22 November, 2010

The Pot Pie Buyer's Guide

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved pot pies.  Back then, my mom used to buy Banquet pies because they were infinitely cheap - something like 20 cents apiece, on sale - and a bunch of hungry kids could be fed for a couple of bucks.  Although Banquet pies aren't anything like the best on the market, I still buy them now and then.  We had them often enough as kids that they're comfort food.

Anyway, over the past couple of months, I've been buying and eating various brands of commercial pot pies in an effort to rank them by taste and quality.  Price and overall quality are pretty closely related with pot pies, so when you go shopping for any of the brands I've reviewed you'd be safe in assuming that the lowest-ranked pies are going to make the smallest dent in your lunch budget.  But even with that in mind, you should know that any of them, even the worst of the bunch, are still enjoyable in their own way. With only one perhaps surprising exception, I liked every pie I tried and would buy them again.

So, let's take a look, starting at the bottom.

LOWEST QUALITY:


Sharing last place are Valu-Time (made for and distributed by Topco,) Banquet (made by ConAgra,) and Bremer (one of ALDI's house brands) 7-ounce frozen pies, which are so similar that they are virtually indistinguishable.  All three have top and bottom crusts, a large amount of salty, artificial-tasting gravy, and little squares of soft spongy "meat" which are actually cut-up bits of processed, pressed, and formed poultry loaf.  The meat also varies in color from light to dark, simulating actual white and dark meat from poultry. Vegetables include potatoes, carrots, and peas, but like the meat, they are in small pieces, thinly distributed.  Although the crusts of  these pies are thin, the top crusts at least cook up fairly flaky.   I've found that the bottom crusts, of the Valu-Time and Banquet pies seem to  have a tendency to remain undercooked and a little gooey even after the rest of the pie is ready when the pies are prepared in a microwave.  For all their faults, however, I still keep coming back to these cheap pies - especially Banquet - for nostalgia's sake. 

Banquet pot pies can be found just about everywhere, usually for about a dollar when they're not on sale.  Valu-Time pot pies can be found at any supermarket that sells Topco products, such as Big Y, Harris Teeter, and Price Chopper.  The price varies depending on the store, but Big Y was selling them for under a dollar and I suspect that's close to the going rate.  And Bremer pies, of course, can be found at ALDI in the frozen prepared foods section.  When I bought them, they were a pretty good deal at 85 cents each.



SLIGHTLY BETTER THAN LOWEST:

There isn't a lot of difference between the Swanson 7-ounce pot pie and the low-quality pies I've already mentioned.  The crust is just about the same and the fillings are similar.  But the gravy in the Swanson pie seemed thicker and more natural-tasting to me, so I thought it should be in a slightly better category.

However, all things being equal, I pass up the Swanson for the Banquet most of the time because Swanson is priced higher, and the difference in quality is not at all commensurate with the difference in price.



GOOD QUALITY

Marie Callender's 7 ounce pies are made by ConAgra - just like the Banquet pies - but the difference is so striking that you'd never guess they were produced by the same company!  These pies have white meat only (still cut from formed loaves) in much larger cuts and more generous distribution, and much better gravy.  These pies also have top and bottom crusts, but the pastry is thicker, flakier, and just overall better than the low quality versions.

These 7-ounce pies can be a bit harder to find than their slightly-larger 10-ounce version, but you can usually find them in multi-packs at Costco.

Marie Callender's 10-ounce pies are exactly the same composition as the smaller 7-ounce version.  The same good gravy, the same big chunks of white meat and larger vegetable cuts, the same flaky pastry - just 3 ounces more of it.  Ten-ounce pies are easier to find in the stores than the 7-ounce sizes.

Bremer Select 10-ounce pies (by ALDI) are sold in 4-pack boxes only. They are 2-crust pies with excellent pastry (thick and flaky) good chicken gravy, large chunks of real white-meat chicken, and generous vegetables.  I was pretty impressed by the quality of these pies, but while I consider them to be superior to the Marie Callender pies, they are similar enough to share a rating.


VERY GOOD QUALITY:

Boston Market 16 oz pie, top and bottom crust.  The pie has lots of meat (white and dark) but also seems to have odd chunks of cartilage.  The gravy is quite good, and the vegetables - carrot, corn, and green bean. - are generous and fresh-tasting. The crust is flaky and decent, even on the bottom. This pie should be a winner, but there is something about the Boston Market pies I've tried that almost nauseates me. The  gravy has a "slippery" mouthfeel, a vague and unpleasant gumminess that triggers my gag reflex. Because the other aspects of the pie are so good, though, I'm willing to give Boston Market the benefit of the doubt - it's possible that there's something about the recipe that I don't care for, but you won't mind.  So here it is, in the "Very Good" category.

Meanwhile, the Stouffer's 16-ounce pot pie is really great.  It's loaded with lots of big pieces of white-meat chicken, great veggies, and the gravy tastes, no kidding, like homemade.  The crust is just the right thickness, delicious tender and flaky.  I guess the only fault with it would be that it's a bit saltier than the Boston Market (still less salty than the bottom-rated pies, though.)

EXCELLENT QUALITY:

It is a testament to the outstanding attention to quality at Budd Foods of Manchester New Hampshire that all three of the pies rated "Excellent" are their products.

