The Smoky Ingredient Behind Alton Brown's Elevated Fruit Pies

When the summer comes along and stone fruit like peaches are in season, the possibilities for cooking and baking are plentiful. Peaches have a great flavor that pairs well with sweet, savory, and smoky ingredients. They're great grilled on your barbecue; they're wonderful added to salads... but would you consider adding a savory ingredient when baking with peaches? Kitchen whiz Alton Brown suggests that you do.

For his peach pie recipe, Brown recommends adding a ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika to his pie filling, which contains four cups of ripe peaches. It might seem like a lot of paprika for a pie filling, but Brown swears by the balance. He acknowledges that while it might seem odd, the addition of spice to any fruit pie recipe adds dimension to the sweet-dominated flavor profile. Layering complex flavors is the difference between someone smiling politely while eating your dessert and begging you for the recipe. So consider taking a page out of Brown's playbook and trying this trick next time you make peach pie, peach cobbler, or any sort of fruit-forward dessert.  

Why this works

When you think about it, adding smoked paprika to a fruit pie isn't that outlandish. After all, it's common to add cinnamon and nutmeg to an apple pie, and don't even get us started on how many strong spices you find in a pumpkin pie recipe. There's truly something remarkable about how a smoky or bitter spice can actually add dimension to the dish. It highlights the sweetness of the peaches, modernizing the dish while also keeping it from being cloyingly sweet, which is never desirable.  

Adding a pungent spice like paprika keeps your palate awake and alert while you're eating the slice of pie, just like fresh ginger adds a delightful zing to pumpkin or apple pie. Are we suggesting that you sprinkle paprika on top of your pie? Absolutely not. Are we saying adding a few shakes to your pie filling might make for a really exciting eating experience? Yes. 

Other ways to elevate the flavor of fruit pies

If you're looking for other ways to jazz up your fruit pies, there's another easy trick you can try that also wakes up the palate. Adding salt to a sweet recipe helps to reduce the presence of bitterness on the palate, so if you're baking with something that's bitter — like rhubarb or chocolate — and you want the tongue to perceive it as sweet, try topping it with a bit of salt. Adding a few pinches of flaky sea salt to the crust of your pie can add a really fantastic dimension to the flavor profile.

If you're not baking with anything bitter, salt still ups your sweetness factor. Salt is a flavor enhancer and not only does it suppress bitterness, it also enhances sweetness. So if you're baking with fruit that is less sweet, consider adding a bit of salt to up its sweetness as well. While your fruit dessert recipe will likely already call for a bit of salt in the filling, try presenting it somewhere else where it'll hit the palate sooner to wake it up. It might seem contradictory to get out the salt and spices when making dessert, but once you try it, you may never go back.