Recently, I got serious about figuring out how to make the PERFECT pecan pie. To my palate, this is it. And with eight wonderful variations, you may be hankering for pecan pie even after Thanksgiving and Christmas are long gone.
I developed a perfect pecan pie a couple of years ago but didn’t get around to posting it. My bad.
It looked pretty but was seriously overcooked, dry, tough, and too sweet. I needed a hammer to cut it. Such a shame.
Thus this morning I feel the need to set things right in the universe of pies by completing this post.
Because pecan pie deserves RESPECT.
Pecan pie is no ordinary custard pie. That’s because the liquid element, which in most custard pies is cream (or some derivative thereof), is instead a sugar syrup. This makes the custard beguilingly translucent. And incredibly sweet.
Traditionally, it’s comprised of pecans, eggs, butter, sugar, and some type of sugar syrup (white or brown corn syrup, golden syrup, molasses, maple syrup, honey).
Pecan Pie is the darling of the Southern United States. It has close similarities to another popular Southern butter-sugar-egg custard pie called Chess Pie. Recorded evidence of this unusual pie date back to 1886, but popular American cookbooks (Joy of Cooking, Fannie farmer) don’t reference it before 1940.
- Before preparing your pie, measure the capacity of your pie plate. Most pecan pie recipes specify a 9½-inch diameter pie plate, but depths can vary. My recipe is developed for a pie plate with a 5-6 cup capacity, measured ¼-inch from the rim. I usually build the crust up a little, so in practice this allows for 2 cups of chopped nuts and 3½ cups of custard filling. If your pie plate’s capacity is greater than or less than 5-6 cups, simply adjust the amount of filling you prepare, and adjust the baking time as well.
- To ensure that you can easily remove slices of pecan pie from the pie plate after baking, butter the pie plate well before filling it with the pie crust.
- To avoid a soggy pastry crust, partially prebake the crust before filling with custard.
- To further ensure a crisp pastry crust, gently heat the filling to 130°F and pour it hot into the prebaked pastry crust.
- The edges of the pastry crust must be protected from over browning. Before filling the pie (to avoid the risky proposition of doing it later on a hot pie), cut a heavy-duty foil disk 2-inches larger in diameter than the top circumference of the pie plate. Cut a smaller disk from the center of the larger disk, leaving a 3-inch-wide ring of foil. Attach the ring to the pastry crust, leaving the interior edge high and loose (so custard will not touch it).
- Check the pastry crust edges after 40 minutes of baking. If they need further browning, carefully remove the foil ring.
- Although whole pecans make a very pretty pie, they also make it impossible to cut a perfect slice and are somewhat awkward to eat. I always use roughly chopped pecans.
- Lightly toasting the pecans before adding them to the pie takes the pecan flavor over the top.
- It’s easiest to add the pecans to the pastry crust before filling with custard. Pecans will rise to the top.
- Nearly every pecan pie utilizes a syrup of some sort. Feel free to interchange and combine syrups for interesting flavor effects. Choices include light corn syrup, dark corn syrup, brown sugar corn syrup, molasses, golden syrup, apple cider syrup, ginger syrup, and maple syrup. Light and dark corn syrups are now available that contain no high fructose sugar (HFCS). The debate over the health risks associated with HFCS rages on. The consensus is that it is best to avoid high fructose corn syrup.
- Pecan pie falls in the baked custard pie category. The general rules for baked custard thus apply.
- A runny pecan pie is the result of too few eggs to liquid ratio and/or under baking.
- A curdled pecan pie is the result of too high heat and/or over baking.
- A pecan pie is done when it tests 205°F max at the center. It should NOT be puffed in the center. It will jiggle at the center like firm jello when gently nudged. The baking and setting will continue after you remove the pie from the oven.
- A pecan pie containing 3½ cups of filling, not including pecans, will set in about 50-60 minutes, at 350°F, on the middle rack of the oven.
Testing the flavor of your transparent custard filling is easy. Just taste the batter. It should be a lively balance of sweet, tart, and salty. You won’t need to adjust the sweetness, because with this pie it’s already over-the-top. You may want to add a bit more tartness however. A few drops more lemon juice perhaps (or another acidic ingredient). And don’t think that just because this is a dessert, you don’t need the salt. It amplifies the other flavors and keeps the sugar from becoming cloying after the first bite. I specify ¾ teaspoon salt for this pie, but start with ½ teaspoon, and let your palate guide you.
To check the set of a transparent custard, test the pie after about 50 minutes. Either check the temperature or check the visual cues (or both), as follows:
To check temperature: This is the most accurate method to test the set of the custard. Insert an instant read thermometer in the center of the pie. A transparent custard is done when it tests 200°F to 205°F max at the center.
To check visual cues: Pecan pie (or any other transparent custard pie) should NOT be puffed in the center. It should jiggle slowly like jello (not like hot lava) when gently nudged.
