What's the difference between fruit crisp and fruit crumble?

You don't know?

I didn't, either.

And after reading up on crisp and crumble (to say nothing of brown betty, slump, and pandowdy) on my favorite culinary history site (The Food Timeline), I still don't know.

Somehow, I had the notion that fruit crisp was sweetened fruit baked with a topping of flour, sugar and butter; while fruit crumble was the same thing, but with oats and perhaps nuts added to the topping.

A topping baked with JUST flour, sugar, and butter will be crisper than one with additional elements (oats, nuts), which don't contribute to structure and thus produce a topping that's crumbly, rather than crisp.

Hmmm... did I make this all up? But it does make sense, this subtle distinction between crisp and crumble.

And, speaking of subtle distinctions, I discovered something interesting while baking a few versions of this iconic fruit dessert: for a crispier crisp or crumblier crumble, bake the topping separate from the filling.

Come again?

That's right – don't bake the topping over the simmering filling; it tends to become moist (sodden, if I may), as well as sinking into the fruit.

Bake the topping and fruit separately, then put them together just as they come out of the oven. The topping will stay atop the fruit, rather than sinking below the surface – and retain its crispness longer.

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Now, mid-August, is the perfect time for all kinds of fruit desserts. Berries are abundant at farmers' markets and pick-your-own farms. Peaches and nectarines are reaching their height of perfection.

And though pie is the #1 thing bakers think of during berry and stone fruit season, a crisp/crumble is simply pie without its crust.

"Simply" being the key word here – as much as I love pie, skipping the extra step of mixing and rolling out a pie crust saves time and effort – to say nothing of calories, for those of us counting...

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Heavily grease or butter a 9" x 9" pan or similar-sized casserole dish.

Whisk together the following:

3 1/2 tablespoons Instant ClearJel or 1/2 cup King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2/3 cup to 1 cup granulated sugar, to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt

How do you decide how much sugar to use? Taste the fruit – does it taste very sweet, or is it tart/sweet? What's your own personal preference for desserts – do you like them very sweet, or less sweet? The answers to these questions will guide how much sugar you use.

I  like to err on the side of "less sweet," since I often add ice cream to fruit desserts. But please don't reduce the sugar too precipitously; like salt, sugar is a flavor enhancer, and almost all fruit will taste "fruitier" accompanied by at least a touch of sugar.

Next, rustle up the fruit: pitted, peeled, sliced stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums) and/or berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, coarsely chopped strawberries, or your favorite berries). You need a total of about 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 cups fruit.

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Combine the dry ingredients with the fruit.

Here, I've chosen to use peaches and blueberries, and will layer them separately – you can toss them together if you like. If you layer them separately, mix the dry ingredients with the fruit that will form the bottom layer.

Pour or layer the fruit into the prepared pan.

Next up: the topping. We're making a crumble, so I'm including oats and nuts, along with the flour/sugar/butter.

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Stir together the following in a bowl:

3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup (3 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned or quick rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts, optional
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Add 4 tablespoons softened butter, working it in until the topping is crumbly.

Spread the topping evenly, in a thin layer, on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Place the fruit and topping in the oven. Bake the topping for about 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven,  stir to redistribute, and bake for an additional 15 minutes or so, until it's a light golden brown.

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Remove the topping from the oven, and stir it to break up any clumps. Continue to bake the fruit until it's bubbly, a total of around 50 minutes. Remove it from the oven.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the hot fruit.

So, what's with the half-topped crumble? I wanted to see if adding the topping when the fruit had just come out of the oven, vs. waiting until it cooled, made a difference.

It did – just slightly. The topping added when the fruit was piping hot, just as it came out of the oven, adhered better. And there was no subsequent difference in how crisp/crumbly it stayed.

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I know it's hard, but cool to lukewarm before serving. Fruit crisp/crumble served hot from the oven will be a soupy mess; trust me on this.

If you let the crumble cool completely, reheat individual portions to piping hot in the microwave just before serving, if desired.

Ice cream or whipped cream are a tasty accompaniment. Aren't they always?

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P.S. Let's not forget betty - as in apple betty, blueberry betty, peach betty... What's the difference between betty and crisp/crumble? Betty has its bread-crumb "topping" layered into the fruit filling, as well as crisped on top.

 

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!