Pie: Tips & Recipes for Healthier Pies

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The Dish on Pie

Try these tricks for lightening up the classic holiday dessert.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Pumpkin, berry, lemon meringue, caramel apple, chocolate cream ... these are all my favorite pies. Most everyone has at least one favorite pie (some of us have five). Many of us have fond memories of eating our mother's (or grandmother's) home-baked pies. If you're really lucky, you have memories of making pies with your mother or grandmother.

And nothing says "pie" like Thanksgiving and the holiday season that follows. Of course, all those holiday delights can really pack on the calories. But there are some foolproof ways to lighten almost every pie, from top to bottom. This way, you can get your pie fix, but with fewer calories and fat grams. And sometimes, these tricks help you work in more fiber and nutrients to boot.

Baking a lighter pie is as easy as 1-2-3. We'll start with the crust and work our way up.

Tips for Lighter Piecrust

You know that nice, flaky piecrust you love so much? It's flaky because of the particles of fat layered in between particles of wheat flour. Some recipes call for shortening and some use butter. The one my mom always made called for vegetable oil.

With health in mind, you have a few options when it comes to piecrust:

  • Use one crust, not two. Look for pie recipes that only call for a bottom piecrust (instead of two crusts). This will save you at least 120 calories and 8 grams of fat per slice (if you get 8 slices per 9-inch pie).
  • Embrace the brown. Add fiber and nutrients to your piecrust by using half whole-wheat pastry flour and half white flour. This adds about 1 1/2 grams of fiber per slice (for a one-crust pie serving 8).
  • Switch to a better fat. Use a crust recipe that calls for oil instead of shortening (like the one below). Then choose a healthier oil like canola, which contributes the more desirable monounsaturated fats and plant omega-3s.
  • Use less fat. Add a little less fat (maybe 5 tablespoons instead of 8) to your piecrust dough. Substitute an equal amount of something else, like low-fat buttermilk, maple syrup, or fat-free or light cream cheese.
  • Lose the crust and add crumbs. For some pies, you can eliminate the crust. First, choose a filling that stands well on its own (nothing too gooey). Then, coat your pie dish with canola cooking spray or light margarine. Add about 1/2 cup of crumbs, and tilt the dish to cover the inside well. What kind of crumbs should you use? If you're making quiche, use wheat and herb cracker crumbs or seasoned croutons, crushed. For lemon or lime pie, use gingersnap or SnackWells shortbread cookie crumbs. For chocolate cream pie, use graham cracker or chocolate cookie crumbs.

One more note about crust: Maybe it's the "cutting in" of the fat, maybe it's all that rolling you have to do to get the dough just right, but for some reason I loathe making pie crust.

I've been playing with my mom's awesome oil piecrust recipe to try to boost the fiber and take the amount of oil down as far as possible. Check out the results in the recipe below. It tastes so good that I've found myself eating the raw dough straight from the bowl -- always a good sign.

Keep in mind, though, that since the crust is part whole wheat and lower in fat, it boasts a brown color and a slightly tougher texture than your typical crust. I really like it, though. I especially like that I can pat the dough straight into the pan, no rolling required!

Tips for the Pie Filling

Pie fillings range from tart (lemon or Key lime) to fruity (apple, berries, etc.) to nutty (pecan) to creamy (chocolate cream) to veggie-like (pumpkin and sweet potato).

When you're trying to lighten pie filling, you've got two things to look out for: sugar and fat.

Many pie filling recipes call for a cup of sugar. That adds up to about 100 calories per serving, just from the sugar in your filling! You can cut the sugar calories in half either by using half the sugar the recipe calls for (this usually works well in a fruit filling) or by substituting Splenda for half the sugar.

Then there's butter. One sweet potato pie recipe I looked at called for 1/2 cup of butter. That's a tablespoon per serving, adding about 100 calories and 12 grams of fat per serving -- and that doesn't even include the crust!

You can usually trim the butter in fillings to 2 tablespoons, then add in a few tablespoons of orange juice, rum, or even maple syrup (especially if you've cut the sugar in half). Some fruit pie recipes don't include butter in the filling, but call for dotting the top of the filling with butter. This is, in a word, unnecessary. Don't dot, and save yourself the fuss and calories.

Creamy and custard pie fillings usually call for evaporated milk -- not to be confused with sweetened condensed milk, which pops up in fancier pies like Key lime and Kahlua cream pie. You can use evaporated skimmed milk in recipes that call for evaporated milk, and fat-free sweetened condensed milk in recipes that call for sweetened condensed. Either switch will trim about 25 calories per slice (if you get eight slices per pie), and in a pie, every little bit helps!