Or insert a sharp knife in the center of the pie. If the knife comes out clean, the pie is done; if it comes out wet and gooey, it needs more time in the oven.
And remember, baking and setting will continue after you remove the pie from the oven—so error on the side of slightly under set rather than over set.
For years, I struggled with pecan pie. I loved the idea of a nut laden, transparent, sugar custard pie, but it was always off in some way: too sweet, one dimensional, runny, curdled, tough, and so forth. So recently, I got serious about figuring out how to make the PERFECT pecan pie. To my palate, this is it. And with eight wonderful variations, you may be hankering for pecan pie even after Thanksgiving and Christmas are long gone.
Technique Note When you heat the oven, check the temperature with an oven thermometer and then calibrate as necessary. The temperature is important, and many home ovens are off by 10 or more degrees one way or the other. Also check the accuracy of your instant-read thermometer. It should read 212º when inserted into boiling water.
Quick & Easy, Flaky, All Butter, Short-Crust Pastry: one partially baked, 9½-10 inch diameter, 4-6 cup capacity pie crust
2 cups (7 ounces) fresh, whole pecans
Custard (makes 3¼ cups)
5 large eggs (1 cup or 7 ounces, without shells)
¾ cup sugar
1½ cups dark corn syrup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
finely grated zest of 1 large lemon
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
- To toast pecans, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, and heat to 350ºF. Arrange pecans on an edged baking sheet, and bake until aromatic and lightly toasted, about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool, and roughly chop. (Or leave whole if that’s your preference.)
- To prepare pastry, set partially-baked pastry crust on an edged baking sheet. Protect edges with a ring of heavy-duty foil. It’s much easier to put the foil ring on now than later when the pie is bubbling hot.
- To prepare custard, in a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs and sugar together until incorporated. Whisk in corn syrup, melted butter, lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, salt, and ginger. Check to ensure sugar crystals are completely dissolved. If not, whisk a little more.
- To layer pecans and custard, set the partially baked pie crust on an edged baking sheet and then scatter pecans onto the pie crust, spreading them evenly over the surface.
- Slowly pour filling over pecans in the prepared crust. To protect edges of pie crust from over browning, cover with narrow strips of foil, reflective sides up.
- To bake, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, and heat to 350ºF.
- Bake for 50-60 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Check crust edges at 45 minutes and remove the foil strips if crust needs to brown further. When done, the pie will be nicely browned, risen at the edges, move only slightly when jiggled, and test 200°F to 205°F at the center.
- Remove pie from the oven, and place on a wire rack to cool, at least 2 hours.
- Serve at room temperature.
- To store, cover with a loose dome of foil, and store at room temperature or in the fridge.
Eight Remarkable Pecan Pie Variations
Notice that in all of my pecan pie variations there is some ingredient that balances the over-the-top sweetness of this classic pie. To my palate, that balance is essential.
So whether it’s lemon juice, liqueur, bittersweet chocolate, coffee, cranberries, or some other tart or bitter element, keep in mind the need to balance the sugar. This will keep your pecan pie from being one-dimensional and cloying.
Bourbon Pecan Pie
- At Step 2, omit lemon juice, and add 2 tablespoons bourbon.
Brown Butter Pecan Pie
- In the ingredient list, swap unsalted browned bitter for regular unsalted butter.
Chocolate Espresso Pecan Pie
- At Step 2, omit lemon zest and lemon juice. Instead, add 2 teaspoons instant espresso.
Chocolate Orange Espresso Pecan Pie
- At Step 2, omit lemon zest, lemon juice, and ginger. Instead, add 2 teaspoons instant espresso, finely grated zest of 1 large orange, and ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon.
- At Step 3, add ¾ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate to pecans in the pastry crust.
Chocolate Pecan Pie
- At Step 2, omit lemon zest and lemon juice.
- At Step 3, add ¾ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate to pecans in the pastry crust.
Ginger Pecan & Cranberry Pie
- At Step 3, add 1 cup fresh, roughly chopped cranberries. Increase ground ginger to 1 teaspoon.
Maple Pecan Pie
- At Step 2, omit corn syrup and replace with pure maple syrup.
Molasses Pecan Pie
At Step 2, swap 2 tablespoons unsulphured molasses for 2 tablespoons dark corn syrup.
Cookin’ with Gas (inspiration from around the web)
- Kentucky Transparent Pie | The Art of Homemaking
- My Favorite Pecan Pie Recipe | Sally’s Baking Addiction
- Perfect Pecan Pie | The Traveler’s Lunchbox
- The Fight Over High Fructose Corn Syrup | The Daily Beast
- The High Fructose Corn Syrup Debate | Slashfood
- Transparent Pie—Like Chess Pie, But Not | Boonie Foodie
Copyright 2015 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.