In a perfect world, you would make your own pumpkin pie. You would stalk and kill a wild pumpkin, grind wheat into flour and shape the crust with your own hands, too.
But in your real life, you may need to buy a pumpkin pie. There’s no shame in it. Even if you make a pie, chances are good you’ll make it from canned pumpkin. So is a store-bought pumpkin pie really that much of a step down?
To save you from a fate worse than crummy pie, we jumped in to help. We gathered pumpkin pies from six stores: Harris Teeter, Publix, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Costco and Trader Joe’s. (We focused on pumpkin pies – if you want that famous Patti LaBelle sweet potato pie from Walmart, you’re on your own.)
We gathered a team for a blind tasting. Here are the results, from the best to the worst. Note on the points and measurements: Since crust thicknesses vary, we measured the diameter of the filling only. Each of the five tasters could award up to 10 points each for crust and filling, so each pie could have gotten 100 points.
Just to make sure you won’t be ashamed to serve a store-bought pie, we also came up with five easy ways to top one that will lift your pie game a little higher than spray-on whipped topping.
The winner: Fresh Market, $9.99 for an 8-inch filling.
Scores: 38 points for the crust, 31 points for the filling. Overall: 69 points.
The prettiest pie, with a nice sheen and a brownish orange color that doesn’t look fake. The crust was the best of the bunch, with a hint of salt to balance the sweet, and the filling has a hint of cinnamon and good texture. The top vote-getter, by a long shot.
2nd place: Costco, $5.99 for an 11-inch filling that would serve 10 to 12.
Scores: 21 points for crust, 30 points for filling. Overall: 51 points.
Comments: The crust is chewy, not flaky, but it has good flavor. The filling is very mild and a little bland, but it does have a little nutmeg spiciness. It’s not a great pie, but it will serve a lot of people if you really can’t make your own.
3rd place: Whole Foods, $5.99 for a 7-inch filling.
Scores: 24 points for crust, 25 points for filler. Overall: 49 points.
The crust has a little flakiness and crunch. The filling is dark with a creamy texture, but it was bland, with very little spice flavor.
4th: Harris Teeter, $6.99 regular price (ours was $4.99 on sale) for a 6-inch filling.
Scores: 20 points for the crust, 25 points for filling. Overall: 45 points.
The thick crust is firm, with good flavor. The filling has good color, and it’s heavy on cinnamon and nutmeg, but it suffers from a gummy, spongy texture.
5th: Trader Joe’s, $6.99 for a 6-inch filling.
Scores: 13 points for crust, 29 points for filling. Overall: 42 points.
The filling was a favorite of the tasters, with fluffy, custardy texture and a good balance of fall spices. But the crust was the worst of the bunch. Pale, too soft, with no flavor. “For people who eat raw pie dough,” said one tester. Another said, “It tastes like a cardboard box.”
The loser: Publix, $4.99 for a 6-inch filling.
Scores: 22 points for crust, 14 points for filling. Overall: 36 points.
The crust was OK, with a little flakiness and bland yet buttery flavor. But the filling was dismal: Sour and mushy, with a strange greenish/yellow color and an unpleasant aftertaste. Even whipped cream wouldn’t save this one.
5 Easy Toppings
1. Eggnog Whipped Cream (courtesy of my friend Katie Monson, who found it at onceuponacuttingboard.com): Pour 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and 3/4 cup eggnog in a chilled mixing bowl with the whisk attachment on an electric mixer and beat on high until it starts to thicken. Beat in 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar until soft peaks form. Fold in 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
2. Crunchy Cranberry Topping (adapted from Tyler Florence at foodnetwork.com): Toast 1/2 cup pecans in a dry skillet. Cool and place in a food processor with 1 cup fresh cranberries, 1/4 cup sugar and 6 to 12 amaretti cookies. Pulse a few times, just until coarsely ground. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Serve with chilled pumpkin pie.
3. Ginger Whipped Cream: Mince 1 tablespoon candied ginger. Place about 6 to 8 ginger snaps in a food processor and pulse to chop coarsely. Beat 1 cup heavy cream in a chilled mixing bowl until just starting to thicken. Add 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar and beat until soft peaks form. Fold in the candied ginger and crushed gingersnaps. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
4. Pretzel Toffee Whipped Cream: Place a chocolate-covered toffee bar (Skor, Heath or Chapel Hill Toffee) in a resealable bag and hit with a mallet or rolling pin to break into chunks. Break up 1 big handful of thin pretzel sticks into bite-size pieces. Beat 1 cup heavy cream in a chilled mixing bowl with an electric mixer until thickened. Add 1 tablespoon confectioners sugar and beat until soft peaks form. Fold in pretzels and toffee pieces. Serve on pumpkin pie, sprinkled with a little flaky sea salt.
5. Brown Sugar Pecan Sauce: Place 1 cup pecans in a dry skillet over medium heat until toasted and fragrant. Remove from skillet and coarsely chop. Combine 1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar, 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon water in the skillet. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Remove from heat and stir in the pecans. Spoon over pumpkin pie.