How did British and American pies come to be so different?

That’s a great question, reader Kaitlin! After all, we Americans were the Brits to a large extent prior to the Revolutionary War. Does it not stand to reason we’d have a British-style pie tradition in this country? It does, and at one time we probably did (at least on the East Coast), however over time it’s clear that our shallow, slope-sided, flaky pies won out over the Brits’ tall, straight-sided firm-crust pies. The question is: why?

The big reason is because we Americans had very different baking traditions from get-go. In Britain pies have pretty much always been made by professionals: by skilled craftspersons working either in bakeries or on large estates that operated communal ovens. Remember nobody owned such a thing as a “home oven” until about 150 years ago. Before that time if you wanted a decent pie, you bought one from — or had one made by — somebody who knew what they were doing.

We Americans never really have known what we were doing in the pie department, at least by Old World standards. From the get-go we had almost no flour, because it had to be imported. It took decades to develop wheat farming and milling practices to rival what the colonists had back home. And even when we were finally able to produce quality wheat flour, it was mostly consumed in cities. People out in the country or on the frontier had virtually no access to such a delicacy. They ate corn meal, had no ovens and really couldn’t be bothered to bake much at all.

The little baking that did occur was done in Dutch ovens, basically lidded cast iron pots that were placed amid embers. Simple breads and cakes were about all Dutch oven bakers were capable of producing, never mind professionally shaped pies. For us, a “pie” was a thing made in a tin plate, which did double-duty as a serving tray. They may not have been the most sophisticated pies on the Continent, but they were definitely the most common, so it’s little wonder they eventually became the standard. Great question, Kaitlin!

2 thoughts on “How did British and American pies come to be so different?”

  1. I imagine the scarcity of wheat, much like luxury ingredients today, would have contributed to it being used only where it would really shine. The idea of wasting it on a crust that wasn’t stellar would probably have seemed absurd. It would make sense then that pies with fruit would become increasingly popular, as fresh fruit would only be available for a short amount of time each year…except apples which have a longer shelf life. The perfect treat! Plus our style of pie likely uses less crust, and thus less flour? I’m speculating wildly, tonight!

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