Think back to the last time you twisted apart, say, 100 cookie sandwiches to see which ones separated the best. What's that? You've never done such a thing? How about rating the "stringability" of nine kinds of string cheese? Not that either? Well, that kind of comprehensive testing is an average day at the Serious Eats office. We're on a constant quest to find out what makes foods extraordinary. So when the topic of pies came up, we rolled up our sleeves and dove in, fork first.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, our small office overflowed with tasters: 20 writers, editors and fellow food bloggers jockeying for space around a folding table that sagged under the weight of 30 mail-order pies. The mission: Find the best of the best.
Panelists sampled the numbered pies in random order. (If everyone started with number 1, god help number 16. It's called palate fatigue.) We sipped sparkling water between slices and rated each pie on filling, crust and the interplay between the two. There was some groaning (both the "mmm" and "eww" kinds), but tasters withheld their opinions until turning in their score sheets.
Surprisingly, the pies that received the highest marks for their individual crusts and fillings were not the same pies that won overall raves. The consensus: The balance between crust and filling is actually more important than the components themselves. The crust should play a supporting role: You want just enough toasty crust to complement the flavor but not dominate it. Some crusts were so thin that they practically melted into the filling, while others were so doughy that you could barely find the apples through their lattice tops.
Out of the sea of pretty good pies, a few flaky gems made major waves. So here they are, our runaway winners. Order one or all of them. Think of it this way: Three slices is nothing compared to 30.
What we looked for: Think of pumpkin pie as a custard pie flavored with pumpkin. You want a creamy, smooth texture, not an overly firm or extremely eggy filling.
What we found: Nearly all pumpkin pie crusts were good because they are semibaked before the wet filling is poured in, then baked again. This step keeps the crusts flaky and crisp, even after transport. But the fillings were another story, too often overcooked or overly spiced.
What we looked for: The goop-to-nut ratio is crucial: Every bite should have nice toastednut flavor without being overwhelmed by the sugary filling.
What we found: Like the pumpkin pies, the pecan varieties have a leg up due to their prebaked crusts. This was a consistently decent category.
What we looked for: The perfect apple pie filling should be tart, fresh and full of apple flavor. We like our pies sweet, gently spiced and with just the right amount of crunch.
What we found: Apple pies are tough to ship; most samples arrived with soggy crusts. Though double-crusted pies (ones with bottom and top crusts) are more traditional, the top crust becomes supersoft during shipping.
The Best Pumpkin Pie
Tootie Pie Company
The Best Southern Pecan Pie
Little Pie Company
New York City
$65 (shipping included), littlepiecompany.com
The Best Apple Crunch Pie
Two Harbors, MN