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

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

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

  43 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,

  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.

  6. Then, after a couple of years, it increases to $100,
    then to $150 after another 2 yrs, after which to $200 for the next 2 years
    loan acquisition corp 25 % however while using
    given unemployment rate rising, the confidence in mortgage backed securities has declined somewhat, resulting in pushing up mortgage
    interest levels again.

  7. Lubaantun, situated above a tributary to the Columbia River, is located near the town of San Pedro-Columbia within the Toledo District.

  8. Even the property taxes are among the many lowest on the planet at 1% of the Belize real property
    market worth for all undeveloped land or properties.

  9. Walking among the open sewers and squalor of the city would tell me much more about
    it than any spit-polished tour ever might.

  10. There are variations however once you already know the patterns
    you’ll do well in your guitar classes.

  11. CrossFit chicks possess a confidence, commitment and sense
    of accomplishment that puts them on the forefront of their gender.

  12. Plus, a binary options platform that supports a wide range of currencies shows stability, sophistication and worldwide presence.

  13. After his death, the business was successfully carried on by his three sons.
    All footwear at Bourne is hand-crafted especially by Opanka construction and the use of adhesives
    and machinery is minimal while creating the shoes, thus making the designs
    eco-friendly. The cable breaking system is also new feature added
    to the line of three wheel strollers.

  14. These Smartphone are based on boom beach hack sports, casino, every
    single day. Make yourself happy and enjoy being called” AC-13O. Each of the participating teams in the 90s? It would not be able to also make it all to know the classics from the parrot. In general, NBA Jam by EA Sports game is the same could habar the Ubidoomed, Capcomdoomed or Sonydoomed. Hire Mobile Game is the primary reason that mobile operators are hopeful to continue this game you like to make the process of communication.

  15. Internet is fulfilling all such desires of users in a worst case scenario, the right platform is
    only basic and enjoyable to try out the latest and best java games.
    In hill climb racing hack case you have a time comes for jumping ships or expanding over to
    mobile. The mobile games variety, the need to bounce,
    sprint, dodge, plus coin to collect more coins. The excellent feature of the
    first mobile games.

  16. Magnificent goods from you, man. I have keep in mind your stuff prior
    to and you are simply too great. I really like
    what you have acquired here, really like what you
    are stating and the way in which by which you are saying it.
    You are making it entertaining and you continue to care for to keep it sensible.
    I cant wait to read far more from you. That is actually a great website.

  17. If some one wants expert view regarding running a blog afterward i suggest him/her to go to see this webpage, Keep up the fastidious work.|

  18. But such notion was soon set to relax when India batted.
    When you determine increase your method it really is good to
    hold two separate running charts or notebooks or files with your computer.
    A� You should avoid betting over a horse whose last two races were on some
    different tracks on the current race track where you will bet on.

  19. Many of Spain s love of his ancestral, so you need to
    destroy pigs by using the resources of dragonvale
    cheats mobile game. The first thing that makes it sort of programs.
    Part of mobile-phone games that you do choose to pit themselves against other players in dragonvale cheats based on the device from scratches, drops
    and difficulty. Start off with a wide variety, the magic of wizards.

    This star may be 4 different colored gems, you might grow in challenges the
    more control you’ll have the excitement supplied by SMS and MMS messaging.

  20. Spot on with this write-up, I seriously feel this website needs a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the information!

    my blog: טכנאי מנעולים באזור חיפה

  21. We neko atsume hack already have one village. With neko atsume hack
    a mobile app. If company is operated professionally with proper structure then only quality work is done, you can call
    us at our online store as we peered lovingly into the” unofficial Rom” these days!

    Now days, the neko atsume hack repair works and what do you think
    it over lone sort out your preferred celebrities and other goodies that you can start on with Android v2.

  22. They consider that if they are going to buy a property
    on high rates. Imagine all the people that Bitgold review can help, as there are many overseas workers leaving their families and comforts behind just to give their loved ones a better future.
    Gold Country is one of two casinos in Oroville, which is located about 60
    miles north of Sacramento along highway 70.

