This post is a new installment in the long-dormant series, Food for Thought (And for Eating).

Cracker vs. Apple

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

There aren’t many foods that are as closely tied to American identity as apple pie. And, despite a contrarian article published last summer in Slate titled “Pie: It’s Gloppy, It’s Soggy, It’s Un-American”, Americans love apple pie so much that, at times, we’ve felt compelled to make it even when we don’t have any apples. I’ve heard about a recipe for apple-less apple pie from a number of people over the years, but I’ve never talked to anyone who’s actually eaten it. So this past weekend, I decided to give it a try.

Mock apple pie, or chemical apple pie as it is less-appetizingly known, is defined by three main ingredients: crackers, sugar, and cream of tartar. When these three ingredients are mixed and soaked in hot water, the resulting mushy cracker mixture is supposed to taste something like apples. I was skeptical. But as I stood over a boiling pot of slowly dissolving Ritz crackers, I thought I caught a faint whiff of apple. Maybe. It was an apple-ish smell anyway. I didn’t have any pie crust on hand and didn’t have the patience to make my own, so I settled for making a mock apple crisp. I poured my cracker filling into a baking dish and topped it with cinnamon and a mixture of flour, oats, sugar, and butter, and baked the whole mess for half an hour at 350 degrees.

For the sake of comparison, I also made a real apple crisp using actual apples. When the two crisps came out of the oven, the mock apple crisp looked a lot like the real thing. It was the right color and smelled like cinnamon with maybe even a hint of apple. On closer inspection, the filling was more uniform and gelatinous than the real apple filling, but it looked more or less the same. So far, so good. When I took a bite it tasted sweet and cinnamony, with a mild apple flavor – kind of like an overly sweet, bland apple crisp. I’m not really selling it here, but it actually wasn’t bad. It tasted less like mushy crackers and more like apple crisp than I expected it would anyway. But when I followed it up with a bite of real apple crisp, the mock crisp paled in comparison. It lacked the tartness and flavor of real apples.

Real vs. Mock Apple Crisp

Can you tell the difference? Real apple crisp (left) and mock apple crisp (right).

So how does it work? What makes a cracker pie filling taste like apples? Some focused googling failed to produce a definitive answer to this question, but a few possible explanations did turn up. Some people seem to think that cream of tartar is the secret ingredient responsible for the apple flavor. Cream of tartar (no relation to tartar sauce) is the potassium salt of tartaric acid, an organic acid that’s found in a lot of fruit, including apples. Because it’s also found in grapes, tartaric acid is present in most wines and often crystallizes on wine corks. When people who know about such things talk about a wine’s acidity, they’re mostly talking about the tartaric acid content. Tartaric acid (and cream of tartar) is sometimes used in cooking to impart a tart, sour flavor. And that’s probably the purpose it serves in the mock apple pie recipe as well. Even though apples contain tartaric acid, it’s not primarily responsible for the fruit’s distinct flavor. Another very similar organic acid found in apples, called malic acid, is more commonly associated with a tart, apple flavor (it’s name is even derived from malum, Latin for apple). Although malic acid is added to lots of foods these days as a flavoring agent and preservative, it doesn’t appear in the traditional mock apple pie recipe, probably because it wasn’t widely available when the recipe was developed. But more on that later. If someone were really serious about making a better-tasting fake apple pie, they might try using malic acid instead of cream of tartar.

Tartaric and Malic Acids

The chemical structures of tartaric acid (left) and malic acid (right).

Another possible explanation is that the mock pie doesn’t taste much like apples at all, we’re just tricked into thinking it does. It’s sweet, it’s buttery, it smells like cinnamon, it has a crust (or in my case an oatmeal topping), it looks just like an apple pie. So our brains fill in the missing piece – the taste and smell of apples. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. It turns out that visual cues are more important to our sense of taste than you might expect. In a 1980 study of the relationship between color and taste perception, researchers found that study participants had trouble correctly identifying the flavor of fruit-flavored drinks when the the drinks were inappropriately colored. For instance, when a cherry-flavored drink was colored green, 26% of participants thought that it tasted like lemon/lime, but when it was colored red, everyone thought it tasted like cherry. A problem with this study was that the participants were not aware that the flavors and colors of their drinks were mismatched, and so may have relied on color when they weren’t exactly sure about their drink’s flavor. But in follow-up studies participants were told up front that the color of the drinks they were tasting had nothing to do with the flavor, and they still had a hard time correctly identifying the flavor of inappropriately colored drinks. One widely accepted interpretation of these results is that a food’s color (and more generally, it’s appearance) sets up a largely unconscious expectation of what the food will taste like. This expectation can be so strong that it actually influences how we perceive the taste of the food – sort of like a gustatory placebo effect. Something similar may be going on when we eat mock apple pie.

