The classic All-American dessert, apple pie is a favorite with all. For many of us, the type, texture and flavor of the apples used can make all the difference between a good and a great apple pie.
In this article, we look at how to choose apples for apple pie, discuss why some apples turn to mush while others remain firm and consider a range of other factors to help take your apple pie to the next level.
There are around 7,500 varieties of apples grown globally, but only around 100 varieties are grown commercially in the US. Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, McIntosh and Jonathan apples are some of the eight varieties that account for around 80% of our commercial apple production, with Washington being the top apple producing state.
Not only are today’s apples grown for their taste, shape, and high yield; they are also selected for their resistance to disease and pests.
Apple trees were introduced by New World settlers who brought the seeds with them, and the first recorded planting of an apple tree was in Massachusetts back in 1629.
The main apple season in the northern hemisphere is September to October, but depending on the region and apple variety, some can be harvested as early as July or as late as November. After harvesting in the fall, apples can be stored for as long as ten months before sale, although some varieties are only suitable for storing for one or two months after harvest.
Storage may make little difference to the taste, but apples that have been stored longer can lose some of their firmness when you cook them – mainly due to changes in pectin content.
If you want the ‘freshest’ apples for apple pie, you will need to look for apples that have been recently harvested. This means that out of season, they may be apples imported from southern hemisphere countries such as New Zealand or Chile. Otherwise, for homegrown apples, the best place to obtain them seasonally is at your local farmers market. Buying here, you also have more chance of discovering some rare or heirloom varieties that you would not find in a store.
When buying apples, look for ones with shiny skins which are free from bruises or soft spots. If you are choosing a firmer variety then they should always be firm, never soft.
When you leave apples at room temperature, they soon soften, so they are best stored in a perforated bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. If you want to store apples for longer, wrap each one in a piece of black-ink newspaper and place them somewhere cool and dark such as the garage or cellar. Make sure you take out any damaged apples before storing, as one bad apple really can really spoil the bunch!
What to Consider When Choosing the Apples for Apple Pie
As well as using apples that keep some of their shape and texture during baking, most of us want to use apples that give a balance of flavor to the pie. A balanced flavor is one with the right amount of tart and sweetness.
Although apples such as Granny Smiths are extremely popular in apple pies because they stay firm during cooking, they are also tart apples, so you need to be prepared to use more sugar when you bake with them. If you use sweet apples such as Jonagold in a pie, you will not need to add as much sweetener, but these apples lack firmness, as they contain less pectin.
Therefore, the easiest way to make an apple pie that has firmness, balanced flavor and not too much added sugar is by using a mix of tart apples and sweet apples. Although a 50:50 blend of tart and sweet apples is fine, many people try out different amounts of varieties of apples to find their own ‘secret’ blend for a great apple pie.
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The varieties of apples listed in the reference table below are suitable for making apple pie with and will usually keep some of their texture during baking.
If you want to blend, then use one or more apples from the tart group and sweet group.
Group 1 –
Group 2 –
Group 3 –
Pink Lady (Cripps Pink)
Cox’s Orange Pippin
Further on in this article, we look at these varieties in more detail to see what you can expect when using them in apple pie, but first, it is helpful to understand more about the pectin in apples and why it is so important in apple pie.
The Importance of Pectin in Apple Pie
Pectin is a water soluble dietary fiber and found in the cell walls of green plants. It helps give fruits and vegetables their structure and shape. If you regularly make jellies or jams, you will be familiar with the role of pectin in setting a jelly.
When fruits are cooked, pectin breaks down, which is why apples can turn mushy. In fruits that are more acidic – lower pH – pectin cannot breakdown as easily. This means that tart apples stay firmer than sweet apples when cooked, as they are more acidic. The amount of pectin in fruit also declines as the fruit ripens.
The higher acidity in tart apples also helps to stop them turning brown through oxidation as quickly when sliced. This is why it can be useful to add a little lemon juice to sweeter apples when you prepare them to stop them turning brown as quickly.
If you par-cook your apples before baking, it allows the pectin in the apples to stabilize. This is because a specific enzyme in the fruit becomes more active between the temperature range of 140°F and 160°F. When this enzyme is active, it converts pectin to a more heat stable form. In short, the apple will keep its shape better in the pie, while still becoming tender.
You can par-cook apple in the microwave or on the stovetop for a couple of minutes, or just pour some boiling water over it and leave for ten minutes before adding to the pie.
