Which are the best pie apples?
With apple-picking season hard upon us, it's time to dust off your favorite apple pie recipe, sharpen your crust-rolling skills, and get ready to enjoy fall's favorite dessert: apple pie.
You may be tempted to make your pie from one of the six apple varieties that dominate the domestic market year-round: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, and McIntosh.
But when fall rolls around, farmers' markets and orchard farm stands offer an abundance of choices.
Like Calville Blanc d’Hiver.
And Hudson's Golden Gem.
Northern Spy is a classic pie apple, popular in New England and New York since the early 1800s.
And I'll confess ahead of time that my favorite apple is any of the brown-green russets — Golden Russet, Roxbury Russet, et al.
You've probably identified your favorite eating apple. But what about the best pie apples? They're not necessarily the same.
Red and Golden Delicious, for instance, are reliably crisp, sweet eating apples. But when you bake them into a pie, they can become mushy and lose some of their sweetness.
Let's see how to choose ahead of time which of the many apples out there are best for pie.
We'll put six different apples to the test.
I decide to put two of my favorites, Golden Russet and Northern Spy, up against a couple of classic pie apples: McIntosh and Cortland.
I also add Granny Smith because, if there's one ubiquitous, year-round apple, Granny Smith is it. They're like dandelions: if Granny Smiths weren't so pervasive, we'd love them!
Ginger Gold — a Golden Delicious cross with Albemarle Pippin — is another variety that's often available in fall, and a worthy representative of the Delicious family.
OK, I can hear voices ringing from across the land: why don't you test Fuji? Gala? Honey Crisp? [Name your favorite apple]?
Limited time, limited resources — and a pan with space for just six pies, so I'm sure I've left out a lot of worthy contenders. Which simply means you can have fun doing this same test at home with your own favorites.
The first thing I try is making apple mini pies in our pie and burger bun pan.
The resulting pies are totally delicious — but between crust and streusel topping, the apples get lost.
For test #2, I smarten up, simply baking apples sweetened with a bit of sugar.
To mimic apple pie (sans crust), I pile sliced apples high in the pan. Then I bake them in a preheated 425°F oven for 20 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 375°F, and continue to bake the apples until they're bubbly, about 40 minutes.
I had no idea there'd be such significant differences in both texture and flavor.
For example, Russets and Macs are sweetened with the same amount of sugar, bake at the same temperature, for the same amount of time — and offer WAY different results.
Let's sum up the results of our best pie apples test.
The best pie apples
- Texture: very soft; bordering on unpleasantly mushy.
- Taste: Distinct apple flavor; nice balance of sweetness and tang.
- Texture: Very firm, with pleasant bite and little loss of structural integrity.
- Taste: Mild, unassuming, not overly sweet.
- Texture: Medium firm; slices were distinct, yet soft.
- Taste: Sweet, mildly "apple-y." Not much nuance.
- Texture: Extremely soft; slices turned to chunky applesauce as soon as I touched them.
- Taste: Very similar to Cortland; classic apple taste.
- Texture: Distinct slices, but very soft; softer than Northern Spy.
- Taste: Undistinguished; not too sweet and little apple flavor.
- Texture: Crisp/tender, a bit firmer than Northern Spy; slices held their shape.
- Taste: Medium sweetness with a touch of tang.
So, Granny Smith looks like the best combination of both taste and texture. Does it make the very best apple pie?
Not necessarily. I've baked many pies with this all-purpose apple, especially during the winter when other apples are scarce or pricey. A pie made 100% with Granny Smith apples is a mighty fine pie.
But in fall, when every apple variety in the world is seemingly at your fingertips, why not take advantage of one or two (or more) of your own local favorites?
At the end of the day, choosing the best pie apples is a personal decision. My best apple pie would include a combination of these three: Cortland, for flavor; Russet, for texture; and Granny Smith, for its combination of the two.
What apples would fill your best pie? Bake your favorite varieties side by side and see what happens; the results may surprise you.
Please share your favorite apples for pie — and your favorite apple pie tips! — in comments, below.