Cream cheese is another creamy filling ingredient that can be replaced with a lower-fat variety. I personally I find the color and texture of fat-free cream cheese unappetizing, so you may want to go for low-fat or light cream cheese instead. If your filling calls for an 8-ounce package of cream cheese, you can shave about 37 calories and 5.5 grams of fat per serving (when 8 servings per pie) by using light cream cheese.

Tips for the Pie Topping

Now for pie toppings! You didn't think I was going to stop at filling, did you?

When it comes to topping options, you're basically looking at more crust, whipped cream, meringue, crumb topping, whipped toppings (such as Cool Whip), and then, of course, there is the a la mode option (with ice cream).

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All of these toppings will cost you calories. Some are high in sugar, and some are high in fat. You can switch to a lighter option, like fat-free or light whipped topping. Or you can use half as much of the real thing (your best option if your topping is whipping cream).

Here are some more light topping options:

  • If the recipe calls for meringue (egg white and sugar), cover the pie with a nice, modest blanket of the white stuff. You don't have to make a mountain of meringue!
  • Instead of a top crust, top your fruit pie with a higher-fiber, lower-fat crumb topping (see recipe below).
  • If ice cream takes the cake for your pie, choose one of those great-tasting light vanilla ice creams on the market (with around 4 grams of fat per 1/2 cup serving), and use a cookie-dough size scoop (about 1/4 cup of ice cream when rounded).

This completes our "pleased as pie" trilogy; we've covered pie crust, filling, and now the topping. Let the pie season begin!

Crumb Topping for Fruit Pie

3/4 cup quick oats
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
Slightly heaping 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Slightly heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup less-fat margarine (with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon)
1 tablespoon low-fat buttermilk (add one or two teaspoons more if needed)

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, or the temperature recommended in your pie recipe.
  • Add oats, flours, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt to a large mixing bowl and beat with electric mixer on low speed to combine. Add margarine in chunks and beat on medium speed, cleaning margarine off beaters several times, until a nice crumb has formed.
  • Drizzle buttermilk over the top of oat mixture and blend with mixer just until your crumb mixture has moistened nicely. Add a teaspoon or two more buttermilk, if needed.
  • Spread topping over pie filling and bake as directed in your pie recipe (usually about 30 minutes). If your recipe calls for baking more than 30 minutes, cover the top of the pie with foil for the first 20 minutes. Remove foil from the pie and bake for another 24 minutes or until crust is golden.

Yield: Enough topping for one 9-inch round pie

Per serving (if 12 servings per pie): 90 calories, 2.5 g protein, 13.5 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat, 0.8 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.2 g fiber, 102 mg sodium.

Light Canola Pie Crust - No Rolling Required

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (or regular whole-wheat flour)
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lite pancake syrup
5 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons low-fat buttermilk

  • Add flours and salt to medium bowl and blend well with electric mixer (on LOW).
  • Add the pancake syrup and canola oil to mixing bowl and beat on low speed until the mixture looks blended and crumbly. Pour in the buttermilk and mix on low speed just until the dough is moist and holds together well (about 15 seconds). Stir in a teaspoon or two more buttermilk if the dough seems a little too dry.
  • Using your hands, press dough evenly into your deep-dish pie plate. If the dough is a little thicker around the pie plate rim, you can pinch the dough into scallops or make the rim double thickness and press it with a fork around the circle, as desired.
  • Proceed with your recipe for baking. If you need a prebaked piecrust, preheat the oven to 375 degrees, poke the crust several times with a fork, and bake for about 20 minutes.

Yield: One 9-inch, deep-dish single pie crust

Per serving (if 12 servings): 111 calories, 2 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 151 mg sodium.

Light Cinnamon Whipped Cream Topping

8 ounces light whipping cream (liquid)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups fat-free Cool Whip or similar whipped topping
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (add more to taste)

  • Add chilled liquid whipping cream to cold, small, mixing bowl and beat on medium-high until nicely thickened.
  • Add powdered sugar, the fat-free whipped topping, and cinnamon and fold together well by hand -- using a spoon or spatula.
  • Keep chilled in a covered container until read to serve!

Yield: About 4 cups of topping (about 16 servings)

Per 1/4 cup serving: 70 calories, .5 g protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 4.5 g fat, 2.8 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 10 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 59%

Published November 10, 2006.


Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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Reviewed on 11/10/2006

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