When I told my mom, who’d heard of the recipe before but never tried it, that I was making a mock apple pie, her response was, “Yuck. I never understood why anyone would want to make an apple pie out of crackers.” This seems to be a pretty common response. So who were these people who invented an apple-less apple pie? It turns out that the recipe is much older than you might expect. It dates back at least as far as the mid-19th century. As pioneers settled across the American West, they found themselves without access to apples, which aren’t native to the region. Craving the apple pie they were used to eating back east, some resourceful pioneers came up with a substitute pie made out of soda crackers. There’s a recipe for a cracker-based mock apple pie titled “California Pioneer Apple Pie, 1852” in the 1894 cookbook, How We Cook in Los Angeles. During the Civil War, apples, which were imported from New England before the war, became scarce in the South. So in 1863, a recipe for “Apple Pie Without the Apples” appeared in the Confederate Receipt Book: “To one small bowl of crackers, that have been soaked until no hard parts remain, add one teaspoonful of tartaric acid, sweeten to your taste, add some butter, and a very little nutmeg.” Decades later, there was a resurgence in popularity of the mock apple pie during the Great Depression, when apples became prohibitively expensive for many Americans. It was at this time that Ritz crackers capitalized on the recipe’s popularity by printing it on their boxes. The original Ritz recipe is still available online today.

There’s an impressive amount of history and psychology behind the mock apple pie. But as I ate my mock apple crisp, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d probably never make it again. It’s not that it tasted bad, just that I’d rather make a real apple crisp if I’m going to put in the effort. But if you want to try some mock apple pie for yourself, the recipe I used was adapted from this recipe at Allrecipes.com.

References and Further Reading

Ritz Mock Apple Pie – An Old Time Favorite from the Seattle Times

Food Timeline for Mock Apple Pie

Spence, C., Levitan, C., Shankar, M., & Zampini, M. (2010). Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans? Chemosensory Perception, 3 (1), 68-84 DOI: 10.1007/s12078-010-9067-z

  7 Responses to “Apple Pie, Hold the Apples”

  1. This is thoroughly awesome. Food and chemistry (well, plants and chemistry) are my favorite combo. Do you think the variety of cracker might have a big impact on the persuasiveness of the flavor of mock apple pie? Maybe there’s some ingredient that facilitates the removal of that hydroxyl group from the tartaric acid with cooking, so you can get actual malic acid. (Or maybe as you suggest, the secret is all in the suggestibility of the human palate).

    • Thanks! Food and chemistry are an interesting combination (as unappetizing as that may sound to some people). I wondered if there was some interesting chemistry going on here too. My first thought is that mono-dehydroxylation of tartaric acid to make malic acid would require harsher/more complicated conditions than what you could achieve on your stovetop. I didn’t come across any information about the chemistry of the cracker filling, but there might be some other chemical transformation going on.

      As for the type of cracker used, Ritz seem to be the most popular cracker used in the recipe (maybe because they have a buttery flavor to start with?), but people must have used all sorts of crackers before Ritz existed, and you’d think different crackers would influence the flavor of the pie differently. Who knows? It’d make for an interesting taste test.

      • Well, Dan, since I’m quoted here, I might as well put in my two (non-chemist) cents. Based on your description of the taste of your non-apple crisp, your Great Aunt Barbara would certainly tell you that you ought to put a teaspoon or so of lemon juice in there to improve the flavor. I do know that that works remarkably well in real apple pie for those of us who prefer a nice tart apple pie.
        I’ll be expecting some nice tart real apple crisp next time you come home,
        Mom

  2. [...] 2. The science behind the making of an apple-less apple pie (mock apple pie) [...]

  3. [...] Before reading Dan’s entertaining post on Smells Like Science, I was (blissfully) unaware of the existence of “Fake Apple Pie”. Now I want to go boil some crackers. If you want to know more about the chemistry behind it, and the fascinating relationship between our senses and tastes, go read his piece. [...]

  4. I have had an extra box of Ritz crackers in the pantry and have always been intruiged by the “mock apple pie” recipe (I remember seeing it as a child). Yesterday, I gave it a try. Like Dan said, I won’t ever make it again. It’s weird. It’s kind of like the inside of a pecan pie, but with mushy crackers inside. I used 2 T. fresh lemon juice and the zest of the lemon and I don’t like the tangy flavor it gave the filling. I guess I’m not fooled! It was a waste of a perfectly good pie crust. Wish I had dumped a can of pie filling in it!

  5. I’m 40 and I remember this recipe on the back of Ritz cracker boxes even in my childhood in the 1980s, and today I finally broke down and made one. As I sit here eating it (yes, I’m still eating the first piece,) I googled the first thing that came to mind and that’s how I landed on your page. “Ritz mock apple pie tastes like lemon.” It certainly LOOKS like apple pie, and the cinnamon, sugar and crust are definitely helping to create that illusion. But the lack of any fruit to actually bite into just makes it feel like more of a custardy pie like the lemon part of a lemon meringue pie. Not to mention, this recipe calls for not only 2 tbsp lemon juice, but the zest of an entire lemon.

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