British vs American pie: the many differences

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Did you know that there’s a historic reason why sweet pies became preferred in America over meat pies?

Or the one difference between an American apple pie and a British apple pie?

Have you heard of some of the more unique pie combinations that exist around the UK?

Maybe you have, but you won’t know for sure until you read this post, so here we go!

Writing about pie in the UK vs USA has always been on my list because British people love pie and American people love pie, but I’m not sure that either country realizes that the other country loves pie in a completely different way to them.

As a magic trick, I want you to listen to the word pie and picture it in your head.

Got it?

If you’re British, I’m guessing you pictured some sort of meat pie or savory pie – maybe you got thrown off because I just mentioned apple pies, but your default “pie” category is probably savory.

If you’re American, I bet you pictured a sweet pie – maybe pumpkin, apple, pecan, whatever – but the chances it’s sweet are pretty high.

This is because Brits love meat pies, and Americans love sweet pies, and both types exist in both countries, but they really went different ways with their appreciation of pie culture.

If you look up the most popular pies in the UK, the list looks something like this:

  • Steak pie
  • Shepherds pie
  • Steak and ale pie
  • Cheese and onion pie
  • Pot pie
  • Meat and potato pie

If you look up the most popular pies in the US, they’re like – meat pies? Excuse me? What? No, thanks. This list is all sweet pies – no meat in site.

  • apple pie
  • pumpkin pie
  • blueberry pie
  • lemon meringue pie
  • Key Lime pie

Now, the US DOES have some savory pies – the two main types are Shepherds pie and a “pot pie.”

If you’re in the UK, a Shepherd’s pie in the US is a cottage pie in the UK usually – ie, a savory pie made with beef.

In the UK, shepherds pie is made with lamb, hence the shepherds name, and cottage pie is made with beef, but Americans don’t differentiate because lamb is relatively uncommon in American cuisine.

America does also have what’s called a “pot pie,” the most popular being a chicken pot pie.

It typically has flaky pastry and a combination of chicken and vegetables inside.

Compare this to the UK, where the list of savory pies goes on and on and on, and you’ll see the difference in what each culture thinks about pie.

However, meat pies weren’t always out of fashion in the US – in fact, they used to be extremely popular.

But to figure out what happened to meat pies in America, first we have to find out how they started at all.

History of Pie in the UK vs USA

Let’s talk about the history of pie in the UK.

Everyone say “thank you Romans” for the pies.

They introduced them, essentially as a way to preserve meat within a crust to make sure that the pastry kept the air out.

They wouldn’t eat the crust, usually, which is a shame because it’s my most favorite part of a pie, and this continued through medieval times.

The first cook book in the English language dates back to the 1390s and has recipes for pies.

But the pastry begins to be kept and eaten during medieval banquets, as the pie now became the centerpiece and you can use the pastry to make beautiful looking tops.

Allegedly it was a big deal and sometimes medieval chefs would have birds fly out of the pies….and Brits think Americans are over the top!

Some of the pies served in medieval times included “umble pie,” which was essentially pie made from the edible organs of a deer – this was mistaken for the word “humble” and why the phrase is now eating “humble pie” if you’re being humiliated or having to “eat your words” because this sort of pie was usually served to the serfs or servants.

Anyway, pies evolve and change within the UK over the years, but the focus on meat pies remains constant.

The first fruit pie doesn’t even come around until the late 16th century when Queen Elizabeth the 1st was served the first cherry pie.

Now, let’s fast forward a bit to the founding of the American colonies – as we know, these were founded by the Europeans – and they weren’t going to go across an entire ocean and forget to bring their pie recipes, that would be crazy, so in the beginnings of America, meat pies were regularly mentioned in cookbooks and were popular, whether you were talking about lamb pie, beef pie, chicken pie, etc.

And this continues on through the mid 19th century, people were eating mincemeat pies, oyster pies, rump steak and kidney pies, chicken and ham pie, etc.

So, what happened?

Did America turn against meat pies on purpose?

There are a few reasons I’ve found that are interesting, one being that by the late 1800s, there were multiple types of cuisines competing for attention in America.

It wasn’t just the British pies, but German food – like German and polish sausages, as well as Italian food, and most importantly, French food, including the casserole, which meant that you could just throw all of your meat and ingredients into a dish without a crust which was easier.

Another reason, similar to the cuisines, had to do with immigration.

America was a nation of immigrants throughout he 1800s, and many of these people had foreign born family who came from places like Poland or Germany or Italy or Eastern Europe – and of course they passed down their own recipes, so it wasn’t just a nation with British descent anymore.

But what about the rise of sweet pies in the US over meat pies?

There’s a historic reason for this as well – during the early to mid 19th century, the US established a sugar refining industry on the mainland, meaning that Americans could get their hands on sugar so much more easily and cheaper than those in Europe who had to pay to import it.

