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Humble no more: In praise of the pot pie

It started as a creative way of using leftovers; now the pot pie is a freezer fave. Phil Lempert has a 101 on this winter warmer.

Pot pies came into being in leaner times — a thrifty cook’s way of translating leftovers into a delectable second meal.

Frugal home chefs knew how to use extra dough from other baked goods — which, by the way, is easily stored in the freezer — to line pie pans. Then they added leftover vegetables and chicken (or beef or turkey), poured on a little gravy, covered with more dough and popped it in the oven to cook like a sweet pie. The result: Comfort food at its best (and a one-dish meal, to boot).

Pot pies these days are more likely to come from the supermarket freezer, with dozens of variations, including meatless, extra-meat, organic and ethnic-influenced varieties.

Pot pies are a natural for the frozen-food category. The latest entrants are both microwave and oven-heatable, so you can have a hearty dish in very little time. When buying frozen pot pies, look for clean boxes, one without crystals or any other signs of poor shipping and handling. When buying in the deli or refrigerated section always be sure to check the expiration date, as many products, due to the highly perishable ingredients, have less than four or five days of shelf life.

And talking of safety, botulism has been reported in cases where a pot pie, already cooked, was set aside on the counter for several hours and not refrigerated or reheated before cooking. If there is any reason the cooked pie will not be consumed immediately, allow to cool about ten minutes, then refrigerate. Reheat in the oven or microwave before eating.

Turkey and chicken varieties tend to be cooked with cream sauces, and beef with meat sauce; if mixing milk with poultry or beef is a dietary concern, please check the labels. Some brands have little or no preservatives, a very good thing; others have starches, fillers and preservatives that head the list of ingredients, so be aware. All packagers of all foods must list the primary ingredient first, followed by the others in decreasing amounts.

The size of the pot pie is also something to consider; some are so small they should be considered a dish as part of a meal of salad and other fixings; others are considerably larger, with a good ratio of protein to vegetables, and would make a substantial meal by themselves.

Pot pies are comfort food, and with few exceptions, the idea of a “healthy pot pie” is an oxymoron. Theoretically, you’re getting veggies and protein in a carbohydrate shell; that’s the good news. The bad news is that many commercial pot pies have between 13 and 16 grams of trans fats in addition to other fats, and are high in sodium. My suggestion — even when it’s really cold outside — is to enjoy pot pies occasionally.

They may have started as a poor man’s meal, but now they should be considered a treat.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent