What Is Chess Pie And What Does It Taste Like?

Unlike the classic cherry pie, the traditional apple pie, or the crowd-pleasing chocolate pie, chess pie may not be as well known by dessert lovers. It's not often featured on menus and it doesn't get much attention on popular cooking shows. So, what exactly is it? The easy answer, according to Southern Living, is that it's a sweet Southern classic treat not unlike a custard pie that has been around for at least a hundred years. 

There are several theories as to why it's called chess pie. Delish explains that, because of its similarity to a type of European cheesecake, people may have been mispronouncing "cheese pie" and the result was something closer to "chess pie." Food52 theorizes that, at some point in history, when asked what type of pie was on the menu for the day, a waitress with a Southern accent responded, "jes pie." The list of answers to this question goes on and on, but one thing that people do agree upon is that it's always rich and delicious.

How is chess pie made?

Ingredient-wise, chess pie is as simple as it gets. In addition to a custard made of sugar, butter, milk (or buttermilk), vanilla, eggs, and sometimes vinegar, chess pie generally incorporates a thickener, though the source of that thickener is often up for debate. Some bakers use both flour and cornmeal while others only use flour (via The Takeout). 

As with most pies, it all starts with the crust. To make your own, according to The Gunnysack, first roll out the dough (or use a store-bought crust) and put into a pie plate, about 9 inches. Trim the edges and put in the fridge for roughly 30 minutes. Then, you'll want to combine the sugars (granulated and brown sugar) with yellow cornmeal (if you're using that), flour, butter, vinegar, eggs, a pinch of salt, and vanilla extract. Pour the batter into the prepared pie plate and place on a baking sheet. Protect the edges with a pie shield (or you can use aluminum foil) and bake for 50-55 minutes. You'll want to remove the shield for the last 10-15 minutes.

While die-hard chess pie fans don't believe in straying from the classic recipe too much, you can add other flavorings like lemon juice to punch things up. Delish recommends adding fresh orange juice in place of the vinegar or using maple or coffee extracts to replace the vanilla extractThe Spruce Eats recommends enhancing the flavor of your pie crust by adding spices such as nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon to the dough before you bake it.

What does chess pie taste like?

Chess pie is buttery and quite sweet. Most recipes incorporate anywhere between 1-1/2 to 2 cups of sugar, which makes this pie as sweet as it is. According to Betty Crocker, so much sugar was used when chess pie originated (approximately 100 years ago) that the ingredient worked like a preservative, which meant it could be stored at room temp, like in a cabinet or chest (yet another possible origin of its name).

The Takeout likens the texture of chess pie to whipped honey, and the surface of it to crème brûlée. Because buttermilk or vinegar is sometimes added, there can also be an undercurrent of tartness. Many recipes also call for lemon juice, and the result is a texture and flavor that can resemble old-fashioned lemon bars. Since the recipe also calls for a classic pie crust, the buttery and flaky texture complements the rich and tangy filling that will make you enjoy each and every bite.

How to store chess pie

When you're cooking a large family meal like a multi-dish Thanksgiving dinner, it helps to prepare as much as you can ahead of time so you're not stuck in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun. That includes dessert. The nice thing about a chess pie is that it stores incredibly well. According to Delish, it will stay good for about five days when placed in the refrigerator. Just make sure you let it cool first beforehand to prevent the crust from cracking. If you are concerned about the crust getting soggy while it sits waiting to be eaten, try par-baking the crust before you pour the ingredients in.

Bakers Table says you can put your pie in the freezer as well, but you'll need to freeze each slice individually. When you are ready to enjoy, you can thaw each slice by bringing them to room temperature (simply place on a countertop to do so). A microwave works too, but just for a few seconds. You don't want the pie slices to get soggy or runny so make sure you don't let them get too warm. 

What's the difference between chess pie and buttermilk pie?

Chess pie and buttermilk pie are very similar and are quite often confused for one another. Both Southern treats start with butter, sugar, and eggs, and both use a single pastry crust. But that's where the similarities end and the differences begin.

According to The Pioneer Woman, in addition to sugar, butter, and eggs, chess pie calls for cornmeal instead of flour (or sometimes a bit of both) to help thicken the filling. The result is a smooth and creamy texture. You'll also find a dash of vinegar in many recipes, which helps balance out all of the sugar. This pie has a deeper yellow color and a thin golden crust forms on top as a result of the cornmeal.

Buttermilk pie, on the other hand, only uses flour as a thickener and most recipes include fresh lemon juice and zest, as well as a bit of vanilla extract (via Southern Living). Instead of milk, it uses straight buttermilk for added tang, as its name implies. The filling of a classic buttermilk pie resembles that of a pecan pie while a chess pie is smoother and creamier.

What do you serve with chess pie?

For some, a slice of chess pie and a fork to eat it with is really all you need — but if you want to be extra indulgent, you can always serve it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream, fresh fruit, or even some chocolate or caramel sauce. Bakers Table recommends to "go all out" by adding Chantilly cream or even candied pecans to your pie. Want to really take things to the next level? According to NPR, citing the book "Bill Neal's Southern Cooking," it's said that in Tennessee, "six or seven chess pies, baked and cooled, 'are stacked on each other and sliced as a cake.'" But, whichever way you choose, this simple and sweet pie is the perfect ending to any family meal.

Want to make your own whipped cream? The Food Republic recommends mixing 2 cups cold heavy whipping cream and 1 tablespoon sifted powdered sugar (add more if needed) together in a metal mixing bowl fitted with a whisk attachment or a handheld electric mixer. You can also use a handheld whisk and simple glass bowl. Mix until it is light and fluffy and has tripled in volume.

Where to buy chess pie

While chess pie is typically considered a Southern staple, you can find it in other parts of the United States as well. According to Food52, it can also be found in Appalachia and parts of the Midwest. And with the number of boutique bakeries and pie shops on the rise, the classic chess pie has picked up in popularity throughout the rest of the country as well. Chess pie gets a lot of love from Petee's Pie Company in New York City and Brooklyn, which offers both a black bottom almond chess pie and a salty chocolate chess pie, while I Like Pie in Claremont, California offers a chocolate chip chess pie. 

But, back to the South for a minute. While you are just as likely to find a chess pie offered in a diner as you are at a neighbor's house, there are tons of bakeries in this region that have this favorite dessert on their shelves. Crave Pie Studios in Duluth, Georgia lists lemon chess, raspberry lemon chess, and chocolate chess on their menu, while chess pie devotees in Nashville, Tennessee can head to Papa C Pies to pick one up.

Don't live near a bakery that sells chess pie? Most bakeries offer delivery nationwide and you can also head to Goldbelly for a selection of pie purveyors who sell it as well.

Nutritional information about chess pie

With its buttery pastry crust and large amounts of sugar, chess pie is typically a dessert you may want to indulge in only for special occasions. Though, since some recipe variations call for lemon juice or orange juice, the citrus keeps it from being a total nutritional washout, along with the eggs, which also provide nutrients and protein. According to Healthline, the average egg contains about 6-7 grams of protein. Worried about the yolk? Egg yolks are actually where most of the nutrients (and yes, fat) are found. Additionally, yolks contain up to about half of the protein content of the egg, adds Healthline.

When it comes to the cornmeal, this can be good for you as well. Ground from dried corn, cornmeal is a staple in authentic chess pie and is a good source of magnesium, selenium, and thiamin (via Men's Health). And while most recipes only call for about a tablespoon of white vinegar, Livestrong says that it may be able to lower blood pressure and it provides polyphenols, which are a type of antioxidant. So go ahead and enjoy your chess pie when a craving hits.