What Are Butter Tarts?

The country's best-kept culinary secret is finally out

As far as Canadian culinary traditions go, few iconic dishes, let alone desserts, are ever carried across the border into the U.S. But all that's about to change: Brace yourself for the butter tart. 

Though the confection itself is uniquely Canadian, you can best think of it as a cross between pecan pie (sans pecan, depending on who you ask) and sugar pie in bite-size form: a humble little treat of a flaky crust filled with ingredients like brown sugar, eggs and vanilla that's baked in a mini muffin tin and is almost always described as a sweet, buttery pastry with a gently oozing filling (get the recipe).

It wasn't until last month, though, that Americans got one of their first border-crossing tastes when Btarts, a bakery whose mission is to bring the pastry to the masses, debuted the tarts at Smorgasburg in NYC. Founder Asher Weiss, who moved from Toronto to the States four years ago, had no choice in the matter. "Shortly after I got here, I realized that no one had ever even heard of butter tarts in the U.S., let alone tasted them," he recalls. 

For a country that rarely abstains from any form of sugar rush, it's a peculiar oversight. But in Canada, butter tarts are so common they're a staple of even truck stops and are so popular they've inspired not one but two butter tart bakery trails and a mouthful of festivals. (The annual Ontario's Best Butter Tart Festival—the same province where the first-known butter tart recipe was published in 1900—drew 50,000 visitors and sold 163,500 butter tarts.)

From province to province and county to county, the variations are all slight (the long-standing debate revolves around whether or not to include raisins), and like all recipes of pure, sugary nostalgia, everyone's grandmother claims to have the best recipe. Except, Weiss believes he has all of them beat—even his own.

Along with his parents, Weiss scoured Ontario to try butter tarts across the entire region, where a long list of bakeries claim to have the best recipe. "We tasted the tarts from hundreds of bakeries around the province, including those that are on the official Butter Tart Trail and from all of the vendors who participate in the two major Ontario Butter Tart Festivals," he says. "We also ordered butter tarts from every café, restaurant and specialty food shop that was recommended by our many foodie friends and baked dozens of recipes from Canadian cookbooks—it took us months of tasting and comparing and baking." And, yes, he even gave his great-grandmother's recipe a go. 

So what's Btarts' secret recipe? Weiss won't divulge, but it helps that production is led by Rebecca Isbell, who for years was (ironically) a butter-starved pastry chef at Michelin-starred restaurant Betony in NYC before it closed. But one trick they are willing to share is that, as with most recipes, the quality of ingredients plays a crucial role.

"Most of the old recipes used lard in the pastry, and even now, most bakeries and other producers in Canada use shortening," Weiss explains. "Our pastry is all butter." He also uses organic butter (and organic eggs), not to mention pure Canadian maple syrup in place of the usual corn syrup found in most recipes. 

And though we might not have been able to grab Weiss's exact formula for his tarts, you can still try making this classic recipe at home—or better yet, visit Btarts and try them for yourself.

Keith Flanagan is a Brooklyn-based food and travel writer—he's never met a pastry he didn't eat. Follow his every meal on Instagram at @keithflanny.