Confession: I’ve never been a pecan pie fan. I did this bake off for all of the enthusiastic requesters on Instagram who clamored in my inbox until I couldn’t ignore the siren call for what I see as a sometimes gelatinous, often overly sweet pie.
But this bake off actually helped me identify my ideal pecan pie–one that has a more homogenous, smooth filling with no weird jelly layer. One that has pecans are so deeply toasted that they retain their crunch and are suspended in a thick custard-like filling with caramel undertones. Ugh! Consider me a pecan pie convert; let’s get onto the pie!
- 33 total tasters
- All crust dough was made 1-2 days before the bake off and chilled
- All fillings/complete pies were made and baked the day of tasting
- All pies were cooled at room temperature for at least 3 hours
- All tasters ranked each pie on a scale from 0-10 for taste, texture and overall as a whole
- All recipes were baked in a 9″ glass pie pan
- Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Crisco shortening
- Nielsen Massey vanilla extract
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Kirkland pecans
- Kirkland maple syrup
- Karo light and dark corn syrup
- Lyle’s golden syrup
- Kroger heavy cream
- Imperial granulated sugar and dark brown sugar
- Hartley apple brandy
- Knob Creek bourbon
An overview of all the recipes I selected and why:
|Recipe||Why I chose it||Similar to||Crust|
|Bojon Gourmet||Sorghum/maple syrup instead of corn syrup, gluten-free crust||Sally’s Baking Addiction (maple), Alexandra’s Kitchen||Butter, gluten-free|
|Flour Bakery||Fairly standard ratios with unusual caramel method||Karo bottle||Butter, egg yolks|
|Food & Wine||High ratio of butter, sugar||n/a||Butter|
|Ina Garten||Corn syrup, maple syrup and honey but no granulated sugar||Sally’s Baking Addiction||Butter + shortening|
|Jessica Maher||Golden syrup + heavy cream + bourbon||Rose Levy Beranbaum||Butter|
|King Arthur||Brown sugar only (no syrups)||n/a||Butter + shortening|
|Sister Pie||Turbinado sugar, maple syrup, honey, apple brandy (no corn syrup)||n/a||Butter|
|Smitten Kitchen||Golden syrup||Toni Tipton-Martin (and similar)||Butter|
|Toni Tipton-Martin||Dark corn syrup, whiskey-soaked pecans||Epicurious, A Cozy Kitchen||Butter + shortening|
Best Pecan Pie Recipe Results
There were definitely a couple stand out pies to me in this group, but more excitingly, there was a pretty clear trend of what constituted a top-ranking pie.
Here are the ranking results and I’ll discuss more about the factors that went into these below:
- Syrup (corn vs. golden vs. maple): It’s worth noting that the top 3 pies did not use the ubiquitous corn syrup that is almost synonymous with pecan pie. Instead, King Arthur uses only brown sugar while Smitten Kitchen and Jessica Maher use golden syrup, a toasty sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane juice. Interestingly, the pies that used maple syrup as the main liquid sweetener (Bojon Gourmet and Sister Pie) did not due quite as well, though this could be due to other factors (both included alcohol). Though it’s clear that pies made with corn syrup can still perform very well (Food & Wine’s pie filling was rated second place), this is a pretty strong endorsement for using golden syrup if you have a choice over corn syrup.
Please do note that corn syrup is not the same as high fructose corn syrup. All sugar should be eaten in moderation (ha), and corn syrup is essentially no worse for you than golden syrup (my endorsement here is purely based on taste.)
- Booze: While I debated excluding alcohol from these pies as it can significantly alter the flavor, in the end I included it…and found I really don’t prefer the flavor! And most tasters didn’t either. Interestingly, 4 out of the 5 pies that used alcohol landed near the bottom of the rankings. Again, there are many confounding factors (crust was a definite factor in some of the bottom ranking pies), but my takeaway is that alcohol can be divisive. For the most crowd-pleasing pie, I would omit the alcohol (you can virtually always omit it without any significant degradation to the recipe…unless you enjoy the flavor of bourbon, etc.).
- Chopped pecans vs. whole: In my opinion, I greatly prefer chopped over whole pecans as they disperse much better in pecan pie filling (whole pecans are a menace to your fork!). Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the top 3 pies used chopped pecans*, perhaps not. For the compromiser, you can always go half and half (King Arthur uses diced pecans in the filling but tops the pie with whole pecans). *Smitten Kitchen gives the option of chopping the pecans, which I took.
- Acid: The top two pies (King Arthur and Smitten) both used 1-2 teaspoons of vinegar in the filling. This sample size is too small to say if this is really a significant factor, but I unofficially think it’s a great thing to add to any pecan pie to help balance the incredible sweetness. Flour Bakery also adds 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to the filling and received many compliments about the flavor (but was marked down for texture issues).
