Recipe Review

I Tried 4 Popular Cherry Pie Recipes and I Can’t Stop Thinking About the Winner

published Jul 22, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

I love baking pies. But they’re so diverse in flavor, structure, and baking technique that knowing how to make one type of pie doesn’t mean you’re a pie expert. To bake a pie, you need to learn, or at least understand, the many ways a pie can be baked. Unfortunately, cherry pie is one that I haven’t yet perfected. Because of that, I’m always on the lookout for new tips and techniques for this brief-in-season summer pie. 

The challenge with cherry pie is finding the correct ratio of filling thickness to dough and of sweetness to tartness. Because cherries have such a fleeting season, knowing how and when to use fresh versus frozen (or canned) leads to an onslaught of variables. 

So when the task of finding the best cherry pie recipe was given to me, I accepted eagerly. To find “the best” cherry pie, I narrowed it down to four classics with a few modern baking tips to test. The results taught me a lot, with the winning recipe changing how I look at cherry pies forever. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Meet Our 4 Cherry Pie Contenders 

For this recipe showdown, I selected cherry pie recipes that were close to a classic fruit-filled pie. I steered clear of avant-garde preparation and presentation, alternative pie doughs, and hard-to-find ingredients. I also looked for recipes that utilized both fresh and frozen cherries. 

I searched several food publications and reputable food blogs for popular recipes with reader comments and four-or-higher-star reviews. After a few hours of internet searching, I had my contenders. 

Ambitious Kitchen’s The Best Tart Cherry Pie You’ll Ever Eat: A recipe named “the best” typically raises a red flag for me for being too ambitious. But I figured it’s fitting coming from Ambitious Kitchen, and worth the try. I was curious about the addition of amaretto and the use of a crumble topping instead of a more traditional double crust.

Serious Eats’ The Best Cherry Pie (With Fresh or Frozen Fruit): This recipe is a favorite among Serious Eats followers. With an overwhelming number of 5-star reviews, one reviewer even said, “The BEST PIE ever! Do not deviate, do not fluctuate, obey the recipe, and glory will be yours.” That enthusiastic endorsement, plus the use of tapioca starch to thicken the cherry filling, had me intrigued. 

Smitten Kitchen’s Sweet Cherry Pie: Smitten Kitchen’s cherry pie recipe is as classic as it gets, from ingredients to technique. I thought it would be good to include a more straightforward recipe in the mix to see if simpler is better. Deb is a trusted source of recipes for me, so I was excited to give this one a try.

King Arthur Baking Company’s Mr. Washington’s Cherry Pie: Another recipe using tapioca to thicken its filling, this time using quick-cooking tapioca. There’s also a little cinnamon in the filling, which I was intrigued to try.

How I Tested the Recipes

Two of the four recipes suggested using your preferred pie dough. To control the test and focus on the filling, I used my go-to pie dough for all four. However, I did follow the recipe’s suggestion for the pie shell presentation — egg wash, lattice, double crust, etc. — to see which held up the best. 

I baked the pies and tasted them twice: one slice warm after the suggested waiting time and one slice cold the next day after refrigerating. Taste-testing twice allowed me to see how the consistency of the filling changed depending on temperature. 

During testing, I looked for ease of execution, how the pie baked in the oven, filling thickness and structure, and overall flavor. I also considered pie dough presentation and whether the suggested preparation enhanced the pie or hindered its enjoyment. I selected the winner based on the pie that tasted the best and left me wanting another slice. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

1. A Cherry Pie Too Thick to Enjoy: King Arthur Baking Company’s Mr. Washington’s Cherry Pie

This recipe has 4.5 stars from King Arthur Baking Company’s community of bakers. The reviews were promising and the options of using canned, frozen, or fresh cherries and quick-cooking tapioca or King Arthur pie filling enhancer suggested that it was a thoroughly tested recipe. I picked frozen cherries and used quick-cooking tapioca, as most grocery stores carry it. 

Maybe I should have used the pie filling enhancer because the baking outcome disappointed me. Before pouring the filling into the pie shell, you have to let the filling sit for 20 minutes to give the tapioca time to dissolve and work its thickening magic. Unfortunately, because the recipe doesn’t direct you to stir midway to ensure every tapioca pearl dissolves, there are some tapioca pearls left intact. This means you have tapioca-encrusted cherries, and the tapioca bits harden when baked, particularly where the cherries peek out of the crust via the gaps in the lattice. These crunchy bits in the pie were less than pleasant. 

