The 18 Absolute Best Ingredients To Elevate Pie Filling

There is something to be said about pie. We don't want to diss cookies, cakes, or any other desserts, because we have a special place in our hearts for those too. But come on — pie? Not only does it double as dinner and dessert, but it also encourages fruit consumption. There is just no way berries tickle your fancy the way they do when they are bubbling within the walls of flaky pie dough.

No matter what time of year, you'll have no trouble tying seasonal ingredients to the pastry-encased bliss that we call pie. Considering all the forms it can take — be it sweet, savory, silky, or hearty — you will find a plethora of ingredients that make it extra special.

Some of the absolute best ingredients that elevate pie filling might surprise you, while others will remind you why pie is so darn delicious. When you are ready to take your pâtisserie-crafting skills up a notch, you'll want to turn to these ingredients.

1. Citrus juice and zest

Ever notice your fruit pies call for the addition of lemon or orange juice? You will often see it in pie recipes that use ingredients like apples and berries, and there is a reason for it. The acidity in citrusy juices helps enhance the flavor of all the fruit within the filling.

Not only will a small spritz help brighten flavors, but you can also balance all those ingredients with the help of a bit of zest. Citrus zest adds a delicate touch of flavor without overpowering the complexity of other components within the filling. One way to fully embrace the flavor of citrus is by whipping up a quick and easy key lime pie. By combining lime juice, cool whip, sweetened condensed milk, and lime zest, you'll have a light and fluffy dessert your taste buds will love.

2. Sweetened condensed milk

Speaking of sweetened condensed milk, you'll notice that this humble ingredient does wonders for pies. It comes in a small can typically found on the shelves of the baking aisles. Unlike regular cow's milk, you'll find sweetened condensed milk to boast a superbly rich, creamy consistency and an incredibly sweet taste. A small amount can amp things up. In fact, it's the secret ingredient for a creamy cherry pie filling. The condensed milk helps dull down the bright colors of canned fruit filling while providing an ultra-creamy mouthfeel.

But cherry pie isn't the only one that will benefit from sweetened condensed milk. This secret ingredient also often finds its way into classic fall-inspired desserts like pumpkin pie to help provide a much-needed sweet touch and rich texture.

3. Rhubarb

Between cutting rhubarb leaves from the plant to pickling freshly harvested stalks for a tasty year-long snack, there are plenty of tips you need when cooking this vibrant vegetable. Yes, that's right — rhubarb is a vegetable, and a tasty one at that.

Boasting loads of tart notes, you'll find an excellent use for this ingredient when making a pie filling, especially when it is combined with other flavors. For example, sweet ingredients like fruit and sugar help enhance and balance out all those sour flavors. That's why you'll notice strawberry and rhubarb traditionally combined in a pie throughout the months of spring and summer when both are in season and extra tasty. Whether you want to make a custard-style pie or a crumbly crisp, each of these renditions offers a unique take on pie that your tastebuds will love.

4. Amaretto liqueur

Boozing up desserts is one of the best ways to add a fiery flare that'll have everyone talking. From a fancy flambé over bananas foster to whiskey-infused caramel cheesecake bars, there is something to be said about the way alcohol takes things up a notch. Pie takes well to the addition, too.

You'll find the secret ingredient to this tart cherry pie is the swirl of sweet amaretto liqueur added into the Montmorency tart cherry pie filling. Amaretto liqueur, which carries a bright nutty flavor, is often added to various bar drinks to help lighten or soften the strong taste of liquor. The Italian liqueur will help to balance out some of those sour notes that cherries naturally carry in a jar of Montmorency cherry pie filling.

5. Peanut butter

Oh, how we love to indulge in all things peanut butter. From finding sparks of joy in all the seasonally shaped Reese's peanut butter cups to oohing and awing over decadent desserts made with the creamy ingredient, peanut butter has a way of satisfying the soul.

Peanut butter usually makes its way into pie when combined with ingredients like cool whip, cream cheese, whipped cream, or confectioners sugar. With the whip of a whisk and the help of the oven or fridge, peanut butter pies usually result in a light and fluffy texture that is to die for. Both the natural nutty flavor and creamy texture will win the hearts of pie lovers with the right recipe. You'll experience this dreaminess with every immaculate bite of peanut butter pie.

6. Ricotta cheese

It combines beautifully with pesto, loads of manicotti, and baked shells like no other filling can. But did you know ricotta cheese can do more than cram its way between layers of lasagna sheets and other baked Italian dinners?