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The Lowdown on Apple Pie Apples
In the following section, we take a more in-depth look at a selection of tart, sweet and tart/sweet apples which are suitable for mixing and matching, or in some cases just using on their own in an apple pie.
Group 1 - The Tart Apples
Granny Smith Apples
With its slightly sour taste from its high acid content and firm flesh, the Granny Smith apple is also a lunchbox favorite and its bright green skin makes it easy to spot in the grocery store. Generally available all year round, they stay nice and firm during cooking.
One negative is that Granny Smiths do not always have as much ‘apple’ flavor as some other apples, so to get a richer flavored apple pie, you will need to blend Granny Smiths with another apple such as Winesap or Jonagold.
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The origin of Granny Smiths is quite interesting. During the 1860s, in a farming community near Sydney, Australia, an unusual apple tree was known to grow on the bank of a creek. This apple tree contained large bright green apples that could be eaten raw or cooked.
It is thought that this tree grew from the core of a crab apple when those and other apple peelings were discarded by the farmer’s wife – Maria Ann Smith – after making apple pie!
How much of this is myth rather than fact remains unknown, however, the science does say that Granny Smith apples evolved from a cross between a crab apple and a cultivated apple. So, even though the cross-pollination may have occurred by chance, it is known that the Smiths had lived in Sussex in the UK, an area rich in orchards before emigrating to Australia and they also had a farming background.
The Granny Smith apple went on to become one of Australia’s most successful exports and the suburb where it first grew, Eastwood, celebrates a Granny Smith festival every year.
The deep red colored Jonathan apples are a classic American variety introduced in the 1860s. These are tangy and tart with a balance of some sweetness and a firm texture that puts them up with the Granny Smith as a popular pie apple.
The firm flesh of Winesap apples means that, like Granny Smiths, they do not break down when baked, and although these are a tart variety of apple, they are also richly flavored. They can be on the juicy side though, so you may want to reduce some of the liquid down first before using in a pie.
Also known as Stayman Winesap, the Winesap apples are a heirloom variety. They are usually available from farmers markets, because when they are ripe, the skins are prone to cracking which makes them more difficult to handle in large commercial stores.
Cortland apples are versatile apples with crisp and firm flesh and a tart flavor. Recognized by its yellow-green coloring with crimson stripes, Cortlands are also superb for freezing or canning. These apples are available mid to late October and have a good shelf life.
Evolving from a Golden Delicious cross, Goldrush has a much sharper taste than Golden Delicious. When first harvested, Goldrush are yellow-green with tart flavor, but once they go into storage, the color changes to gold-yellow and the flavor develops more acidic, spicy and sweet notes alongside the tart.
Empire apples were developed in 1966 as a cross between Red Delicious and McIntosh. Much firmer than McIntosh apples, Empires have bright red skins with green hints and a tart flavor – ideal for apple pies.
They are at their freshest when harvested in September and October, although they can be stored into January.
Perhaps not the most interesting looking apple with dull coloring and lumpy shape, Northern Spy apples are very firm and crunchy with a tart flavor and some sweeter hints. These large apples can be difficult to find, as they are from biannual trees – only producing a big crop once every two years. They will store well into spring though.
There are also many tart heirloom varieties, such as Esopus Spitzenburg and Idared, which can often be found at farmers markets.
Group 2 - The Sweet Apples
Golden Delicious Apples
Although Golden Delicious do have firm flesh, they soften when baked. They are suitable for baking apple pie with but as they can be too sweet and occasionally too bland for most tastes, you may want to mix them with some tart apples, or even add a little quince or lemon for some tartness.
Golden delicious are also very thin skinned, so do not store well at home, although they are easy to find and available throughout the year in stores.
Jonagold developed from the tart Jonathan and the sweet Golden Delicious. Jonagolds have the firm texture and tart flavor of the Jonathan but with the hints of the honeyed sweetness found in Golden Delicious.
Not commonly found in grocery stores, farmers markets are often a good source for these apples, which can be identified by their green-yellow color with red patches.
(Source: MarcoRoosink; Pixabay.com)
Jonagold are best bought early fall, as they do not store as well as other varieties of apple.
The red skins of Rome apples are easy to spot, and although they do have a nice texture, these are slightly sweeter and also lack ‘apple’ flavor, which means they can be bland unless mixed with another variety for better flavor.
The Mutsu/Crispin apple has a sweet flavor like Golden Delicious which it was crossed from, but unlike Golden Delicious, it will stay firm when baked.