And boom, the obsession with sweet pies is born.

Unique Pies in the UK

Now that we know where the pies have come from and we’ve done a brief rundown of the types of pies in each place, let’s talk about some of the more unique pies in the UK.

Firstly, you’ve got stargazy pie – a Cornish delicacy that features seven types of fish…with their heads emerging from the shortcrust topping.

This is traditionally cooked in a village in Cornwall on the 23 of December to commemorate a 16th century fisherman who ensured the locals didn’t go hungry through some Christmas winter storms.

It’s called a stargazy pie because the fish are arranged to look towards the stars.

Then you have the Denby Dale Pies, from Yorkshire, which are giant pies typically made for special occasions.

They really like to take it to the next level, and the pie made in 2000 for the millennium celebration weighed 12 tons and was 40 feet long.

It was then blessed by a Bishop, as you do, and they have a poem about Denby Dale pies as well, because why not.

Then you’ve got an actual pie flavor combination that doesn’t involve stargazing fish or a pie so large that it can’t be served on a table, which is the gala pie – this takes your classic pork pie, but instead of just being a pork pie filling, the filling includes a bit of chicken and a hard boiled egg, so it’s like a combination of a pork pie and a Scotch egg into one.

What to Eat with Pie in the UK

And, of course, there are multiple things you can eat with pie in the UK, including chips (thick cut fries for my American friends), mashed potato, just called mash, or if you’re in East London, jellied eels – a classic Cockney dish of native British eels, boiled and then cooled.

Sweet Pies (British vs American)

Let’s do a quick run through of sweet pies, because I do want to mention how British apple pie and American apple pie differ as well as share a bit about the favorite types of sweet pies in each country.

So the answer to the difference in British and American apple pies, is that American apple pies always have cinnamon as an ingredient – it’s pretty much a non negotiable.

In the UK, apple pies don’t always have cinnamon – many recipes don’t, and it’s sort of an optional thing.

This makes a huge difference in the taste, and I have to say that I much prefer American apple pie for that reason.

Apple pie is practically synonymous with American culture, as well – apples grew well in the American colonies and could be stored through winter, meaning they made for great pies.

It wasn’t until 1924 that the first use of the phrase “as American as apple pie” came about, but from there it really boomed.

Interestingly enough, World War I boosted the appeal of apple pie because eating it now became patriotic – you’re doing your part as an American by eating apple pie, and this continued on throughout World War II and the Cold War.

In the UK, there are sweet pies, as I’ve mentioned – there are some popular sweet pies like banoffee pie and lemon meringue pie, but nothing quite as iconic as the American apple pie.

In the US, we definitely have more well-known sweet pies, including key lime pie, made of key lime juice, condensed milk, and eggs with a buttery crust.

We have lemon meringue pie as well, and a peanut butter pie which comes from Georgia and is filled with gooey peanut butter and brown sugar.

Then there’s maple cream pie in Vermont, made from maple syrup and brown sugar, as well as pecan pie which comes from Georgia, blueberry pie popular in the Northeast, Cherry pie, Georgia peach pie, a sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, usually made with canned pumpkin which is extremely hard to find in the UK, as well as fudge pies, and Mississippi mud pies which are filled with chocolate sauce and brownie and chocolate custard.

This only touches the tip of the America pie iceberg, but we just really love sweet pie. It’s always eaten at Thanksgiving – a staple dessert, and often served in restaurants as an option and used for other social gatherings or potlucks or just to have in the house to have a slice for dessert.

1 thought on “British vs American pie: the many differences”

  1. If you haven’t already done so you should make your way to Reading (at the end of the Lizzy Line – you may want to do some drinking on this trip) and find Sweeney & Todd in Castle Street. It’s part pie shop at the front, part pub in the middle, and part sit-down family restaurant at the back. There you will find the greatest pies in all England. Some are classics like steak and kidney and sold all the year round. Some are seasonal – I recommend going in the autumn for the exquisite hare and cherry. Yes, there really is a barber’s shop next door, but they don’t do priest (they do do one called Vicars but that refers to the supplying butcher)

    Because I know you were asking in one of your videos how to recognise a good pub, while you’re in Reading (not always a town of much charm admittedly) take a walk to The Retreat in John Street, which is a fine example of the sort of pub that has become all too rare in recent years; the small back-street community local that steadfastly refuses to serve food (no room really, but then you’ve just eaten) and where you can almost guarantee to make friends with a stranger. Notice the traditional handpumps on the bar – these indicate that live, top-fermented cask beer in the almost unique English tradition is available. You don’t have to drink this beer (but do give it a try!) or even have to like it but what its presence tells you is this: that kind of beer spoils easily if it’s not carefully looked after, so if the pub is selling it, it will be taking good care of its beer and if it’s taking good care of the beer it will be taking good care of other things too.

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