Quality ricotta cheese on its own offers a slightly grainy and almost sweet flavor that tastes lovely in both sweet and savory dishes. In fact, it's brilliant in pie, and we have a recipe to prove it. Sweet ricotta pie is traditionally served on Easter Sunday but can be enjoyed any time of year. You will find the filling classically made with ricotta, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract, all of which come together to create a moist custard-like pie that is just sweet enough to call dessert. One way to elevate your pie even more is by making from-scratch ricotta cheese. Just make sure you make it with quality whole milk.

7. Nuts

If you are looking for a pie that will make you go nuts, look no further. (Sorry, we have to throw a pun in every now and then.) Seriously, though, there is nutting as delicious as throwing together a pie filled with pecans, walnuts, pistachios, and more. (Okay, we'll stop now.)

Nuts have a way of adding a rich natural flavor to pies and will also do a lot for texture. In a world where pies often yield rich and dreamy fillings of sugar-glazed fruits and moist custards, the occasional crunch is very much welcome. So if you have a bag of walnuts hanging around, then you will have to give this vanilla walnut pie a try. It is similar to pecan pie but filled with layers of baked cream cheese and lots of vanilla flavor.

8. Mint extract

We all have our favorite herbs, but mint stands out in its ability to meet the needs of both sweet and savory dishes. Spearmint typically pairs well with savory dishes, while peppermint makes its way into delicious desserts.

Even pie loves a little touch of peppermint, whether it's garnished with a few green leaves or used as the prominent flavor when infused with a bit of extract. Creamy chocolate mint pie is a great place to start if you love the mild burn of a cooling dessert. The combination of peppermint extract and green thin mint chocolates arranged within the filling made of cream cheese and pudding mix will satisfy your sweet tooth and double as a breath mint. Now that's a dessert made for date night. One bite will make you go, "woah!"

9. Coconut flakes

There is something special about the satisfying crunch you get in every bite of coconut flakes. The well-known, slightly sweet flavor lends well to many dishes too. It tastes fantastic combined with rice or in curries, and even when coated over certain meats and seafood like shrimp. Beyond savory applications, you'll love the natural flare it provides for sweet dishes. Throw a bit in your yogurt, oats, or smoothie and benefit from all those healthy antioxidants coconut contains (per Healthline).

If keeping things healthy and low calorie is no concern on your end, then we recommend you use those shaved flakes in the best possible way — add them to pie. If custard-style pies please your taste buds, the coconut custard pie was made for you. Otherwise, for a more classic take with loads of coconutty flavor, reach for the triple coconut cream pie. It is sure to make your taste buds sing.

10. Sweet potatoes

We all know sweet potato pie is common during the holidays. And while the quintessential dish should always make its way to the table around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we think it's one of those dishes that should be seen more often.

This custard-like filling comes together in a flash with the help of canned sweet potato, butter, eggs, and milk. While nothing quite beats the ease of opening a can, feel free to use fresh sweet potatoes instead if you have a few stored away.  While you'll save a few minutes, the fresh flavor will be superior with freshly roasted and pureed potatoes blitzed at home. So if your sweet potatoes are in season, cook up a few yourself. Otherwise, if they are not, grab a few cans in their place.

Once the pie comes out of the oven, your taste buds will begin to explore the wonderful fall flavors again, thanks to the warming spices in each bite. Don't forget the whipped cream and chopped nuts topping.

11. Warming spices

Warming spices have a way of giving you all the cozy feels in just one bite of your meal or one sip of your hot beverage. Whether you know it or not, some of the most classic takes on pie use warming spices to help enhance flavor and provide great comfort to every bite.

Apple pie, arguably the most classic pie of all, uses warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Coating your fruit with these spices adds a depth of flavor to each bite and the kind of warmth that touches the soul in an instant. You'll also find warming spices in fresh peach pie, as both cinnamon and nutmeg help balance out the sweet juicy essence of the fruit. Other warming spices that elevate pie filling include ginger, allspice, and even cardamom. Next time you plan to make a pie, provide your very own touch with a new combo of spices so you can call it your own.

12. Cream cheese

Cream cheese, on its own, offers a slightly sweet, mild, and tangy flavor that tastes amazing for breakfast. Beyond the convenient bagel and cream cheese duo, though, you'll find this shmear to amp up various pie fillings as well.

Let's start with a classic pie that might surprise you — cheesecake. If you were today years old when you found out cheesecake was a pie, don't worry about it. Old Merriam-Webster herself can help clear that up for you. 

Beyond cheesecake, though, you'll notice other pies take to cream cheese just fine. During autumn months, pumpkin and cream cheese go hand in hand to create a lovely rendition of pumpkin pie a la no-bake. During all the craze of the holiday season, you'll find a brick of cream cheese helps bring body to something like a no-bake peppermint pie. The weighty consistency of cream cheese combined with other ingredients set beautifully when placed in chilly fridge conditions. No-bake pies are great for saving oven space.

