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What is the difference between a custard and a cream filling in a pie?

Quick Answer

Custard and cream pie fillings have some key differences:

  • Custards contain eggs as a main ingredient, while creams do not.
  • Custards are thickened with egg protein, while creams are thickened with starch.
  • Custards have a soft, silky texture from the eggs, while creams are lighter and fluffier.
  • Custard fillings are cooked in the pie shell, while cream fillings are pre-cooked then added.
  • Custards take well to baking, while creams may separate or weep if baked.

In summary, custard fillings rely on egg as a thickener and become firm from baking, while cream fillings use starch and are added pre-cooked to pies. Custards have a richer, denser texture compared to the lighter texture of creams.

What is Custard?

Custard is a thickened, creamy dessert made with milk, cream, sugar, and eggs. The eggs provide the main thickening power in custard. Specifically, custard is thickened through the coagulation (setting) of egg proteins when gently heated.

The main ingredients in custard are:

  • Milk or cream – The dairy provides richness and moisture.
  • Sugar – Usually granulated white sugar, adds sweetness.
  • Eggs – Whole eggs or sometimes just yolks. The proteins thicken the custard.
  • Flavorings – Vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.

Optional ingredients can include flour or cornstarch to help stabilize and thicken the custard. Salt is also sometimes added to balance flavors.

To make a baked custard, the liquid ingredients are whisked together and poured into a pie shell or ramekins. The custard then bakes in the oven at a low temperature, typically 300-325°F. The gentle heat causes the egg proteins to unfold and then set into a rich, creamy solid.

The resulting custard is lush and silky with a softly set texture. It can be served warm or chilled. Baked custards work well as pie fillings because they hold their shape and have a sliceable texture when cooled.

Types of Custard

There are several varieties of custard used in pies:

  • Bakewell Custard – A British pie with jam and frangipane in an egg custard.
  • Buttermilk Pie – Uses buttermilk for tangy flavor in the custard.
  • Chess Pie – Has a very simple custard with eggs, sugar, butter, and flour.
  • Coconut Custard – Made with coconut milk and tropical flavors.
  • Custard Pie – The basic vanilla egg custard pie popular in the South.
  • Hoosier Pie – A nutmeg flavored custard from Indiana.
  • Kentucky Bourbon Pie – Uses bourbon in the custard.
  • Lemon Meringue – Has a tart lemon custard filling.
  • Pumpkin Pie – Made from pumpkin puree and spices.
  • Sugar Cream Pie – A caramelly vanilla custard pie.

The recipes vary, but all contain eggs to achieve the rich, creamy custard texture.

What is Cream Filling?

Cream fillings are a lighter, airier alternative to traditional custard fillings. Instead of using eggs as the main thickener, cream fillings get their thickness from starch.

Common ingredients in cream pie fillings include:

  • Milk or cream – Provides richness and moisture.
  • Sugar – For sweetness.
  • Butter or vegetable shortening – For texture.
  • Starch – Usually flour, cornstarch, or tapioca starch to thicken.
  • Extracts and flavors – Vanilla, coconut, lemon, etc.
  • Whipped cream or beaten egg whites – For extra lightness.

The starch is first cooked on the stovetop to develop its thickening power. The milk, sugar, and flavorings are added to make a pastry cream. Finally, light ingredients like whipped cream or egg whites are folded in.

The resulting filling has a light, cloud-like texture. It is scooped into a cooked pie shell rather than baked in it. This prevents the delicate cream from separating or weeping moisture during baking.

Types of Cream Pie

Here are some classic cream pie varieties:

  • Banana Cream Pie – Pastry cream with bananas.
  • Boston Cream Pie – Vanilla pastry cream filling.
  • Chocolate Cream Pie – Chocolate pudding in pie shell.
  • Coconut Cream Pie – With coconut flavored pastry cream.
  • Duke of Earl Pie – Filled with cheese and cranberries.
  • French Silk Pie – Chocolate mousse-like filling.
  • Fruit Cream Pies – Pastry cream with berries, peaches, etc.
  • Grasshopper Pie – Cream with creme de menthe and chocolate.
  • Key Lime Pie – Often made with sweetened condensed milk.
  • Lemon Sponge Pie – Fluffy lemon cream in a sponge cake crust.

These pies all avoid baking the filling, so the delicate cream remains light and fluffy when sliced.

Custard vs Cream: Key Differences

Now that we’ve covered how custard and cream fillings are defined individually, let’s directly compare them:

1. Main Thickener

  • Custard – Eggs provide the main thickening power.
  • Cream – Starch like flour or cornstarch thickens the filling.