- Cooked filling vs. not: I was curious to see if fillings that required some boiling/stovetop work rather than simply mixing all the ingredients together would perform better. Recipes that used more significant cooking (typically heating the syrup to a boil before incorporating the eggs) tended to have a thicker, more cohesive filling (such as Food & Wine and Smitten Kitchen) than those that didn’t require heating the syrup (notably: Ina). Exceptions included King Arthur (where I think the flour served as the filling thickener, no heat needed) and Flour Bakery (where you caramelize a sugar syrup but the filling remains very thin and runny).
- Shortening vs. all-butter crust: You’ll notice in the analysis below that I focus way more heavily on the filling than the crust. While tasting the pies, I found I was focusing much more on the filling, and my commentary reflects that. (In previous pie bake offs, I go into deeper crust discussions.) Plus, watching some of Erin’s pie videos made me realize how much of pie crust is personal technique rather than pure recipe ratios and directions. So take any crust commentary with a grain of salt!
In this bake off, King Arthur’s butter/shortening crust happened to win, but I think that may have been influenced by its winning filling. My personal all-time fav pie crust is Flour Bakery’s pate brisee, but since I usually don’t feel like dealing with egg yolks, Erin’s all-butter pie crust is my current, reliable go-to.
Ina Garten: distinctively spiked with orange zest, this pie suffered from a soggy bottom
It’s been awhile since there’s been a bake off contender that I wouldn’t recommend, but unfortunately Ina’s maple pecan pie falls on this list. Made with maple syrup, corn syrup and honey, this recipe was interesting for its omission of granulated sugar as well as the addition of grated orange zest. Most tasters (save for a couple) didn’t love the addition of orange. However, the primary issue with this pie was the extraordinarily soggy bottom. Ina doesn’t specify to blind bake the crust first, so made as directed, this was a soggy mess.
While possible there was some element of baker’s error here, I can’t figure out what went wrong besides not blind baking the crust. I think the lack of sugar or any kind of thickener in the filling also contributed to the very wet crust. Sadly, I do not recommend this recipe.
Sister Pie: a floral, fruity pie with a traditional gelatinous texture and a toasted pecan crust
Sister Pie’s recipe is intriguing for many reasons: it uses toasted pecans in the crust, a combination of maple syrup, honey, turbinado sugar and cornmeal in the filling, AND adds 2 tablespoons of apple brandy for good measure. Unfortunately, I think the Hartley brandy I used overpowered the filling, diverting the filling down a distinctly fruity road. The texture of the filling is also very distinctly gelatinous, typical of a classic pecan pie (not my ideal texture). And while I think the toasted pecans add a beautiful speckled appearance to the crust, I didn’t notice a big taste difference (though it was delightfully crisp).
Tasters widely noted the apple notes in this pie (“”background apple flavor was refreshing and creative,” “filling kind of tasted like apple pie”) and generally thought there was good sweetness without being too much. While some thought the crust was flaky and buttery, others found it a little hard or chewy. “Wish it was denser–feels like a pie that could benefit from the fridge,” noted one. One noted the lingering alcoholic aftertaste. If you like fruity notes and the traditional kind of lumpy jelly texture, this is a great choice. I also think you could omit the alcohol and still end up with a great pie (one that I would probably prefer flavor-wise).
Bojon Gourmet: a boozy bourbon-forward pie with a gluten-free crust
Alanna is my go-to for whole grain, gluten-free desserts, and I was very excited to include her recipe in this bake off in the maple syrup category (to face off against Sister Pie, I used her maple syrup option rather than the sorghum syrup). Note that her filling recipe is fairly similar to Sally’s Baking Addiction, who was my other contender for this category (Alanna has a 1:1 ratio of brown sugar to maple syrup while Sally has a 2:1 ratio). In the end, I went with Alanna to see how her gluten-free pie crust would hold up against others.
Unfortunately, I may have overworked the dough because it was quite thick and not very flaky despite my attempts at the fraisage method and the multiple optional folds. On the plus side, the filling is robustly boozy if that’s your preference. With two tablespoons of bourbon cooked into the filling and two added afterwards, all flavor bases are covered.
Tasters loved the “complexity of vanilla and bourbon flavors” in this pie as well as the “roasted pecans contained in gooey goodness.” To me, this was another pie with a classic jelly-like layer, though I liked that the chopped pecans helped break up the texture. Quite a few noted that the alcohol flavor was a bit overpowering, but those who liked the booze noted that the filling had good flavor and consistency. A good number of people also thought the crust was a little hard and cardboard-like/crackery crust.
