What Is Chess Pie—And How Did It Get Its Name?


Chess pie is a rich dessert with an even richer history. Here’s everything you need to know about the super simple sweet treat: 

What Is Chess Pie? 

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

Chess pie on chess board Getty 5/21/20

Chess pie is about as simple as a dessert can be. Born of convenience rather than extravagance, the most basic chess pie filling consists of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour in a single pastry crust. 

Cornmeal usually serves as an additional stabilizing ingredient, while an acid (buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice) is frequently added to punch up the flavor a bit. 

The pie is especially popular in the American South.

Chess Pie vs. Buttermilk Pie 

Chess pie Getty 5/21/20

Buttermilk and chess pies are alike in a lot of ways: They’re both made with few pantry staples, they both have rich custard fillings, and a pale yellow hue makes them almost identical. However, these Southern desserts aren’t quite the same thing. 

While chess pie can include buttermilk to balance out the sweetness of all that sugar, it doesn’t have to include buttermilk. More often, vinegar is used to get that job done. Though it’s not always called upon to thicken the filling, cornmeal is frequently what gives a chess pie it’s velvety texture and yellow color. 

Buttermilk pie, meanwhile, always has buttermilk. More acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, are also frequently added to brighten up the recipe even more. Cornmeal is almost never used in buttermilk pie—the only thickening agent in this dessert is flour.  

Get the recipes: 

  • Classic Chess Pie
  • Grapefruit Chess Pie
  • Pumpkin-Lemon Cream Cheese Chess Pie
  • Browned Butter Chess Pie
  • Chocolate Chess Pie

Why Is It Called “Chess Pie?”

Grapefruit Chess Pie

There are a lot of stories about how chess pie got its name. So which one’s true? It’s a mystery. We know it’s been around for quite some time, but the pie’s exact origins are hard to pinpoint. Let’s take a look at some of the most common stories surrounding its name: 

  • A Southern accent might cause someone to mishear “just” pie as “jes,’” or “chess” pie. According to one legend, a cook was asked what she was cooking that smelled so good. “It’s jes’ pie,” she replied. What the asker heard, though, was “it’s chess pie.”
  • Compared to other custard-based pastries, the chess pie holds up relatively well at room temperature. Often, it was stored in something called a “pie chest.” The word “chest,” some say, was eventually corrupted to “chess.” 
  • Southern gentlemen liked to enjoy the dessert after dinner while they played chess. 
  • “Chess” could be a derivation of “cheese.” Though there is no cheese in chess pie, its rich texture is comparable to British cheesecakes or curd pies. 
  • In a 1955 cookbook by Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks called North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, chess pie is described as "an old, old tart which may have obtained its name from the town of Chester, England."

How to Make Chess Pie

Looking for the very best chess pie recipe? Your search ends here. This Classic Chess Pie is as delicious (and easy) as it gets. 

Don’t take our word for it, though—here’s what our readers have to say about the super simple recipe:

“This pie was delicious and so easy! The only tricky part is blind-baking the crust, which requires a little experience (just make sure the aluminum foil is completely pressed against the crust to prevent it shrinking),” according to one 5-star review. “My 7-year-old made the filling (with my supervision), and really she didn't need much help at all. We made the coconut version, which was really good. If I make the coconut one again, I will use unsweetened coconut, since the pie is already very sweet and sweetened flaked coconut made it just shy of cloying. But our friends loved it, my daughter was very proud, and it tasted just as a Southern chess pie should (said this Georgia native!).”

“This pie was delicious and so easy,” raves another reviewer. “I had tried to make a chess pie from another recipe, and the pie was a failure. This was so easy and my husband loved it! I will never buy another chess pie.”

Get the recipe: Classic Chess Pie

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