Pumpkin Pie Taste Test: Frozen vs. Canned Filling vs. From-Scratch

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

If you're on the pro side of the pumpkin pie debate, chances are you have a favorite recipe. Maybe it's as simple as opening a can of the ready-to-plop-into-crust mix (that goes into a store-bought crust). Or you swear by the time-consuming and kitchen-wrecking ordeal that involves multiple bowls, a heavy pot, a box grater, a fine-mesh sieve, an instant-read thermometer, and another couple of hours.

Is one necessarily better than the other? Or is it all just a matter of taste and nostalgia? We tried three different pie categories, from the easiest (pop-out-of-box frozen) to the under five minutes (pie filling mix) to the most labor-intensive at 45 minutes (from-scratch recipe). Each of them was baked in store-bought crusts, since we were most concerned with the fillings in this taste-test.

The Pie Contenders

The Criteria

What elevates pumpkin pie filling from eh to extraordinary?

  • Texture: Creamy and smooth, with the consistency of sturdy custard like flan. It shouldn't be goopy or pudding-like, nor should it be fluffy or too firm, like a quiche.
  • Flavor: It should taste like pumpkin, with hints of spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg—but the key word is "hints," not a spice bomb. It should also have a creamy dairy element, but like the spices, it should only complement the pumpkin, not compete.

Why the Losers Lost

Some tasted like chemicals. Others suffered from being too heavily spiced and perfume-y, like a potpourri medley full of cinnamon sticks. Of the two canned filling mixes, the Farmers Market was burnt-tasting and bitter, not pumpkiny in a familiar way, like the Libby's. As far as texture goes, the frozen ones ranged from too firm and starchy to so runny and frothy that the slices fell apart on the plate.

If You Have 45 Minutes: Bake the Cook's Illustrated Pie

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The winner, of all the pies we tried, was the Cook's Illustrated recipe. It was fresh-tasting, well-spiced, and gingery, with hints of maple. Texturally, it was near-perfect: creamy, thick, and stable enough to cut into slices. This is a truly fantastic pie worthy of any Thanksgiving table, but be forewarned: it involves a lot of elbow grease. From start to finish, it took me 45 minutes to prepare (not including baking time, and remember—I used a frozen crust).

I would suggest baking it if you're going to be a guest at someone else's feast and have been tasked to bring a dessert. If you're hosting, and responsible for the rest of the feast, it may be a bit too involved.

If You Have 5 Minutes: Libby's Canned Mix

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If you're super-stressed and looking for a quick pie fix, your best bet is the Libby's canned mix. While the flavor of the spices was faint at best, the pie was sweet, homey, and familiar. It was our second pick after the homemade Cook's Illustrated version, and it took no more than five minutes to throw together.

I wouldn't suggest serving it as your only Thanksgiving dessert, but it's perfectly acceptable as the token pumpkin in the pie spread.

Any Edible Frozen Pies Out There?

Of the five we tried, the Trader Joe's (21-ounce pie for $4.99) had the best flavor—not too sweet and full of cinnamon and spice—the consistency was all wrong. Slices were goopy, and the filling bled out of the remaining uncut portion of the pie.

So, unfortunately, we can't confidently recommend any frozen pies out there to serve, unless you want to risk losing baking credibility and/or friends.

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