If you have all the flours on hand, I think this is an interesting gluten-free crust to try. To be honest, if I were attempting a gluten-free pecan dessert for Thanksgiving, I would opt for Alanna’s chocolate cranberry pecan tart instead (#16 in that link, recipe available in her cookbook! Similar crust available here). I think tart crusts are much more forgiving–plus, I’ve made that tart before and it is SO tasty.
Toni Tipton-Martin: a caramelized, almost chocolate-y, flavorful pie with subtle bourbon notes
Toni’s whiskey-laced pecan pie from her cookbook, Jubilee, was another interesting corn syrup contender that stood out for using dark corn syrup and soaking the pecans in whiskey prior to adding to the filling. Toni’s recipe also uses the unusual step of creaming together the filling ingredients in a stand mixer (most other recipes use melted butter and just stirring). The combination of the dark corn syrup, dark brown sugar, toasted pecans and hint of whiskey (I used bourbon) leads to a beautifully toasty, decadent pie with notes of chocolate and smoke.
Tasters praised the “excellent dark sugar/caramel taste” that imbued the filling and the flaky and caramelized crust. Some thought it was too sweet and rich, a few thought the pecans were too deeply toasted (adding notes of bitterness–baker’s error here, though I would always take deeply toasted over under-toasted), and a few called the filling cloyingly sweet. I loved the deeply flavored, full-bodied flavor to this pie. Texturally, I didn’t love the whole pecans on top or the slightly gelatinous filling (and characteristically would prefer it without the bourbon). But as traditional pecan pies go, this is a stunner!
Flour Bakery: a runny, caramel-laced pie pecans suspended in a not-too-sweet caramel
With high-ranking/winning pumpkin and apple pie recipes, I had high hopes for Flour’s pecan pie. With plenty of corn syrup and white sugar that gets cooked to a light caramel, this recipe baked up into a gooey pie with untoasted pecans suspended in a fairly runny caramel. The filling was so runny, it made me question if it should be cooked to a far thicker texture. If I made this pie again, I would definitely toast the pecans and increase the salt. Overall, I liked the flavor of this pie, but the structural integrity was rather lacking.
Interestingly, “too nutty” was a common refrain for this pie–people generally thought the filling was too thin, which made the pie seem overly nutty. “Nuts somehow taste soggier in this one,” commented one. Most liked the flavor of the filling (“classic” and “not too sweet”) but found it too runny: “excellent filling flavor, but too gooey.” Overall, some liked the delicate flavor and crispy texture of the crust but others found it soaked up a lot of syrup, making it a bit limp. If you generally find pecan pie to be too sweet, I would definitely give this pie a try (and perhaps try scaling back on the pecans, or at least chopping them for more even dispersion).
Food & Wine: a show-stopping, decadently buttery pie that is incredibly rich and sweet
With over 2k ratings and an overall 5 star review on Food & Wine, this recipe apparently won the 1886 State Fair of Texas State pie competition. With 1.5 sticks of butter in the filling, it’s no wonder! This was also the pie with the most generous crust recipe, which is fitting as it’s designed for a 10″ deep dish pie. With a relatively high proportion of sugar (2.25 cups) to just 1/2 cup of corn syrup and 2 tablespoons of flour to help thicken the filling, the consistency of this filling was definitely less gelatinous than other pies. It really just tastes like an incredibly rich, sweet and buttery pudding shot through with toasty pecans.
One taster “absolutely loved the caramelization and almost borderline burnt (in a good way) flavor” (yes, I did overbake the pie a tad). Some tasters found it too sweet, but others enjoyed the sweet but not cloying custard-like texture and “toffee-like, caramelized toasted pecan” flavor. “This is exactly what I want out of my pecan pie. It’s that in your face sweetness and that rich caramel flavor all wrapped up in that gooey deliciousness that you know will put you into that Thanksgiving food coma.” One taster noted that the “thicker filling and crust feels weirdly homogenous–I want more diversity in texture.”
For me, even though there’s a slight gelatinous feel, I thought this pie was incredible–it’s one of the pies that converted me to a pecan pie lover. If you’d like to take this up a notch, try browning the butter!