Bistro Cuisine chicken pot pies are made by Budd and advertised as "The World's Finest Chicken Pie."  That's not too much of an exaggeration. The single crust on top is a generous circle of awesome puff pastry which sits atop delicious gravy, true white meat chicken, and vegetables including corn, peas, and carrots.  My only complaint about Bistro Cuisine was that the gravy was very thick - thicker than I like it - but the other qualities of the pie are so outstanding that I can't take points off.

Mrs. Budd's Fully Baked White Meat Chicken Pie is usually sold in the refrigerated prepared meats section.  All they require is a thorough heating in the oven and they're good to go, but they do include microwave instructions.  After our local Shaw's supermarket closed, I hadn't realized Mrs. Budd's were still available around here until I got a Tweet from Sproffee one afternoon:  "This microwave pot pie is surprisingly and delightfully delicious."  She pretty much summed up Mrs. Budd's pies right there.  Big chunks of chicken breast meat, fresh-tasting veggies, and homestyle gravy bubbling under a delicious shortcrust pastry.  Well worth the $3.50 or so at the store.

I have similar high praise for Mrs. Budd's Fully Cooked White Meat Chicken Pie with broccoli, carrots, and pearl onions.  Once again, this is a single-crust pie which is topped with an excellent, flaky, tender disk of shortcrust pastry.  The homestyle gravy is just as delicious in this pie as in the other Mrs. Budd's offering, though it has a bit of a greenish tinge to it from the broccoli.  There are big chunks of white meat, and the broccoli isn't in tiny little mushy bits but rather in two or three generous florets which still maintain their shape and their almost-crispy texture.  I was quite favorably surprised at that (I expected soft and squishy overcooked broccoli.)  The only problem I had was that I just couldn't find any pearl onions in either of the pies I bought.  Maybe they melted away into the gravy during the cooking time?  No matter what happened to those elusive onions, though, it won't stop me from recommending the pies.


BEST IN SHOW:


As I said in the beginning of this post, I really like pot pies and I'd gladly enjoy even the worst ones on this list.  But there is one brand I tried that is head and shoulders above the rest.  It is also by far the most expensive of the pies - but remember, I did warn you that quality and price are quite intimately related when it comes to pot pie selection.


Willow Tree Chicken Pot Pie, made in Attleboro MA and distributed primarily in New England, is a top-crust-only pie which comes frozen in an aluminum pie pan and must be baked in either a conventional or a toaster oven, no microwaves allowed.  The crust is gorgeous and tastes homemade, and so does the splendid chicken gravy.  But what is most noticeable about Willow Tree pies is what's missing.  There are no vegetables or filler of any kind in them, they're just meat, gravy, and crust.




There are no tricks here, no compressing white chicken meat into an easily-portioned rectangular mass, not even any slipping in smaller irregular bits to round out the weight for the packing scale.  The picture speaks for itself and shows you exactly what you get under that pastry: big chunks of chicken breast meat, cooked absolutely perfectly, with a generous portion of gravy (enough to dress a scoop of mashed potatoes) and a delicious circle of pastry as well.  This pie truly deserves its "Best In Show" honors.
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7 comments:

Alan said...

This is a favorite topic of mine. Like you, I grew up with various versions of pot pies. Like you, I think even the cheap ones can fill your appetite on a cold day while watching Jeopardy. I remember a brand, years ago, that when you dumped it on a plate it flattened out into nothing but gravy and a few miscellaneous other things, for color. But the gravy was good. I'm a sucker for pot pies on sale. It's like stocking up for the end of the world. One day I made one of my own. Found a recipe that beats all the pot pies I ever had. I'll still buy them on sale though. Great article, Dave.

Naik Sair said...

I love pot pies. Even the cheap ones. Here you can get a Banquet pot pie for around $0.62, and when they are on sale, as low as $0.39, so it makes for a very cheap meal, especially if there are quite a few people eating.

Stamford Movers said...

Strangely, I've never been able to find Banquet in any stores near me. Maybe I've got to move a bit north to MA...

Dennis K. said...

Hi Dave, wonderful post!! Seriously! I grew up on frozen pot pies myself. Awesome info here and so neat to see the varieties, not to mention all the ones rated 'very good quality' and above... I haven't ventured anything above a Marie Callendar's so curious to try them. Cheers

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I just had a Marie Callendar's chicken pot pie last night and was pretty happy. I've never even heard of any of the brands you said were "excellent quality," but then I probably wasn't looking. Making my own is so much better, but I'm kinda lazy about it and last made one two years ago.

I did a similar thing ranking frozen turkey dinners and oooh, boy, all the sodium I ingested made me feel pretty sick.

Anonymous said...

The number one hands down best is Willow Tree ,They are what they say they are , Turkey or Chicken meat and Gravy no veggies to take up space. Sadly not available in my area . Willow does have online ordering but the prices for shipping are beyond my budget !!!!

francinescott said...

A couple weeks ago I was at an Aldi's, I picked up their Bremer 10 in. size, it was the most delicious pot pie I've had, it was so good. Tonight I picked up some Marie Callendar's, not as good. It was great to see someone reporting on this as you did because we are in agreement. Next week I am going back to Aldi's!!