As I geared up for Thanksgiving dinner, my thoughts turn to refrigerator space. It’s at a premium, to put it mildly. The more ingredients and completed dishes I can leave out on the counter, the better. And that brings up my constant quandry. Do baked pies have to be refrigerated?
But I’m big on food safety and would rather be safe than sorry.
I’d like my Thanksgiving dinner to be memorable for the good time family and friends enjoyed, not their recollections of recovery from food poisoning.
This year (2023) and the first year I wrote this post (2014), I made pumpkin and pecan pies. The first year I wrote this post, my friend Jill (of copycat Cosi salad fame) made apple crisp. Do I have to use precious refrigerator space for the pies and apple crisp? My instinct (in 2014) was that I have to refrigerate the fully cooked pumpkin pie has to be refrigerated, but not the pecan pie and apple crisp.
But I was wrong and here’s why.
By the way, the Nestlé Company (Libby’s brand canned pumpkin) gives advice I wouldn’t follow concerning refrigerating pumpkin pies, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Which Baked Pies Have to be Refrigerated?
- If a pie contains milk, cream and or eggs, refrigerate it. This includes milk and cream in any form – (no matter what the fat content), buttermilk, sour cream, and cream cheese. Also, refrigerate pies containing evaporated or condensed milk products. Those ingredients contain high levels of protein and moisture that are fertile grounds for the growth of bacteria.
- What pies contain milk, cream or eggs? Check your recipe. Typically pumpkin and pecan pies do contain eggs, but fruit pies do not. Lemon meringue and all types of chiffon pies contain eggs, so they have to be refrigerated. My Boston Cream Pie is egg/custard-based and must be refrigerated.
- How does refrigeration help? Refrigeration prevents the growth of bacteria, although not indefinitely as the occasional science experiment at the back of my refrigerator (a/k/a a forgotten container of leftovers from a long forgotten meal) attest.
- Refrigerate pie quickly. After baking, refrigerate the pie once it is cool enough to handle. Then, as you bring it back to room temperature for serving, only leave the pie out for 2 hours or less. In other words, don’t leave the pies out all day prior to Thanksgiving dinner, whether you make them the day before or bake them in the morning. Ugh – the refrigerator space they’ll take up! But at least now I know to plan that they will occupy a narrow refrigerator shelf for most of Thursday.
- Why do you see pumpkin and pecan pies sitting out, unrefrigerated, in groceries and bakeries? Those pies contain preservatives and shelf-stable ingredients that allow them to be displayed and stored at room temperature. Commercially prepared pies that can be sold at room temperature should display an “RT” label; in any event they should be refrigerated after opening. The pecan pie below is homemade, and therefore I had to refrigerate it.
What advice from Nestlé wouldn’t I follow? On its site, the company says (paraphrased):
How do I store a pumpkin (or pecan) pie once baked?
After baking, leave the pie at room temperature as the cooling process normally takes 2-4 hours. Within 4 hours, place the pie in the refrigerator. Cover loosely with plastic wrap until serving. You can keep pumpkin or pecan pie refrigerated for 2-3 days.
But the American Egg Board and the FDA do not recommend leaving a pumpkin pie on the counter for 4 hours. Both recommend refrigerating home-baked pumpkin pies within 2 hours. The Q&A does refer specifically to cooling after baking, and the Egg Board and FDA recommendations are more general.
Still I’d go with the shorter time, especially because bacteria like warmer temperatures. While you might not sicken your guests by leaving the pie out for 4 hours, do you really want to take that risk?
Update PS – In 2018 I made 2 pies, a sour cream pumpkin
and a chocolate pecan slab pie.
Although neither was a work of art visually, both were delicious. (The former is Stella Park’s crust from her book, Iconic American Desserts. The latter is Cathy Barrow’s recipe from Pie Squared.) I didn’t have enough room in the refrigerator to store them, so I kept them on an unheated porch. Of course, you can’t leave food where animals can get at it. However, keeping pies in an enclosed porch that stays just above 32 degrees works fine in a pinch.
What About Vegan/Plant-Based Pies?
Do vegan/plant-based baked pies have to be refrigerated? This question arose because my son and his husband are vegan. This year (2023) I made 2 plant-based pies, a pumpkin one and a pecan one with a chocolate base.
I wondered whether I had to refrigerate them. They have no dairy or eggs, so I decided they could ber at room temperature. However, for taste reasons, I refrigerated them anyway. It turns out that the venerable New York Times Cooking site agrees with me on this.
I’ve updated this post twice since I wrote it in 2014. The first time was 2018 and the second is 2023.