The very best pie apples: how to choose

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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

But when fall rolls around, farmers’ markets and orchard farm stands offer an abundance of choices.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

Like Calville Blanc d’Hiver.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

And Hudson’s Golden Gem.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

Northern Spy is a classic pie apple, popular in New England and New York since the early 1800s.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

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.

Your favorite eating apple probably isn't great for apple pie. So what's the best apple for pie? Click To Tweet

Let’s see how to choose ahead of time which of the many apples out there are best for pie.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

I had no idea there’d be such significant differences in both texture and flavor.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

The best pie apples

Cortland
  • Texture: very soft; bordering on unpleasantly mushy.
  • Taste: Distinct apple flavor; nice balance of sweetness and tang.
Russet
  • Texture: Very firm, with pleasant bite and little loss of structural integrity.
  • Taste: Mild, unassuming, not overly sweet.
Northern Spy
  • Texture: Medium firm; slices were distinct, yet soft.
  • Taste: Sweet, mildly “apple-y.” Not much nuance.
McIntosh
  • Texture: Extremely soft; slices turned to chunky applesauce as soon as I touched them.
  • Taste: Very similar to Cortland; classic apple taste.
Ginger Gold
  • Texture: Distinct slices, but very soft; softer than Northern Spy.
  • Taste: Undistinguished; not too sweet and little apple flavor.
Granny Smith
  • 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.

Best pie apples via @kingarthurflour

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Donna Harris

    I grew up in the Catskills and married someone from the Adirondacks. I’ve lived in Maryland for almost 40 years but still love my mushy Mac apple pies! They are soft but have such a good flavor to me. I also use Romes/Empires/Jonamacs but love my pies made after a fall trip to NY.

    Reply
  2. Anna

    I suspect cutting the apples into such thin slices may have skewed the results a bit. I wonder how cutting the apples into 1/2” slices would change the results? I’m going to give it a try. I just used Granny Smith, Braeburn, Jonagold and Cortland to make a pie and there’s a very big gap at the top. Annoyed, to say the least. It all “eats the same” but I have a certain image in my mind and when the result doesn’t add up, it becomes a challenge.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That sounds like a worthy experiment, Anna! Each baker has their own idea of the “ideal” pie, from the thickness of the slices to the coloring to the balance between tart and sweet. These were our favorites, but yours will of course depend on how you like your pie to begin with. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  3. Jana

    The best apples i’ve EVER used for pie are Orange Cox Pippins. They’re very flavorful and so, so perfect in pie. They can be hard to find- they’re an old varietal and the trees are susceptible to fungus, so kind of a pain to grow. But if you see them- get them.

    Reply
  4. Jessica

    My favorite is Stayman Winesap. I go out of my way to track down orchards that grow this variety. They hold their shape and texture, and have a delicious slightly tart apple flavor.

    Reply
  5. Denise Spooner

    I like Pink Lady or Arkansas Black or Granny Smith, Rome Beauty or MacIntosh, and Fuji. Like Pamela in Florida, those of us living in southern California don’t get the same varieties as people in northern regions. Sometimes we get lesser known types at our farmers’ market, but not always. That’s why I have so many substitutions on my list. I try to balance tartess, texture, and sweetness. I actually like to include an apple that breaks down more, like the Rome Beauty or Macs. They help provide a “creamy” texture along side the distinct apple slices of the firm varieties.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Apples are amazing, and we love seeing how people use the varietals that are found in their region, wherever they are! It’s just one of the many beautiful things we discover when we start cooking and baking with the food that’s grown near our own back yards. Kat@KAF

  6. PAMELA JENKINS

    I winter in Florida and summer in Vermont (love KAF Baking School) so I do not have access to all those wonderful apples that are available up north. We have the common varieties such as Honey Crisp, Gala, McIntosh, etc. but have yet to find the combination that makes as good a pie as Cortland, Northern Spy and Russet. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Those that you’ve listed here, Honey Crisp, Gala, and McIntosh actually make a fantastic trio. Honey Crisp and Gala are known for being crispy/crunchy, so they give the pie texture and prevent you from ending up with applesauce as filling. McIntosh, on the other hand, are quite soft, but they add a familiar and comforting apple-y flavor. Try using an equal amount of these three varieties in your next pie and see how you like the results. We think you might find it’s just perfect! Kye@KAF

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