What's The Difference Between Chess Pie And Buttermilk Pie?

Here's the scoop on these look-alike pies.

It's easy to confuse a chess pie and a buttermilk pie. Both are classic Southern desserts. Sometimes called desperation pies, these old-fashioned recipes make use of ingredients that are usually on hand and entirely practical. Both are simple and homey looking with a single pastry crust and a creamy, pale yellow filling. But take a bite of each and you'll notice the difference between the two desserts immediately.

What Is Chess Pie?

Chess pie may look unassuming, but it is extremely rich and intensely sweet—you might be surprised if you've never tasted it before. The gooey filling is made from traditional pantry staples: sugar, butter, eggs, and cornmeal. Some chess pie recipes may call for flour instead of cornmeal (or a little of both), but cornmeal helps thicken the filling while also intensifying its pretty yellow color. You'll also find a tablespoon or so of vinegar in most recipes, which helps balance out all of that sugar.

Classic Buttermilk Pie

Iain Bagwell

Where Did Chess Pie Get Its Name?

No one is entirely sure how chess pie got its name. Some say the pie used to be stored in an old-fashioned pie chest, or "chess" if you've got a Southern drawl. Others say the name comes from its plainness—it's nothing special, "it's ches' pie." Another theory is that the name evolved from cheese pie, an old British term for a custard pie that used cheese curds instead of butter.

What Is Buttermilk Pie?

Buttermilk pie, true to its name, has a creamy dairy-based filling that's both sweet and tangy. Like chess pie, it has a buttery pastry crust and the filling is also made with sugar, butter, and eggs. But most buttermilk pie recipes also include fresh lemon juice and zest for extra brightness as well as a little vanilla extract. You also won't find cornmeal in the filling; flour is the most common thickener in buttermilk pies.

Which Pie Should I Make?

In short, for pure, unadorned sweetness, go for a chess pie. Chess pie also offers lots of opportunities for variation, like our Chocolate-Pecan Chess Pie or Lemon Chess Pie. For a dessert with a lemony tang and silky smooth texture, choose buttermilk pie. But whichever pie you choose, you won't be disappointed.

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