What Makes The Perfect British Pie, According To Expert Judges

Whether savory or sweet, pies are a staple of British cuisine and have been for centuries. An Old English recipe for apple pie – which is not American in origin as we might expect – was written by the poet Chaucer back in 1381 while the first English language cookbook in the 1390s included a recipe for a pork pie among others.

The appeal was widespread across class divides: Elaborately decorated pies were centerpieces in Medieval banquets for the wealthy, while as far back as the 14th century, pies had become a popular and portable fast food in the city of London. These days, the British still take pies seriously. In 2015, a petition was started to make it a criminal offense to describe a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie; it gained over 5,000 signatures.

There are no casseroles with pastry lids at the annual British Pie Awards, which was founded in 2009 to celebrate the heritage of British pies and the country's many regional specialties from the Melton Mowbray pork pie to the Cornish pasty, both of which have official Protected Geographical Indication status in the UK. Almost 1,000 pies are entered by butchers, bakers, pie-makers, and producers hoping to be awarded a bronze, silver, or gold award across 23 different categories of pie, or even be crowned the much-coveted Supreme Champion. And having served as a judge myself for the past 10 years, the rules about what makes a perfect British pie are very rigorous.

A British pie must be fully encased in pastry

The British Pie Awards has a clear definition of a pie: The filling must be wholly encased in pastry and baked. That means potato-topped shepherd's pie doesn't count as a pie for the awards, nor do lattice tops, or tarts. And the pastry itself is a key component assessed by a panel of expert judges, who are passionate about what makes a good crust.

Pastry must be "perfectly formed and baked — neither too thick nor thin, not under baked (raw) nor over baked (burnt)" according to baker Stephen Hallam MBE, co-founder of the British Pie Awards, and co-founder of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association. As well as its appearance (which includes the glaze) and even baking (no soggy bottoms), judges are looking for pastry of an even thickness that 'feels' right as the knife slices through it. Points are deducted for dry, crumbly, or greasy pastry.

The taste of the crust is also vital. It should be well-seasoned, working in harmony with the filling. While categories at the British Pie Awards include gluten-free and vegan pies, buttery pastry always remains popular. "For me, what makes the perfect British pie is really thin and crisp butter pastry, and the classic fillings," believes pie-maker Neil Broomfield, founder of the Great North Pie Co, whose Goosnargh chicken, mushroom, and English mustard cream pie was declared Supreme Champion of the British Pie Awards in 2015; Broomfield now helps judge the awards.

Pies should be well-filled with balanced textures and flavors

Besides pastry, the other key component of any pie is its filling, which is assessed in depth at the British Pie Awards. "The pie must be well-filled, with the filling having correct and appropriate texture with a balanced taste and gorgeous flavor," says co-founder of the awards, Stephen Hallam. For pies that are judged hot, such as beef and ale or chicken and vegetable, the protein and vegetables should be cooked well — tender but not mushy, well-seasoned, and with a consistency that's not too thin and runny, nor overly thick and gloopy.

Pork pies, which are judged cold, should also have an appealing texture and taste. "A good pork pie needs to be well-filled with shoulder pork that has an open texture and well-balanced seasoning," believes John Mettrick, Master Butcher, and Managing Director of butcher shop J W Mettrick & Son Ltd, whose pork pie won at the British Pie Awards in 2019. "The meat ball when cooked should be moist and encapsulated in jelly between the meat and the pastry. It's essential that the hot water pastry has a biscuit-like bite. Achieve these elements, and you will have an award-winning pork pie."

When it comes down to it, it's all about the joy of eating. "The perfect pie is one that you return to for a second or third slice," says Hallam. And with the majority of Brits consuming pies every single month, it's hard to disagree.