For one, it’s a subject that makes many home bakers very nervous. Heaven forbid you should choose the “wrong” apples for your apple pie, right? (Relax: there are, essentially, no bad apples in the bunch…just some that are better than others for pies. Maybe one exception; see below.)
For another, controlled atmosphere storage and imported apples have increased both the variety and quality of apples you’ll find in the market all year long.
As much as variety, choose pie apples that are fresh, crisp, and juicy. How can you tell? There are telltale signs like firmness, the absence of dents and bruises, and goodly weight in proportion to size. Naturally, farm-fresh is best when you can get it: farm stands are a great source, especially when you can see the orchard out back.
And don’t be shy about asking the proprietors which apples they recommend for pies. They’ll be glad to share their expertise. Here’s a handful of picks I like.
Baldwin – Widely found in the Northeast, it’s an all-purpose red-skinned apples with a mild, sweet tart flavor and crisp texture. Aromatic and firm-textured, it stores well and makes a commendable apple pie.
Braeburn – Varies in color from greenish gold to red with yellow markings, the Braeburn has juicy, crisp flesh and excellent flavor that makes it a fine choice for pie.
Cortland – Also widely available in the Northeast, it’s one of Vermont’s leading apples. Early Cortlands tend to have a more tart flavor; later ones taste sweeter.
Fuji – A cross between a Red Delicious and Rals Janet, it’s one of the best-selling apples in Japan. Some bakers don’t care for them as pie apples, but I think the spicy flavor and typically juicy flesh work well in pies.
Golden (or Yellow) Delicious – A good all-purpose apple whose flavor can sometimes underwhelm, sometimes surprise. The flavor is typically sweet and not as complex as some apples, and the texture sometimes holds up in a pie, sometimes less so.
Granny Smith – Widely thought to be one of the better pie apples, it has good flavor, a firm texture and juicy flesh. Some bakers complain that they stay too firm even after cooking, and I’ve found that to be the case at times, too.
Jonathan – Some think it makes one of the best pie apples, others think it’s much more suited to snacking. Jonathans tend to have softish, fine-textured flesh and a tangy flavor that can work well in a pie.
McIntosh – Funny, this was my dad’s preferred pie apple; he used to buy them at farm stands around central New Jersey for his pies. I like them, too, but I have to admit that the flesh typically turns pretty mushy in a pie. For that reason, I like to mix McIntosh apples in my pies with other firm-fleshed varieties.
Northern Spy – Many say – I would not disagree – that it’s one of the best pie apples out there, if you can find them. It has an excellent balance of sweetness and tartness.
Red Delicious – Sorry, but not my favorite for pies. It’s really grown for its good looks and lacks in the flavor department.
Winesap – An excellent, late-ripening apple with a sweet-tart, winey flesh. They keep well, so buy a bushel and bake pies to your heart’s content.
NOTE: Some of the information above was gleaned from my book, Apple Pie: 100 Delicious and Decidedly Different Recipes for America’s Favorite Pie, which you can find in the Store section of this site. – Ken Haedrich