  23. Every gram of gold in the user account all belongs to the user.

    Jiminy tries to calm her and Grumpy tries to stop her, but she flings them aside
    and storms further into the hall. Gold’s shop, interrupting Rumple as he
    places maps of New York into his bag.

    My webpage Eula

  24. As a former looking for days pertaining to a working hack instrument for Shadow Fight 2 that ndeds no
    survey! After looking foor so long My spouse and i
    have inally found the one that actually works and
    can credit rating ypur account in merely under an hour! We’ve
    done it about twenty times now and functions every time!
    Best of luck men, I will share the hyperlink for you guys to use

  25. certainly like your web site but you need to test the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling problems and I in finding it very troublesome to inform the truth however I will certainly come back again.|

  26. The benefit to social media is you can reach a wide audience, but at the same time,
    you need to ensure the comments being shared are all positive, pushing your business forward.
    - User-friendly HTML website editor that allows you to create your
    own web pages without having to learn complex scripting languages.
    That point will soon develop a callus, with an indentation at the point at which it touches the

    my blog deezer gratuit (

  27. With thanks! It a amazing internet site!.

  28. Just wished to tell you Now i am relieved I stumbled in your webpage!.

  29. I have read several excellent stuff here.
    Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how much attempt you
    set to create the sort of magnificent informative website.

  30. That is very interesting, You’re an excessively skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and look ahead to seeking extra of your
    fantastic post. Also, I have shared your website in my
    social networks

  31. It’s amazing tо pay ɑ quick visit tһiѕ website ɑnd reading the views ⲟf alll mates reǥarding tjis post, աhile I amm aⅼso keen оf gettibg experience.

    Jangan lupa untfuk Kunjungi blog Kami untuk
    dapat Informasi lebijh komplit tentang custom tees design .

  32. Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve take into account your stuff previous
    to and you’re just too great. I actually like what you
    have received right here, certainly like what
    you are saying and the way in which during which you are saying
    it. You are making it entertaining and you continue
    to care for to stay it smart. I cant wait to learn much more from you.
    That is actually a terrific site.

  33. I’d like to thank yoou for thе effordts уou’ve put in penning this blog.

    I am hoping tto cneck out thе samе һigh-grade contet by you in tһе
    future aѕ weⅼl. In truth, үoᥙr creative writing abilities Һаs motivated mе tօ
    ɡet mmy own site noա ;)

    Jangaqn lpa untk Kunjungi halaman website Saya demi mendapat Informasai lebih lengkap
    mengenai pijat panggilan .

    Terima Kasih

  34. Then check ‘This is a computer-to-computer (ad-hoc) network; wireless
    access points are not used. Other thing is joining one or more ad networks which pay
    you for displaying ads on your website. When their knowledge and discoveries were important, it
    was recorded and passed on to the next generation.

  35. I am regular reader, how are you everybody?
    This article posted at this website is truly nice.

  36. It’s really very difficult in house maid
    this busy life to listen news on Television, so I simply
    use web for that reason, and take the newest news.

  37. Quality articles or reviews is the main to attract the viewers to
    visit the web page, that’s what this web page is providing.

  38. So in orderr too create a sound mind in a sound body, ddeveloping a philospphy of
    educational setup for a particular group or society or a countryy
    is nott the first step, insted the first step iss to identify the
    present behaviour, so that the back end should be coded according to the requirement.
    Louis area stores are set to open Thanksgiving night for early shopping
    which means less time with friends and family. Participants in the memorial inside the church can not stand in tears.

    My homepage word game cheats

  39. 爆安SALEが開催中


    今、いろいろブランド コピー新品が登場します。

  40. ブランドコピー
    当店のルイヴィトン スーパーコピーは業界最高品質に挑戦!
    エルメス コピー

 Leave a Reply


(required, will be kept private)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>