of dough that, rolled fairly thin, just barely stretched to fill my 9″ pie pan. With about 3 lbs of apples in the filling, the whole pie is on the more modest size (compared to behemoths like Bravetart or Bon Appetit). Next time, I might 1.5x or double the pie dough recipe for a more generous crimp and slightly thicker crust.

Taster reactions: Tasters enjoyed both the flavor (“sweeter and more balanced apple choice”) and texture (“bigger chunks of apple, just the right firmness”) of the pie. Even though I personally prefer thinly sliced apples, I agree that these apple walked the perfect line of thick yet tender. Overall, the effect was a very classic, balanced pie with a stunning crust.

Best Apple Pie Recipes

As often is the case, my personal preference happens to align with the data. My favorite overall pie was Flour Bakery. However, if I’m short on time and don’t feel like dealing with egg yolks or blind baking a crust in the future, I would probably make Bon Appetit (if baking for a big crowd) or Cook’s Illustrated (if in a time crunch) next, or Sister Pie if I was trying to impress with some unique flavors.

Some other notables:

Best flavor to effort ratio:
Cook’s Illustrated (purely based on the fact that you don’t have to macerate the apples and the cook time is only about an hour.
Best makeahead pie:
Bravetart
Best pie for crust lovers:
Rose Levy Beranbaum, Bon Appetit
Best pie for apple lovers:
Artful Baker, Bravetart, Sally’s Baking Addiction
Best unusual pie:
Sister Pie
Best pie for a crowd (based on subjective overall volume):
Bon Appetit, Bravetart

Happy pie baking! As always, tag #pancakeprincessbakeoff on Instagram if you try any of these recipes–would love to hear your thoughts!


Chocolate Cake Bake Off, Part II

After baking 12 chocolate cakes for the chocolate cake bake off, the last thing I wanted to do was bake more. (Honestly, if you’re trying to kick an addiction to chocolate cake, just try baking 12 of them in one day, tasting all of them, and then eating a sizeable tupperware of leftovers for days after trying to foist half-eaten cakes on all your friends.)

But I couldn’t shake my curiosity on how a few key recipes that I had omitted from the bake off would fare against the rest of the contenders. So one Sunday afternoon, I tested those recipes against a few control cakes: Continue reading

Best Biscuit Bake Off

 The Search for the Best Biscuit Recipe

If I’m being completely honest, my first-ever biscuit may have been from my college cafeteria. Or KFC. Definitely not homemade.

However, if we need to establish why I’m qualified to help you find the best biscuit recipe ever, my qualifications boil down to the fact that I LOVE BISCUITS. The rich crumb, the flakiness, the airy cakiness…it all calls to me deep in my soul.

When I picture a perfect biscuit, it’s tall, flaky and golden on top (although I’m also a fan of cakey, pale biscuits) with a tender, tight-crumbed interior. Texturally, I like both the powdery, cakey biscuits that almost melt in your mouth and the more toothsome, crisp-on-the-outside, intensely flaky types that you can practically peel apart. The perfect biscuit also has to have a good salt balance and an excellent buttery, savory flavor.

I thought this bake off would be one of the easiest as so many biscuit recipes are very basic. In reality, I found tons of permutations, so we ended up baking 16 different recipes in search of the best!

Methodology: how we made the biscuits

  • All 16 recipes were baked fresh the day of and tasted at room temperature. (I wish we could have had a way to taste them all warm and fresh out of the oven, but I’m not a magician).
  • 31 tasters ranked each biscuit on a scale from 1-10 for flavor and 1-10 for texture (re-rolled biscuits were not served)
  • All biscuits were baked on 9×13 baking sheets lined with Silpats
  • Each biscuit was tasted plain or with optional butter/jam

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Best Chocolate Cake Bake Off

Best Chocolate Cake Bake Off // The Pancake Princess

Chocolate. Cake. What a universal crowd-pleaser. You’d think this would be the easiest of all recipes to get right because who could hate a chocolate cake? But I’ve had a lot of issues with so-called “best chocolate cakes”—from cakes with a tough, dry crumb to moist cakes that crumble apart when assembled in layers. With this bake off, my mission was to find my dream chocolate cake: a close crumb that’s simultaneously airy yet moist, velvety and just a tiny bit dense with an intense chocolate flavor.

Baking and Recipe Methodology

All 12 recipes were made the day of, except for the Food & Wine recipe, which expressly stated it was best made the day before. We had 31 tasters, who ranked each cake on a scale from 1-10 for flavor, and 1-10 for texture. All cakes were baked in 8″ Fat Daddio anodized aluminum cake pans. Each cake was tasted plain, with optional frosting on the side. I used Sally’s chocolate buttercream (using natural cocoa powder), and everyone loved this frosting–highly recommend.

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