Baking a great apple pie is an art and a science.
Apples, spices, lemon juice, and sugar blend in the oven to create the magic of perfect taste and texture…or can fail miserably into a puddle of hot applesauce in a crust. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, so much depends upon the selection of apple.
But with so many varieties to choose from, how do you know which are the best apples for apple pie? The ones you most like to eat out of hand or cut up over your salad aren’t necessarily the best for baking.
I live in apple country, and love to crunch down on McIntosh, Honeycrisp and Macoun apples fresh from the trees, but they can get mushy or mealy when cooked. So can Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala and Cortland.
For a pie, you’ll want a firm variety—one that will retain texture and maybe a bit of crunch, but isn’t too sweet.
Good choices include:
Identifiable by their all-over green color, Granny Smiths are the gold standard of pie apples, and my favorites. Most pie aficionados prefer them because they are tart, which blends well with the sugar and spices of pie fillings. They are also widely available year-round (thank you, New Zealand), and stand up to the heat of baking.
Jonathan is another tart, crisp apple that bakes well. It has a note of sweet spiciness that can add an interesting touch to your pie.
Rome Beauties, not quite as tart as Granny Smiths, retain their shape well under heat, and are an excellent choice for pies.
A U.S. West Coast favorite, Gravenstein apples have a short season and don’t keep well, so when you’re lucky enough to get a bunch of these sweet/tart lovelies, bake them up right away.
A relatively new hybrid of Jonathan and Wagner varieties, Ida Red is pink, juicy and sweet/tart—an excellent pie apple. It also keeps well.
You’d think the humble Empire, a sweet/tart hybrid of Red Delicious and McIntosh, born in New York State, would not be hardy enough for pie, but it is. It looks like a McIntosh, but is much firmer.
Braeburns are widely available throughout the winter—prime pie baking time—and they’re very good pie apples. Avoid Braeburns with thick or waxy skins, which means they’ve been hanging around too long and could cook down into mealy mush.
I’ve come to love Pink Ladies for snacking and salads, as well as in baking. They are sweet with a touch of tartness. When you buy them, check for weight relative to size. If they feel too light for their size, they may be too dry.
If you’re still unsure about choosing the right apples for apple pie, or feel like getting creative, try a mixture of sweet and tart varieties, adjusting the amount of sugar and lemon juice to your taste. After some experimentation (and some feedback from most likely very willing diners), knowing which apple to use next time will be as easy as pie.
Perhaps the most popular pie in the dessertverse, apple pie has many variations. Here are some of the best apple pie recipes.