Pecan Pie: Syrup or No Syrup?

That’s a very interesting question. I’ve received several opinions on the subject from readers since I posted my intention to make pecan pie, oh, way back in 2014. I confess I’m sympathetic to the no-syrup school, if only because the idea of a syrup-less pecan pie emits a strong odor of authenticity. I mean, people were making pecan pies before the invention of corn syrup, right?

Actually not really. It’s true that pecan pies were eaten in American prior to the heyday of corn syrup, mostly in and around Texas. However these recipes were qualitatively different than later, more popular pecan pies in that they were sweet egg-and-milk custards with pecans stirred in, usually topped with meringue. The first published recipe for such a pie appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1886.

These pies remained something of a regional specialty until the The Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago, makers of Karo syrup, began publishing a recipe for pecan pie on the sides of its bottles. This new pie, supposedly invented by the wife of a Karo salesman, was similar to the Texas pecan pie in that it was still a custard, just one made with Karo corn syrup instead of milk. That of course made the pie sweeter than the Texas version, about on par with other syrup-based pies and tarts like molasses (shoofly) pie, sorghum pie and British treacle tart. It goes without saying that the added sweetness made a meringue topping more or less superfluous.

It goes without saying that new sweetened and simplified pecan pie took off in a very serious way, quickly becoming a national favorite to the point that it now ranks as the 6th most popular pie in America.

So it seems to me that if we’re talking classic pecan pie we really are talking about a syrup-based pie of some sort. There are of course several types of syrup to choose from. Some readers mentioned pies based on maple syrup, others molasses or Lyle’s Golden Syrup. My problem with these syrups as a base for pecan pie is that they’re all a lot sweeter than Karo syrup. Standard corn syrup, as you may recall, is only about 85% as sweet as table sugar.

So having reflected on the issue I have to say I’m going with a Karo syrup-based pecan pie. Not because I necessarily think it’s superior to all other options, but because it’s the classic and I generally gravitate toward classic preparations. If you don’t like my decision I hope you’ll at least agree my logic is sound…(ish).

20 thoughts on “Pecan Pie: Syrup or No Syrup?”

  1. Have you tried cane syrup? I have received rave reviews of my pecan pie using cane syrup in lieu of corn syrup. Of course, I also use a ton of pecans in my pie to mitigate the tooth-clenching sweetness (one layer on the top is just insufficient!).

    1. I have not tried that in a pie, Gloria, but it’s an interesting idea. Sweet as it is it makes sense that you’d want to up the proportion of nuts. Very interesting. Thanks!

      – Joe

    2. I’ve wondered if a cane syrup based pecan pie would work. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the flavor and I think it’s such a natural match. Thanks Gloria!

    1. Ahh…sort of a British treacle pie adapted by tree syrup-loving French Canadians forced to relocate to Louisiana sort of thing. Very interesting. Stranger things have happened, Rainey! It’s a fun theory!


      – Joe

  2. The small bakery I work at, here in central VA, makes a Brown Sugar Pie’, eggs, milk, brown sugar (obviously!!), that is probably similar to the original Texas version of pecan pie…

    1. Hey Laura!

      That wouldn’t surprise me, though there is a long tradition of sugar pies in the States (and other parts of the world too). Chess pies fall into that category as well. There are so many it’s hard to keep track of them all! Thanks for the comment,

      – Joe

  3. Joe – The best pecan pie recipe I have found is from a very old cookbook – The Farm Journal’s Best Ever Pies published in 1981. The “Special Pecan Pie”, credited to a North Carolina farm woman, calls for the basic ingredients with the addition of 1 tablespoon of vinegar. I tried this recipe on a whim once and have been making it ever since as it is simply the best pecan pie I’ve ever made. I always suspected it was the vinegar, but have no idea why that would be so. Any ideas?

    1. Hey Linda!

      Another reader mentioned vinegar as well and I’m quite interested. It could just be to add a little interest to the flavor profile. Acid adds tang and tends to mitigate fatty sensations on the tongue. One suggestion was that the vinegar helped create invert sugar syrup which might make a smoother filling. I dunno…what do you think?

      – Joe

      1. I’m inclined to agree with the flavor enhancement theory. Thinking back on the last one I made, the pecan flavor was spectacular although I did nothing special to the nuts such as roasting first. The sweetness was less cloying although all that syrup made the texture just as creamy as you would expect it to be. So all in all, it was a very balanced pie experience. Of course, I’m going to try your recipe as I’m still amazed at how perfect your pumpkin pie turns out every time I make it so I know this one will be just as good.

        1. I’ll do my best — no pressure! 😉

          Thanks for the insights, I’m inclined to agree.

          – Joe

  4. Oh, I’m so glad you came back to Pecan Pie sooner than later! It’s just about my favorite pie. My gut feeling is that the vinegar is used to invert the sugar. A recipe for butterscotch pudding by Cooks Country used a tsp of lemon juice in it. I’d seen it used in a praline recipe once before and wondered about it’s purpose so I looked it up! Very interesting the chemical reactions that happen by a simple addition!
    My mission has been to make a pecan pie that had a smooth, uncurdled looking filling. I know it doesn’t matter whether it’s smooth as long as it tastes good, but I want it smooth! Like the picture on the side of the Karo bottle! Is that too much to ask?
    Does it have to do with the cooking temperature? I see times and temps all up and down the scale in recipes, anywhere from 325 to 400F and anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour…and those times didn’t necessarily correspond to the cooking temp…ie 40 minutes at 400 as opposed to an hour at 325! Such a puzzle!
    I also looked up transparent pie recipes..I searched on translucent, it lead me to transparent…so there is that class of pie that pecan is said to fall into, as well. Even saw one that used water in the custard! I tried it but it was bland…

    Fix it, Joe. Please fix it.

    1. Ha! I’ll do my best, Susan! The only thing that makes me skeptical of the invert sugar theory is that it takes a very, very long time to invert sugar. As I mentioned in another comment somewhere, it takes commercial makers 8 hours of cooking at 140 degrees Fahrenheit to produce an invert sugar syrup. The pie filling probably bakes to 180 or so, but only for an hour or less. Honestly I’m not sure if that’s enough time.

      As far as cooking times you’re right, they’re all over the place. Low temperatures are typical of custard to prevent curdling, but this custard is so loaded with sugar it would take a whole lot of heat before the proteins clenched up. I dunno…it is a conundrum. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  5. don’t overlook buttermilk pecan pie! Despite my family history with pecan pie (my Georgia grandmother baked them for a living (white corn syrup & brown sugar)), I prefer the tangier, less sweet buttermilk version.

    1. Very interesting. It’s looking like I’m going to be adding some sort of acid to this pie no batter what I do. Thanks, Tereza!

      – Joe

  6. Vinegar (or sometimes lemon juice) is key to the distinctive taste of English Canadian butter tarts. I suspect that the pecan pie recipes that include an acid in effect come closer to butter tarts. That’s a taste I prefer, because it has more depth and interest than the somewhat one-note (and often cloying) sweetness of what I consider a typical pecan pie.

  7. I’m still wanting to try one I found that intrigues me that is a pecan raisin pie. It uses no syrup and they claim the raisins and pecans and custard make an amazing team and take the pecan pie to new heights. Of course raisin-haters would disagree. Thanks for heading back to the nuts…uh…the one with the pie. 🙂

    1. Hehe…sure thing, Linda! Get back to me with the results when you try the raising version!


      – Joe

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