Pastry Smackdown: Pie v Tart

An orange chocolate tart.  Lovely!

An orange chocolate tart. Lovely!

In this corner, wearing the short, sandy trunks: CHOOOOOC-O-lit TAAArrrt!  And in this corner, wearing the long, flaky trunks:  AAAApul PIIIIEEEEEE!

Pie versus tart; tart versus pie.  What is the deal, exactly?  I read a blog post the other day about a pie pan.  My first thought was, rather rudely, "big deal," as I listened to (read) the blogger's waxing rhapsodic about this pie pan, but then I read further.  Seems she is in England.  Special, deep dish fruit pie pie pans aren't as common there as in the US.  Now I was ashamed of myself for being so flippant.  She had to special order from over the deep blue sea!  No wonder she was excited; I would've been, too--genuine imported baking stuff!  Hooray!

Because I am a helper, I went to and searched "pie" in Home & Garden.  There were just shy of 4000 results.  The same search in Kitchen & Home at yielded just over 700.  Just for fun, I went to and searched "pie" in Cuisine & Maison.  42 results, most of which were little key chains with pictures of pieces of pie on them.  Interesante, non?

Americans definitely seem to be pie-obsessed.  So, what exactly is the difference between a pie and a tart?  This was one of a handful of burning questions that I took with me on my first day of culinary school.  On pie v tart lecture day, I craned eagerly forward, waiting for the answer to this pastry mystery.  Gotta tell you, folks--I was in for a bit of a let-down.  Turns out, the explanation was....murky.  Here's how it went down:  "Tarts have short, thick-ish, straight sides.  Pies have deeper, thinner, slightly sloped sides.  Tart pans look different than pie pans."  This is where I began some serious internal muttering.  "Pies have flaky crusts, but not all the time.  Tarts have sandy, crumbly crusts.  Usually.  Tarts don't have a top crust.  Pies either do, or they don't."  Seriously?!  "Tart crust tastes better than pie crust because it's an integral part of the dish.  The pie crust is just there to hold the filling.  Since tarts don't have a top crust, the fillings are beautifully arranged.  Sometimes pies are pretty." Are you kidding me?!  "Since tarts have a higher crust to filling ratio, tart fillings are often richer than pie fillings.  But not necessarily.  And there are always exceptions to any rule.  And, why is your face so red, Ms. Field?"

The good news is:  I neither lunged over the table at her nor cursed exceptionally loudly.  The bad news is: I needed more structure than that!  I still didn't know the difference between a pie and a tart after a whole class about it!! Deep breaths....deeeep breaths........And now, after YEARS of therapy, I have settled down quite a bit.

Since there are no hard and fast rules, other than height, my therapist helped me to I see the difference between the two as more of a qualitative one.  I also approach it from an American point of view.  You know, cuz that's where I'm from and all.  To me, tarts feel a little more elegant than pies.  Most pies are homey and comforting, but often good old American pies are all about excess.  How many bananas can I cram into that pie?  How high can I swirl that meringue? Peanut butter and chocolate and marshmallow cream and toffee pieces?  Awesome!  American big-ass fruit and cream pies are the Hummers of the pastry world.  Bigger and richer than they have any right to be, and unapologetic about it.  Regular American non-steroidal pies are sedans:  ample, but not showy; sensible.  Tarts are European sports cars: the perfect marriage of form and function delivered in a relatively small, precision package.

Tart dough is rich, sandy and flavorful, and the fillings are generally made to complement or contrast with the crust nicely.  With a tart, it's about balance.  Pie dough can be tasty, but it's really more about texture than flavor with a pie crust.  You either want it to not get soggy, or you want it to be flaky.  Flavor?  Meh; whatever.

If I were going to make a fruit dessert, I'd probably opt for the pie.  If I were in the mood for a chocolate dessert, I might go for the tart.  It just depends on how I feel.  And the Smackdown Results?  Sort of an anticlimactic draw, I'm afraid.

Speaking of smackdowns, I wanted to touch on competence versus creativity again for just a minute.  There were some really insightful comments about that post.  A couple of people said that they were creative but that they couldn't draw.  I knew it!  Another comment said that, and I'm paraphrasing, creativity stems from complete competence.  You have to have a deep and complete understanding of the basics before you are confident enough to get creative with your cooking.  I like that a lot.  For most people who aren't savants, competence in the kitchen is a way station along the path to creativity in the kitchen.  There's nothing wrong with the way station.  In fact, the food there is really tasty.  Some folks decide to stay.  But one cook's destination is another cook's stopover.  And that cook, with a secure hold on competence, follows his creative impulses to points beyond.

Really, guys--thanks for all the food for thought.  I'm enjoying the dialog.

Okay, so Chris settled on an apple tart.  I'll be wandering over there to Beyond Ramen to see what it looks like when it's posted.  (I just went over there--not yet).  Will it have any resemblance to an apple pie?  I guess we'll find out.


  1. Courtney says

    Okay, so Chris settled on an apple tart.

    But, but, but…I am just dying for the recipe to that gorgeous orange chocolate tart in the picture! Does that recipe exist somewhere? I’m desperately trying not to lick my monitor. 🙂

  2. says

    I am incredibly jealous that you took a whole class on pies and tarts. On the other hand, it sounds like you wound up more confused than anything! More like philosophy class than pastry arts. But I do agree on most points, especially about tarts having richer fillings and slightly more tender crusts. By the way, really, really enjoyed your description of American Hummer Pies. That just about says it all. I have added you to my reader–pastry and humor is a combination I can’t pass up in a blog.