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Group 3 - The Tart/Sweet Apples
Pink Lady Apples
Pink Lady apples were cultivated from Golden Delicious and Lady William in 1973 in Australia. With their distinctive colored skin, Pink Lady apples have the sharper flavors of Lady Williams balanced out with some of the sweetness of Golden Delicious.
Often available in grocery stores throughout the year, Pink Lady apples are sometimes smaller than other apples, as they are a late season apple. You should not need to blend these with tart apples or lemon, unless of course you prefer a sharper flavor in your apple pie.
As a versatile apple, the Pink Lady is also good for sauces, freezing and of course eating raw.
The flavor of Braeburn strengthens when cooked, making apple pie taste even more apple-y, although some think the flavor is actually rather similar to pear.
Because Braeburn also have hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, this along with its balance of tart and sweet and firm texture can produce a great apple pie, especially when mixed with other apples that may not offer as much flavor.
(Source: AndreasGoellner; Pixabay.com)
Braeburns have a muted red skin with gold-yellow undertones and some hints of faint green. They are available through most of the year.
Honeycrisp are sometimes known as Honeycrunch and have a bright red skin with pale green mottled patches. Honeycrisp tend to stay quite firm when cooked – although not as firm as Granny Smiths – and because they are sweet and juicy apples, they bring sweetness and a complexity of flavor to the apple pie.
As juicier apples, they are better paired with a variety such as Granny Smith in apple pie to prevent the filling from becoming too mushy.
Unlike some apples, Honeycrisp are only around for a few months in the fall. They were developed in the 1960s in Minnesota as a crop to stand up to colder temperatures. The Honeycrisp is also the official state fruit of Minnesota.
Cox’s Orange Pippin
The Cox’s Orange Pippin is a larger red-orange colored apple with pale yellow flesh. This has a sharp taste with some sweetness. Alongside baked goods, it can also be used to make hard cider.
Cox’s Orange Pippins are an older variety of apple from the UK. Unfortunately, these apples are only around for a couple of months during fall, as they do not keep long. As a specialist variety, they are best sourced from farmers markets.
Although all the apples we have discussed here are particularly suitable for apple pie, they may not always work as well in other recipes such as applesauce or apple butter; instead, you should use the apple varieties recommended in the recipe.
Apples to Avoid in Apple Pie
Unfortunately, the national apple of Canada, the tangy-sweet McIntosh, is often avoided in apple pie as it will turn to mush. Varieties such as Red Delicious and Fuji also become mushy in pie.
That is not to say these or indeed any other variety of apple cannot be used, as they will often bring rich flavors flavor to apple pie; you’ll just need to blend them with a firm apple such as a Granny Smith to prevent your apple pie turning to applesauce.
How Many Apples Do You Need for Apple Pie?
Recipes usually say how many cups of peeled, cored and chopped apples you need for the pie, which can make it difficult to calculate how many you need to buy.
If you buy around a pound of apples for every three cups required in the recipe, this will usually be enough. If you are unable to weigh out your purchase, or are picking them yourself, then a pound of apples is about two large, three medium or four small apples.
A 10" apple pie would need 10 or so small apples.
Tips for Making Great Apple Pie
- Apples should always be peeled before baking in a pie, as leaving the skins on will make for a fibrous and tough pie.
- You can leave prepared apples to soak overnight with spices and sugar. In the morning, pour off the excess liquid drawn from the apples and reduce it down to a thick syrup on the stovetop before pouring it back over the apple slices. This is a great way to reduce some of the liquid from juicier apples and also concentrates the flavor of the apple and the spices.
- It can be easy to overpower apple pie with spice, so try to keep to smaller amounts – a pinch or so – and never more than a quarter of a teaspoon per large pie.
- Try to keep the ingredients for flaky crusts cold, as if the ingredients are too warm, you will end up with more of a shortbread crust than a flaky layered crust.
- When you add water to the flour and butter, add it by hand and use a spatula instead of the processor. This will also help retain flakiness.
- If you like a rich golden brown crust, then add plenty of egg wash to the crust before baking, as this allows the crust to brown easier than it would with just heat alone.
- As difficult as it may be, leaving the pie to rest for a few hours after baking will also mean the crust is at its best.
In this article we have looked at what makes the difference between a good and a great apple pie and how tart apples are able to stay firm during cooking.
Although apple pie can be made with any apple, it is usually best made with a mix of tart and sweet apples to give balanced flavor and some firmness.