13. Pudding mix

Pudding mix has a way of really bringing glory to cakes, pies, and more. That cheap packeted ingredient seriously just doesn't get enough praise for its convenience and delightful flavor it can bring to a dessert. From layered trifles to dirt cakes galore, you'll find pudding to pack lots of flavors and a great thick consistency.

The thick consistency helps bring structure to light and fluffy desserts that need it, like pie. Take Butterfinger campfire pie, for example. By layering chocolate pudding, Butterfinger, mini marshmallows, and fluff, you will have a quick and convenient dessert within just a few minutes. Banana cream pie is another recipe that proves a delicious dessert doesn't need anything fancy to make it stand out. Bananas, pudding mix, and cool whip all bring a refreshing dessert to the table with ease, and we can all thank that little packet of powder for that.

14. Eggnog

We have all seen what heavy whipping cream, milk, and other dairy beverages can do to a pie, but sometimes it's fun to change things up a bit. Eggnog is one of the richest switches you can make for the cause. Because of its creamy consistency and ultra-sweet taste, eggnog boasts a custard-like texture that will bring glory to your tastebuds, especially when baked into a hot, gooey pie. Thanks to Eggland's Best, you can enjoy this unique eggnog pie. The lovely custard-like dessert is made with vanilla pudding mix, nutmeg, and eggnog. That hits three of our favorite pie-filling ingredients in one pie.

You can also make the most of your eggnog with the help of tangy cream cheese to make the best eggnog cheesecake or cheese pie your heart could ever desire.

15. Meat and veggies

While custards and fruit-filled pastries tend to stand out when it comes to pie, there is a whole world of savory pies to try. Shepherd's and chicken pot pie are well-liked in the US, but you'll find various takes on meat and potato varieties worldwide.

In Canada, classic comfort foods include salmon pie, filled with cooked salmon and mashed potatoes, and tourtière, the holiday staple filled with ground meat, spices, and chunks of potatoes. Australian meat pies are another delicious meaty pie filled with ground beef, onion, and spices and encased with puff pastry. Jamaican beef patties offer a fantastic take on savory meat pies and are filled with curried meat. The famous Caribbean street food is filled with flavors that represent the delicious origins well.

You can even travel to Greece and find their own take on pie, unique yet genuine to the flavors of the Mediterranean. Traditional spanakopita is spinach pie filled with pine nuts, fresh herbs, feta cheese, and loads of leafy green spinach. If you love pie and want to explore the savory varieties from around the world, we encourage you to go for it.

16. Honey

We all know honey best for its ability to bring on the power of sweetness to just about anything. Whether you like your hot tea or coffee sweet or you are looking for healthier ways to enhance your meals, honey comes in clutch. Not only will this natural ingredient enhance your foods and drinks, but it helps baked goods retain moisture and keep things moist. That's why you'll notice honey in recipes like cornbread, biscuits, and cake.

You can even add a drizzle to pies or make it the most prominent ingredient in the dessert, like in this salted honey pie. Butter, sugar, honey, eggs, and heavy cream all come together to form a thin filling that transforms into a thick custard-like pie. The natural flavor of honey combined with the rich consistency you sink your teeth into will provide results everyone will admire.

17. Egg whites

Egg whites can really elevate a simple pie when they are whipped into a light and airy meringue. By combining egg whites, cream of tartar, and some sugar, you can have a fluffy dessert that is meant for classic pies like lemon meringue.

In order to reach that pillowy fluffiness that is meringue, you'll need to beat those egg whites until they reach a volume that is several times the original size. The sugar works to sweeten and stabilize the egg whites when added in slowly. Don't make the mistake of dumping it all in at once or accidentally letting a few drops of yolk fall in. In a pie like lemon meringue, you can experience a gorgeous contrast of textures and flavors that complement one another and satisfy your sweet-tart cravings at the same time.

18. Maple syrup

We all love maple syrup as a go-to topping for crepes, pancakes, and waffles. But, beyond breakfast, maple syrup can elevate several baked goods as a natural sweetener, including pie. From baked maple and chocolate bar donuts to maple frosted cookies, you'll find that the sweet and natural flavor of maple is well-loved in the baking world. If you've been gifted with a glass bottle of some liquid gold, or you finally decided to splurge on a fresh batch from a nearby sugar shack, then be sure to use it in these pie recipes.

Classic pecan pie is a great place to start. The combination of golden syrup and maple syrup gives this pie a rich and immaculate impression that you won't get with other pies. Otherwise, you can try maple syrup 'n mix nut pie which boasts a variety of chopped nuts combined with a generous helping of medium amber syrup.