  3. says

    Yikes! I had no idea… Over in this neck of the woods, a tart (and I’m just thinking regular apple tart here) always wears a top crust, usually doesn’t have straight sides and, generally, seems to break a lot of those tart rules, er, guidelines. And I can vouch for the fact that the deep dish pie thing is not as big over here – don’t believe I own a proper deep pie pan, mine were all shallow last time I looked!

    • says

      Sounds like this could be another one of those classic cases of crisps/chips, chips/fries, bonnet/hood vocabulary issues. I guess in England, tart=pie. Over here tart=short sports car pastry treat.

  4. says

    Good heavens – such depth in your research and report. It reminds of the ole Mainah (Mainer) I heard on his radio cooking show who was waxing eloquent of the differences between a crisp, a cobbler, and a crunch. I went shopping and when I came back out to my car HE WAS STILL TALKING ABOUT IT! Apparently his listeners found the differences amazing!

  5. says

    You have to have a deep and complete understanding of the basics before you are confident enough to get creative with your cooking.

    This is true of writing and pottery, two things I’ve done. Look at a fanfic page (or don’t, if you’re Jenni). No comprehension of the basics of the language and, as such, no ability to make their plots or characters work. Ditto for working with clay (look at my work).

    I whole-spleenedly agree vis-a-vis cooking. Lord, the half-brained stir-fries I’ve politely nodded at and crunched my way through!

    As for crisps, I’ve been told over and over again that my crisps are not cobblers. Well. Sigh.

  6. says

    Hey there –
    Loved this post! And here in Europe how I miss the American Hummer Pies! Banana Cream, Apple, Pecan, Key Lime…I could go on forever.
    Pie to me is rustic, American, gooey, chunky, and delicious. Tart seems very french and posh, but delicious. Like I would bake a pie for family, but make a tart for my boss.

    On crisps and cobblers – I sort of use that interchangeably too…but, they are very different things and then we get into crumbles, buckles, slumps…aahhh!

  7. says

    As usual, an exceptionally entertaining post. Up until recently, I considered tarts only to include those ubiquitous mini fruit tarts filled with custard and garnished with glistening berries and the like. But thanks to my pastry class and of course this post, my tart world has expanded significantly.

    And let me just say: “Long live the overindulgent American Hummer Pie!” My favorite is regular old pecan pie. What is that gooey filling made of anyway? It always reminded me of sticky applesauce, but tasted about 50 times sweeter 😛

    • says

      Ha! What could be better than super-sweet applesauce! That crazy-sweet kind of translucent jiggly filling is mostly based on corn syrup. Some versions have maple syrup in them too. If you make a pecan pie, somewhere, an angel dentist gets his wings lol

  8. Anton says

    This subject also always caused me some concern until I realised I wasn’t the one confused.

    It is indeed as Jennifer Field says all about the Americans versus the British but not in quite the way she suggests.

    However the Americans make their pies they remain tarts, and however the British make their pies they remain pies same for their tarts remaining tarts.

    Let me explain. A pie is always savoury in the British isles, be it steak and kidney, fish, rabbit, vegatable or fowl. When you order a pie you are ordering a savoury dish encrusted in pastry and never a sweet pastry but always a delicious pastery. The pastry is as much a part of pie as the filling, it’s never disgarded. Sometimes the pastry is mash potaoes as in a Shepherds pie.

    A tart on the other hand in Britain is always a sweet dish, usualy but not exclusively fruit based. It always has a pastry base and more often than not also a pastry topping, be it latticed, whole or crumbled. The pastry again is delicious and very much part of the dish to be savoured.

    The confusion comes in because the Americans bless the pilgrims called everything a pie whether it was a tart or a pie. They just had one word for it, pie. This must have been because they were so gobmacked by the hostile Indians and living conditions that their vocabulary flew out the window along with the tart and all they were left with was the pie.

    Tarts mostly quite flat do however come in any shape or form you can imagine but they are always sweet. Pies also and they are always savoury in Britian and every other anglophone country besides America. You wont get a pie if you ask for a tart in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and etc, you will get a sweet slice or whole sweet tart.

    American “pies” are sweet. Simple really. If you offer them pie they will be very dissapointed unless it’s sweet.

    Hope that clears things up a bit. What Americans call pies is the next mistery, maybe they don’t eat them at all? (: (: (:

    • says

      Great explanation, Aston, and one that didn’t occur to me. Honestly, I wasn’t even considering the British “version” of pie/tart usage, and that was my oversight. Thanks for filling in some more blanks!

  9. Anton says

    The pleasure is all mine, thanks for the many many lovely recipes to read and drool over!

    Pastry chefs to me are part wizard part alchemist. I have been fascinated and completely mystified since I first saw my Mum go into a kitchen and after a furry of white flour, eggs and what not appear a short while after with the perfect chocolate cake held aloft, as though she had just descended Mount Sinai and the thing had fallen from the sky. Much like your wickedly grinning picture.

    I might add for all the recipes in the world the secrete hasn’t rubbed off on me. I can only dream of throwing all those magical elements together and appearing with anything other than a mess never mind the perfectly delicious American pie or even the common or garden British beefy one…..sigh

    • says

      I’m glad you’re here, Anton! Maybe some of my baking mojo will rub off on you! I have a bunch of ingredient function and mixing method posts, and I think those are both excellent places to start when getting going with baking. 🙂

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