Jessica Maher: a golden syrup-laced pie with a smooth-textured filling and laced with a hint of bourbon
Someone had recommended Jessica Maher’s pie via Texas Monthly, but I’m linking another version in the title as I think it has better detailed instructions (in the TM post, it doesn’t specify whether the “1 pie crust” should be par-baked or not). The more detailed post specifies to use your favorite unbaked crust, so I chose Erin McDowell’s all-butter crust. Filling-wise, this recipe is quite similar to Smitten Kitchen except that it uses 1/4 cup of heavy cream, 2 tbsp less butter, no vanilla or apple cider vinegar, and the bourbon is not optional. It was gratifying to see tasters rate this and Smitten’s pie fairly similarly since the recipes are so similar. Personally, I preferred Smitten’s pie partially for the better balanced flavor, but I think the chopped pecans had a large part to play. I didn’t like the whole pecans in this pie.
“Borders on too sweet, but contrasts well with the darker caramel flavor and nuts,” said one. Only a couple commented on the “hint of booze,” so the bourbon flavor was fairly subtle. Tasters also liked the crisp and flaky crust (“buttery, straightforward, let the filling be the star of the show with solid background support”). Overall, I thought this had a good filling, but I would probably make Smitten’s pie over this in the future due to the lack of par bake and the fact that this pie requires heavy cream and bourbon.
Smitten Kitchen: a golden syrup-laced pie with the perfect balance of sweetness and toasty nuts
The lyrical way Deb describes golden syrup (“lightly toasted with a pinch of salt, giving it a caramel-ish vibe”) convinced me to track it down at my local World Market. The combination of the golden syrup with dark brown sugar, a tiny dash of apple cider vinegar makes for a beautifully sweet but balanced pie that I burned slightly on the top and was even more delicious for it. (Note: I omitted the optional bourbon and coarsely chopped the nuts).
Tasters loved the crispy crust and the “perfect set but not clumpy” filling with “toasty, caramelized pecan goodness.” “Gooey, chewy but still with a nice crunch. Hints of molasses or burnt caramel.” Many thought it was perfectly sweet; a few commented that it was too sweet. “Very gooey sweet and rich filling perfectly offset by pecans. Pie crust had a good snap to it and was crumbly and buttery in all the right ways,” noted one taster. “Crunchy, chewy, caramely,” praised another. Like the tasters, I also loved this pie and can’t wait to make it again!
King Arthur‘s Old-Fashioned: toasty pecans stud a smooth, creamy, perfectly sweet filling in a flaky, crunchy crust
This unusual recipe omits all syrupy ingredients in favor of a large quantity of brown sugar and, similar to Smitten Kitchen, a dash of vinegar to balance the sweetness. (Note: I used the pie crust recipe that’s linked in the recipe ingredients and did not blind bake the crust.) It also uses 1/4 cup of flour which I think is why the filling is significantly less gelatinous than the other pies. Rather than a wobbly layer of jell, King Arthur’s filling is creamy, smooth and sweet without being tooth-achingly so. There’s a kind of pasty character to the filling that’s reminiscent of a sweet potato pie.
“I have found my perfect 10,” declared one taster. Many tasters praised the flaky, crunchy crust, though a few found it was too dry. Tasters praised the filling for being “nicely gooey and perfectly sweet” and “best texturally” and loved how the toasted pecans helped balance the sweet filling. One taster noted that it was missing a bit of the caramel flavor more present in other fillings (which I agree with). But if you’re not a fan of the traditional jelly texture, there’s none of that to be found–and for that, this was my favorite pie texture!
Lastly, an addendum. I did not include Bravetart’s “Impossible” pecan pie in the bake off for several reasons, but I did try it the day after based on a recipe I found in a Reddit post. While I immediately crystallized the caramel and shrunk the crust and pretty much did everything wrong, I somehow managed to salvage a pie out of it and it was INSANELY delicious. The soft, caramel-y filling reminded me of the Flour pie, but with a thicker, VERY sweet caramel that held its structure better. “Half pie, half candy bar, and 100% delicious” is a completely apt description. It’s very different from a traditional pecan pie, and as someone who is not the biggest pecan pie fan, this was possibly my favorite of the bunch.
HOWEVER. I really cannot recommend this recipe as Stella did not publish it for a reason–most people will fail while making it and I don’t want you to fail on Thanksgiving or waste a lot of ingredients (I almost tossed my batch of caramelized sugar). Plus, if you are newer to baking, the caramel actually gets up to dangerously high temperatures. So for your sanity, please make one of these other (really fabulous) pies!
You want my subjective opinions? You got em!
Most decadent and crowd-pleasing pie: Food & Wine, King Arthur, Smitten Kitchen
Best smooth-textured (non-gelatinous) pie: King Arthur, Food & Wine, Flour Bakery
Best traditionally-textured (gelatinous) pie: Smitten Kitchen, Toni Tipton-Martin, Jessica Maher
Best boozy pie: Jessica Maher, Toni Tipton-Martin, Bojon Gourmet, Sister Pie
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