The thickening agent also impacts the resulting texture…

2. Texture

  • Custard – Has a lush, silky texture and dense richness from egg proteins.
  • Cream – Is light and foamy in texture from incorporated air and fat.

Custard’s almost pudding-like density contrasts cream’s lighter, airier quality.

3. Cooking Method

  • Custard – Is poured into unbaked pie shell and baked to set.
  • Cream – Is pre-cooked on stove then added to baked shell.

The eggs allow custard to bake without weeping or curdling. Cream fillings need gentler heat to maintain their structure.

4. Behavior When Baked

  • Custard – Firms up nicely and slices cleanly when baked.
  • Cream – Can weep liquid or separate if baked.

Again, the custard’s egg proteins lend it great baking resilience compared to more delicate cream fillings.

5. Ingredients

  • Custard – Must contain eggs, typically uses dairy and sugar too.
  • Cream – Dairy, sugar, starch, butter, and flavorings.

Eggs are essential to custard, while cream fillings achieve their texture without any eggs at all.

6. Final Texture

  • Custard – Has a sliceable, set texture when cooled.
  • Cream – Remains creamy and scoopable when cooled.

The firmer set of custard contrasts the soft, mousse-like texture in cooled cream fillings.

Custard vs Cream Filling: Visual Comparison

Here is a visual summary of some key custard and cream filling differences:

Attribute Custard Filling Cream Filling
Main thickener Eggs Starch
Texture Rich and dense Light and foamy
Cooking method Baked in pie shell Pre-cooked then added
When baked Firms up nicely Can weep or separate
Contains eggs? Yes No
Cooled texture Sliceable and set Creamy and scoopable

Examples of Custard and Cream Pies

To see the difference between custards and creams in action, let’s look at some popular pie examples.

Custard Pies

  • Chess Pie – This simple Southern custard pie contains eggs, sugar, butter, flour, and vanilla. The eggs give it a rich and dense texture that slices cleanly.
  • Buttermilk Pie – Buttermilk adds tangy flavor to the traditional egg custard. The pie firms up nicely and holds it shape when cut.
  • Lemon Meringue Pie – The bottom lemon custard layer is thickened entirely by eggs. It bakes up glossy and sliceable underneath the fluffy meringue.

Cream Pies

  • Banana Cream Pie – The pastry cream base is thickened with cornstarch rather than eggs. The light, airy filling is scooped on top of fresh banana slices.
  • Chocolate Cream Pie – This pie’s mousse-like chocolate filling is made from butter, cream, chocolate, and a bit of flour. No eggs needed to achieve the smooth, creamy texture.
  • Coconut Cream Pie – Coconut extract flavors the starch-thickened pastry cream. Whipped cream is folded in too for added lightness and Billowy texture.

These examples demonstrate the differing textures achieved by custard versus cream fillings. One has dense sliceability from egg protein, and the other offers ethereal lightness from starch and air.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are eggs used in custard and not cream?

Eggs provide excellent thickening power and also add richness of flavor. They coagulate when heated to give custard its signature silky texture. Creams achieve thickness instead through starches like flour or cornstarch.

Do you bake custard and cream fillings differently?

Yes. Custards are poured into unbaked pie shells then baked together to gently set the eggs. Cream fillings are pre-cooked on the stove top first so they retain their delicate texture during brief baking.

Which makes a better pie filling?

It depends on your taste! Custards offer classic egg-richness and sliceable density. Creams provide a lighter, fresher alternative. Baker’s often choose custard for tradition and cream for a new twist.

Can you make a custard filling without eggs?

It’s tricky but possible by using a starch like cornstarch to thicken along with egg substitutes like flaxseed. But the eggless result won’t have quite the same flavor and luscious texture as true custard.

Can you turn a cream into a custard pie?

Yes, by adding eggs yolks to the hot cream mixture at the end once it thickens. Special care must be taken so the eggs don’t scramble. The texture becomes denser and richer with the addition of yolks.


Custards and creams make two distinct forms of pie fillings. Custards rely on eggs for lush texture and baking resilience. Creams instead get their smoothness and lightness from starches and foams.

While both deliver classic pie flavors, custards have a uniquely velvety quality from the egg proteins. Creams offer ethereal lightness by avoiding eggs altogether. So a slice of lemon custard is rich and dense, while a lemon cream feels lighter yet just as satisfying.

Whether you prefer your fillings creamy or eggy, custards and creams each offer a timeless, mouthwatering way to fill the perfect pie. The choice comes down to your taste and baking style when deciding which deliciously blankets the inside of that crisp, flaky shell.