“I love pecan pie, but it’s just so sweet...” How often do you hear that comment as you proudly set your holiday pecan pie in the center of the dessert table? And it’s true: since sugar is the main ingredient in its filling, pecan pie can’t help but be super-sweet.
Is there a way to tone down the sweetness without robbing pecan pie of its essential character? Yes. Reposition “too sweet” as “just right” simply by balancing that sweetness with some contrasting (but complementary) flavors.
Now, if you're looking to reduce the sugar in your pecan pie for health reasons, this post isn’t for you. But if (like me) you enjoy pecan pie maybe only once or twice a year, you’re probably less interested in its health impact and more in heightening its flavor.
We'll start with a favorite recipe here at King Arthur Flour, Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie. It uses brown sugar instead of corn syrup, which in itself adds a note of caramel to its sweetness. Let’s see what else we can do to enhance the pie’s flavor.
Toast the pecans
Toasting nuts adds a touch of “smoke” and very slight bitterness, both of which complement the pie’s sweetness. The recipe calls for a mixture of diced and whole nuts, so I mix 1/2 cup diced nuts into the batter for the filling, then scatter 1 cup whole nuts on top.
Since the exposed nuts on top toast as the pie bakes, I pre-toast only the chopped nuts, heating them in a 350°F oven for 6 to 8 minutes, until they're a deep mahogany color. Use your oven or toaster oven, or shake nuts in a hot skillet; however you do it, you want the nuts dark enough to smell “nutty” without edging over into burned.
While we’re talking about diced nuts, here’s a tip for those of you (like me) with dicey knife skills: rather than chop the nuts, I place them in a zip-top bag (with the top left about 1/4” open, so the bag will lie flat and not balloon up), then gently and briefly pound them with a cast iron skillet.
Substitute spirits for some of the milk
Your holiday pecan pie recipe probably calls for some milk or cream in its filling. I regularly substitute a couple of tablespoons of rum or whiskey for an equal amount of the dairy.
Alcohol, like salt (or sugar itself) is a flavor enhancer. And while you’re unlikely to get much actual rum or whiskey flavor, you may notice that the pie’s other flavors — butter from the crust, the toastiness of the nuts — are more pronounced.
Add chocolate to your holiday pecan pie
Just as nuts add interest to a chocolate bar, so does chocolate add a certain something to the flavor of pecan pie. Let's check out a couple of ways to pair these two flavors.
Chocolate in the crust
Chocolate pie crust — why not? And I don’t mean a chocolate cookie crust, I mean a standard pastry crust enhanced with cocoa powder. The resulting deep-dark crust is definitely more bitter chocolate than sweet, and thus the perfect foil for an ultra-sweet filling.
Chocolate in the filling
A simpler way to add chocolate’s assertive flavor is via chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate) stirred into the batter or laid down in the unbaked crust. The faint bitter notes of chocolate (semisweet or bittersweet, your choice) contrast beautifully with the filling’s caramel-y sweetness.
Sprinkle with salt
If you haven’t noticed by now, salty-sweet baked goods are a trend that’s here to stay. Think Salted Caramel Ice Cream, or Key Lime Pie with a Pretzel Crust. A sprinkle of salt atop pecan pie filling, either before or after the pie’s baked, is a wonderful way to tone down sugar’s potentially overbearing nature.
Personally, I enjoy large-flake sea salt. But consider your audience: are they bold enough to appreciate the truly in-your-face combination of coarse sea salt and sugar? Or are they more likely to appreciate the smoother integration and subtler experience of a sprinkle of regular or fine table salt?
Buttery crust, toasty nuts, brown sugar filling, and a generous touch of dark chocolate — now THAT'S a pie you can really sink your teeth into!
From mini pies to slab pie to a "Yankee" version using maple syrup, we have pecan pie recipes for every taste. Still searching for the pie of your dreams? Check out our pecan pie collection.