Fruit cobbler, crisp, crumble, and Betty… are they just different names to describe the same concept? Not quite. There are subtle differences between them which make each of these desserts distinct from one another. Way back in my university days as a Human Ecology student (the more modern term for ‘Home Economics’), we devoted an entire 2 hour lecture to a study of the technical definition of each of these fruit-based desserts.
All of these desserts are deceptively similar to the extent that confusion arises and the names are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably.
They all resemble one another in that each one involves fruit, butter, sugar and flour. The differences are in the details:
Cobblers, Crisps and Crumbles
- Cobblers have a biscuit topping.
- Crumbles and crisps have a streusel-like topping.
- Crisps contain oats and crumbles do not.
Because of the confusion resulting from these subtle nuances, these days its pretty common for people to use the terms “crumble” and “crisp” interchangeably, but, if we’re going to be technical about it, they are not the same thing.
The cobbler was a British creation, and it was the first and original fruit and pastry dish. It was called “cobbler” because when you drop the biscuit topping over the fruit, it bakes up to have a cobbled appearance – like a cobblestone street. Cobblers became very popular the deep south of the United States. Sometimes cobblers are topped with a pie crust, but these aren’t true cobblers (again, misused terminology). A true cobbler is topped with individually-dropped biscuits. When the dish bakes and the biscuits puff up, they look like a cobblestone street, hence the name cobbler.
The crumble also originated in Britain. Cobblers and crumbles were both promoted by the Ministry of Food during the Second World war, as they are filling, yet require less butter than a traditional pastry and can be made with margarine.
The crisp, with the addition of the oats, is the Americanized version of a crumble.
Today the Betty has the same oat streusel as the crisp and crumble, but it has a layer under the fruit, as well as on top of the fruit. So, if you like more of the streusel mixture, then you will love the Betty. Traditionally, it was called a “Brown Betty” and was layered using brown bread crumbs or graham crackers. A brown Betty uses the same kinds of crumbs as a crisp (sweet, buttery, no oats), but there is a layer under the fruit as well as on top of the fruit.
Grunts, Slumps and Buckles
And then there are, along similar lines “grunts”, “slumps”, and “buckles” which are New England and Canadian Maritimes versions of the cobbler – these terms tend to be much more region-specific and less broadly known and used.
Grunts and Slumps
A grunt or slump are exactly the same thing – they’re just like cobblers, only instead of being baked in the oven, they are cooked covered, entirely on the stove-top. This steams the biscuits on top of the fruit, rather than baking them. This dish earned the name “grunt” in some regions, because that’s the noise that the hot, bubbly fruit makes as it “grunts” up around the biscuit dough. It earned its other name, “slump,” because that is what it does when you try to put it on a plate.
A buckle layers a more traditional, cakey batter underneath the fruit. As the dessert cooks, the cake rises around the fruit, which tries its best to sink to the bottom, making the whole thing buckle inwards, hence the name.
According to AskChefDennis:
“While blueberry buckle is the classic version, the dessert can also be made with peaches, nectarines, raspberries, and any other fresh fruit available. You can even mix several types of fruit in your buckle… The base of buckle consists of a rich cake batter, which is sprinkled with fresh fruit. Some cooks prefer to split their batter, layering half in the bottom of the pan and mixing the other half with the fruit before pouring it in. The fruit is topped with a streusel mixture. During the baking process, the cake batter rises up around the fruit, encasing the fruit in batter and causing the streusel to buckle, creating a distinctive crinkly appearance”.
Sonkers and Boots
Then there are the sonker and boot, which you are likely to be even less familiar with unless you happen to come from North Carolina.
A sonker is sort of a hybrid between a pie and a cobbler. Here’s how , America’s Test Kitchen describes it: “Not quite a pie and not quite a cobbler, sonker is a juicy, fruit-filled deep-dish dessert rarely found outside Surry County, North Carolina. While toppings vary, a subset of sonker recipes dub themselves “lazy” sonkers, in which the fruit is cooked into a sweet stew and topped with a pancake batter that bakes into a distinct, lightly crisp layer of cake.”
In Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher’s book Food and Culture, they describe North Carolinan sonkers as “a deep-dish fruit or sweet potato pie made with breadcrumbs or biscuit dough or pie crust—there is no agreement on how to prepare it.”
An article in the Surrey County News Observer (North Carolina) explains it like this:
” Don’t feel bad if you’re never heard of this cobbler-like dessert… Many people who grew up nearby in the Foothills north of Winston-Salem aren’t familiar with sonker, either. The Surry County area seems to be the only place in the world where sonker is made. And here, it’s a legend, even if no one can tell you exactly what the name means. This much is known: Rural families from generations ago put a premium on using every bit of their fruit crops. Whether it was sweet potatoes, apples, strawberries, peaches or blackberries, nothing could go to waste. So when leftover pieces of fruit started going soft, resourceful cooks figured out a way to blend them with lots of dough, sugar or molasses and bake it into a dessert. “Each family put their own spin on it,” said Jessica Roberts, director of tourism and marketing for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “It’s developed and really taken off into so many different variations,” Roberts said.