Holiday pecan pie: how to downplay the sweetness — and bring up the flavor

“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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie: Tone down sweetness and ramp up flavor with some simple recipe adjustments. Click To Tweet

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

The diced nuts pictured here are teetering on the edge of burned; but once in the filling, their “edgy” flavor is fine.

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.  Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Give this Chocolate Pie Crust a try next time you make pecan pie. And while you’re at it, check out our Chocolate Pecan Slab Pie, for those times when you’re serving a crowd.Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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.

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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?

Holiday pecan pie via @kingarthurflour

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

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. terri

    I made this for Thanksgiving this year and it converted non-pecan pie eaters. The brown sugar makes a big difference from the corn syrup version. Everyone wanted the recipe.

    Reply
  2. Patty

    I love your blog and recipes and products! So many great ideas. I have been allergic to pecans since I was a small child, long before nut allergies were as common as they are today. So, needless to say, I’ve never had pecan pie. My mom always made pecan tarts at Christmas time and would put peanuts in a few for me. I love peanuts and I’m so glad I am not allergic to them but the texture just wasn’t right. Now I use her recipe to make *hazelnut* tarts. They are so amazingly good! I’ve wanted to try a full blown hazelnut pie but I haven’t done so yet. I’ll try some of your tips when I do so!

    Reply
  3. Sarah Tester

    I baked 4 pies in quick succession to determine the right amount of sweetness. I didn’t care for the toasted pecan taste. I eliminated outright the suggestion of salt on the surface and was ready to try half honey and half light corn syrup until I improvised, with great results. 1) Saute 1.5 cups pecans in butter, but without browning the pecan. Drain on paper towel and cool. 2) Brown the butter. There’s a reason butter and pecan are joined in the same breath. Using heavy gauge sauce pan on medium high heat, brown bits will form in the foam. Stir constantly until all the butter is light brown, doesn’t take long. Remove from heat and cool. To this add, one cup white sugar and one cup light corn syrup. Add 4 beaten eggs, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 tsp vanilla. Add in pecans. Pour into prepared pie shell. Bake 45-50 minutes @325 degrees. Forms a beautiful golden, rich filling with just the right degree of sweetness. Perfecto.

    Reply
  4. Jan Siard

    Only because I love King Author will I give you a true Southern pecan pie recipe that people here in the south pay money for so… the s is a 120 yr. old recipe from the Trevathan family in Louisiana’s River Roads community.

    7/8 cup sugar (1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon) not brown!
    1/4 c. Butter
    4 eggs
    1 1/2 Cup white Kayro syrup it must be fresh as in never opened. ( it sounds odd but it does make a difference) and not brown Kayro !
    1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
    1Tablespoon Flour
    Pinch of salt
    1 Cup pecans chopped it whole.
    Cream butter and sugar add flour and eggs. Then Kayro salt and vanilla. Pot of not a slightly blind baked pie shell, protecting the exposed edges until the last 10 minutes. Bake for approximately 1 hour. Don’t be afraid if the middle is a little loose.remove and cool. serve at room temperature
    Have a great holiday!
    Jan Siard

    Reply
    1. Betty Kennedy

      Just made the original recipe. Plan to try your for Christmas. Thank you. Always willing to try a new recipenn

  5. Heide

    I have made the classic corn syrup recipe for years. But with one variation that helps tone down the sweetness. Use half corn syrup and half honey. My sister says my pecan pie is the only one she can stand because it is not sickening sweet.
    This year I am going to try out your no corn syrup pecan pie recipe. I might even try toasting the nuts!

    Reply

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