Classic Chess Pie

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Most folks don't know it, but traditional chess pie calls for a secret ingredient: vinegar.

Yield:
1 (9-inch) pie

Gooey, buttery, and supremely sweet, chess pie has been a staple of the Southern dessert table for a couple hundred years. Classic chess pie calls for butter, sugar, and eggs, but bakers differ when it comes to the thickening agent: Some prefer flour, while others prefer cornmeal, but ours uses both.

Why is it called chess pie? There are plenty of versions of that story. Some say the dessert evolved into the Southern classic we know today from the "cheese pies" the English and early American colonists made using cheese curds and custard. Others say the name came about because it was kept in pie "chests." Then, there are the tales of a wife (or waitress, or cook) responding to a question about what she was baking or serving up that day by saying "I don't know, it's ches' pie" in a thick Southern drawl.

Whatever the true origins of the name, there's absolutely no disputing that a chess pie will be a crowd-pleaser every time you serve it. Even better? Our recipe uses premade piecrust, so pulling one together for last-minute celebrations is a breeze.

plates with slices of chess pie
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

What Makes a Chess Pie a Chess Pie?

Classic chess pie pairs a traditional butter pie crust with a sweet, custardy filling made with sugar, butter, and eggs. Flour and cornmeal thicken the filling and vanilla enhances the creamy custard. And did we mention that the unlikely secret ingredient of this sweet and gooey pie is vinegar?

Why Does Chess Pie Call for Vinegar?

Just a tablespoon of white vinegar in the filling balances out the sugary sweetness.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," as the saying goes. This was likely the reason vinegar was used a couple hundred years ago, when fresh lemon juice that we frequently use to cut sweetness in baking recipes today would have been in short supply. You won't really taste the vinegar, though—it just rounds out the taste of the sugar.

This recipe calls for white vinegar, but you can swap in any another light-colored vinegar you have on hand, like rice, apple cider, or white balsamic.

How to Make Chess Pie

For new bakers and experienced ones, chess pie is an easier baking endeavor, so know that though there are a few steps, they're all fairly easy and require very little technical skill.

Step 1: Prep the Crust

From the get-go, we've taken some of the work out of pie-making by calling for a packaged pie crust. (Hey, there's no shame in taking a smart shortcut when the results are equally as delicious!)

Fit the crust into your pieplate and fit, fold, and crimp the edges. (If you buy packaged pie shells, they've already done this work for you.)

Next, cover the crust with aluminum foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans, which will keep it from puffing up as it bakes.

a pie plate with pie weights
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Step 2: Blind Bake the Crust

Blind baking refers to baking a crust before any filling is added. By baking the crust on its own until flaky and crisp, you prevent the filling from leeching into the crust and creating the "soggy bottom" that you always hear the contestants anxiously dreading on baking competition shows.

Blind baking this crust doesn't take long, just four to five minutes in a 425°F oven. Then remove the pie weights and foil, bake for two more minutes, and set aside to cool.

a blind baked pie crust with pie weights beside the dish
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Step 3: Make the Filling

Combine the sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt, melted butter, milk, white vinegar, and vanilla extract in a medium mixing bowl and stir until blended. Add the eggs, stir well to combine, and pour the filling into the cooled crust.

chess pie filling in one bowl with an empty pie shell beside it
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Step 4: Finish Baking

Bake the filled pie at 350°F for 10 minutes. Then take it out of the oven and fold lengths of aluminum foil around the fluted crust. This will protect it from becoming overly browned.

pie with aluminum foil guards
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Return the pie to the oven and bake an additional 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and let cool before dusting with powdered sugar.

baked classic chess pie on a cooling rack
Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Southern Living Community Tips and Praise

"Followed this to a T and it came out great!," wrote one Southern Living community member. "It was just set, the top the perfect doneness…Definitely a repeat!"

"So glad finally to see the recipe for chess pie with vinegar. Been looking," wrote another reviewer. "As a 111 lb woman I eat entire pie by myself. Of course not at once."

Editorial Contributions by Elizabeth Brownfield.

Ingredients

Pie Crust

  • 1/2 (15-ounce) package refrigerated pie crusts

  • Pie weights or dried beans

  • Aluminum foil

Chess Pie

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal

  • 1 tablespoon flour

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

  • 1/4 cup milk

  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • Powdered sugar, for garnish

Directions

  1. Bake Pie Crust: Fit piecrust in a 9-inch pieplate according to package directions; fold edges under, and crimp. Line pastry with aluminum foil. Fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake at 425°F for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove weights and foil; bake 2 more minutes or until golden. Cool.

  2. Make Pie: Stir together sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt, melted butter, milk, white vinegar, and vanilla extract until blended. Add eggs, and stir well before pouring into piecrust.

  3. Bake at 350°F for 50 to 55 minutes, shielding edges with aluminum foil after 10 minutes to prevent excessive browning. Cool completely on a wire rack. If desired, garnish with powdered sugar.

    slices of Classic Chess Pie on multi-color plates
    Photographer: Jen Causey, Prop Stylist: Christina Daley, Food Stylist: Ana Kelly

Chef's Notes

Variation: Coconut Chess Pie: Prepare filling as directed above; stir in 1 cup toasted flaked coconut before pouring into piecrust. Bake as directed above.

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