The filling is very thick — a little too thick. The tapioca gave the cherry filling a gelatinous texture, which is great for a sturdy slice of pie, but the texture was unpleasant when eaten warm or cold. Flavor-wise I wasn’t a fan of the cinnamon; it tasted more like a holiday pie versus a bright and floral summer treat. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

2. A Lesson in Why You Should Always Bake a Pie on a Sheet Pan: Serious Eats’ The Best Cherry Pie

At first glance, the recipe seems very straightforward, but I saw a few red flags when I looked a little closer. For example, the “why it works” section of the recipe calls out the benefits of tapioca starch, “4:1 ratio of fruit to sugar raises tapioca’s gelatinization point.” Already scorned by tapioca in a pie, I was worried I would end up with another disappointing dessert. Also, the recipe uses a glass baking pan, which I’m never a fan of because pie dough can slip down the glass and shrink. But I’m always up for being proven wrong, so I pressed on. 

The tapioca starch gave the filling structure — slightly loose but not runny. It was a texture similar to what you get when you toss fruit in all-purpose flour or cornstarch to help thicken the juices. With a similar outcome, I’m not sure splurging for tapioca starch is necessary when you can use a pantry staple instead. The flavor of the pie was well-balanced: not too sweet, slightly tart. This pie let the cherries sing. Although it’s a decent slice of pie, nothing stood out, making it far from the best pie ever. 

It’s also worth noting this was the messiest pie of the bunch. With a lattice topping, the filling bubbled over, hardened around the crimped edges, and burnt. The filling that spilled onto the sheet pan created a glue between the pie plate and sheet pan. Also, dough shrinkage did happen in the glass pie pan, which didn’t help with the exploding filling. 

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

3. There’s a Reason a Classic Works: Smitten Kitchen’s Sweet Cherry Pie

At first glance, Smitten Kitchen’s recipe is as classic as it gets, utilizing ingredients you likely have on hand. After just one bite, though, I realized there is nothing average about this dessert. 

This recipe isn’t about what new ingredient can be added to spruce up a cherry pie. Instead, it’s about how moderation, balance, and restraint can turn a classic into a work of art. The best tip from this recipe is to taste the cherries you have and adjust the amount of sugar needed to balance their natural sweetness — using slightly more or less depending on your fruit. 

Additionally, lemon juice adds acidity, and almond extract enhances the flavor of the cherries. The outcome is a well-balanced, floral pie that marries sweet and tart in one harmonious bite. The filling is loose but not runny — more of a thick syrup that coats the cherries and ice cream, if you choose to serve your slices with a scoop (and I would suggest that you do). The double-crust adds buttery flavor to every bite, with the sugar topping adding texture and crunch. The harmonious flavors and contrasting textures make this pie a pleasure to eat, and the recipe is a delicious reminder of the power of simplicity.

Credit: Photo: Chris Simpson; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

4. A Cherry Pie That Will Change What You Think a Cherry Pie Should Be: Ambitious Kitchen’s The Best Tart Cherry Pie You’ll Ever Eat

I can’t stop thinking about this pie. Even with the extra dirty dishes and additional prep time, the few extra steps to Ambitious Kitchen’s cherry pie are 100% worth it. Cooking the cherry mixture on the stovetop before it goes into the pie shell prevents the filling from exploding out of the crust as the pie bakes. It also gives the filling an enhanced cherry flavor. The addition of butter adds a velvety texture to the filling, and amaretto gives the pie a warm, balanced bite that almond extract just can’t match. 

The photos might lead you to believe that this is just a cherry crisp pretending to be a pie, but don’t be fooled. If an apple pie can have a crumble topping, so can a cherry pie. The crumble topping has a delicious, almost shortbread-like flavor. It puffs up beautifully as it bakes, and once cooled it deflates a little and forms cracks that the cherry filling seeps through. The crumble soaks up the cherry filling and “glues” everything together to create a thick, sturdy slice of pie. 

There was no fear of cutting into the pie and seeing the filling run out the sides; everything stayed intact but was loose enough for a pleasant, cherry-forward bite. My only critique is that I wanted salt in the filling and crumble to give it that subtle balance. 

Final Cherry Pie Thoughts

I want to bake Ambitious Kitchen’s cherry pie all the time. But, knowing time plays a part in the joy of baking, Smitten Kitchen’s cherry pie recipe is the one I would recommend to bakers looking for a classic, reliable pie. It hits all the marks for a good summer pie. On the other hand, if someone is looking for a showstopper cherry pie, then Ambitious Kitchen is where I would land. But honestly, these are two stellar pie recipes for any occasion and any type of baker; either option will not disappoint.