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What is Southern Tomato Pie?

Summertime in the South means iced tea, watching fireflies from the front porch, and tomatoes. So many tomatoes. While canned tomatoes work just fine for a fast weeknight marinara any time of the year, the fresh tomatoes you get in the summer should be used for delicacies such as tomato and mayo sandwiches. If you've got too many tomatoes, though, you need to make a tomato pie.

The perfect tomato pie works for any meal during the summer. Brunch? It's better than a plain quiche. For the ladies who lunch? Pair it with a green salad and a glass of crisp white wine. Weeknight dinner? It works as a side dish or an entree. But you really should make this dish only in the summer, when you can get the freshest, best tomatoes.

History of the Summer Classic

Tomato pie is a something you'll find mostly in the South, though there's another Italian-inspired tomato pie in the Northeast that's closer to pizza. There's some question as to the history behind the regional favorite, but no matter when the tomato pie recipe was first created, it's unquestionably something you should have at least once every summer.

The history of this Southern summer favorite is a bit shrouded in mystery. Savory pies have been around for centuries; every culture has some version of a pie filled with meat or vegetables. Custard-based savory pies, such as the classic British cheese and onion pie, have been around for hundreds of years as well.

But the tomato pie we're talking about has mayonnaise and shredded cheese in it, which probably puts this tomato pie recipe in a different classic era.

Epicurious talked to Nancie McDermott, the author of Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Recipes, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate about the history of this dish. She called the tomato pie "new old school" instead of "old old school," which puts this version of the tomato pie in with dishes like green bean casserole and jello salad.

McDermott told Epicurious: "My guess is that it's a creation of Junior League cookbook people and Southern Living magazine readers and 'women's pages' newspaper food editors, coming up with tasty ways to make use of the summer's abundance."

Southern Living notes that the first tomato pie recipe to appear in their magazine was printed in June 1978: "Submitted by Mrs. Rose Welsh from Seabrook, Maryland, it included Cheddar and provolone cheeses and called for the tomatoes to be coated in flour and sautéed in hot oil before being placed in the pie."

How to Make Southern Tomato Pie

There are two versions of the classic tomato pie, one that's a custard-based almost-a-quiche kind and the other that leaves out the eggs in favor of just cheese and mayo-based filling. Honestly, as long as you're using heirloom tomatoes picked fresh from someone's garden, you can't go wrong with either version.

The basic ingredients are garden tomatoes, mayonnaise, and cheese. Past that, you can add hot sauce, chives, green onions, or your preferred spices. Also, it's likely that no one is going to complain if you throw in a little bit of bacon.

Typically, this pie only uses one pie crust - the top of the pie should show gorgeous red and orange tomatoes blistered from the heat of the oven.

You can use a store-bought or homemade pie shell, but whichever you go with, it needs to be sturdy. A deep-dish pie crust works well for this pie. A regular pie plate is fine, but you can also use a springform pan or a large sheet pan for a slab pie.

To put the pie together, layer the tomatoes in the pie crust, then add the custard or filling. Bake until the filling is done (your total time will depend on the type of filling).

Tips for the Best Tomato Pie

  1. Try to get as much water out of the ripe tomatoes before you build the pie filling. You can either salt the tomato slices and let them sit on paper towels laid out on a baking sheet, or you can roast the slices and let them cool before you make the filling.
  2. Blind bake the pie crust first. Baking the pie a little bit before adding the filling helps keep the pie crust crisp during the rest of the baking process.
  3. Use outstanding cheese. You're using the best of your summer tomatoes, so make sure you match that taste with high-quality cheese. Most tomato pie recipes call for shredded sharp cheddar cheese, but you can use a cheese mixture of almost any kind. (The one kind of cheese I wouldn't use is mozzarella since the moisture content for most mozzarella could make the pie too soggy.)
  4. Try sprinkling a bit of parmesan cheese on the top of the tomatoes to add that excellent crispy cheese texture and taste.
  5. Don't forget to season the tomatoes. A good tomato gets even better with a little black pepper and flaky kosher salt. As you place the tomatoes into the pie crust, season every single layer before you add the next.
  6. Make it pretty. Layer tomatoes by alternating colors and overlapping slices for visual interest, because this dish deserves to look as good as it tastes.
  7. Sprinkle ribbons of fresh basil leaves on top of the pie after it comes out of the oven. Serve warm or at room temperature and enjoy the best of the summer.

Watch: Why The Tomato Mayo Sandwich is a Southern Staple