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. Claudine Eckhart

    You can’t beat Jonathan in combination with Granny Smith and boiled cider. I started a Thanksgiving tradition here. Thanksgiving pie party for breakfast with 12 different pies, a total of 26 for 100 people. Eat pie first because everyone is too full for dessert!

    Reply
  2. Beverly

    If I can find them, I love a pie with three winesap apples, one granny Smith, and one or two braeburns. It’s getting harder to find winesap apples every year.

    Reply
  3. Teresa

    I’m in South Georgia now, but growing up in Indiana my Mother and Grandmother used Granny Smiths, sliced small with a cup of pear butter and lots of cinnamon in the mix. This combination still makes wonderful pies that my neighbors ask for every fall.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Certainly, Anne. Pie Filling Enhancer is about half sugar so you’ll want to add in half of the Pie Filling Enhancer amount’s worth in sugar. To see how much ClearJel will be ideal, our Pie Filling Thickeners Guide will be just the ticket. Annabelle@KAF

  4. Grove Girl

    Growing up we had a Horse Apple tree in our yard. It had a great tartness and kept shape when cooked. Delicious. You have to find someone that has kept growing this vintage tree.

    Reply
  5. Marra-Lynn Rodriguez

    I’m making pie filling to can this week. Any recommendations for Apple blends? I can get almost any apple as I’m in eastern Washington state, apple capital of the USA.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      In our article for Make-ahead apple pie filling, the author PJ Hamel decided to use a blend of some of her favorite apples: Golden Russet and Northern Spy. You can also use more classic varieties like McIntosh and Cortland if that’s what you have available to you. Bottom line: use a blend for best results. That’s how you’ll get the most well-rounded flavor and texture. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  6. gothelittle

    Favorite fall apple for pie is the Braeburn. Hearty taste, stands up well to a little nutmeg or cloves, begs to be served with a slice of cheddar.

    In Connecticut, there are a lot of local apple orchards. No enormous multi-acre fields planted with mono-culture trees here, so it’s pretty common to have two varieties in each row. This leads to an impressive bunch of sort-of partial hybrids, as there is no guarantee that the Courtland over there was actually pollinated by another Courtland. Feel the firmness, sniff the apple, many orchards will not charge you if you chomp one of the apples on the tree to see how it came out this year, and then fill your bag when you find the right variety.

    As I chop my apples for the pie, I smell, taste, and test the consistency, and then I will alter my recipe (put in a little cornstarch with the sugar for juicy apples, add a little nutmeg or cloves or much-misunderstood ‘pumpkin spice’ to the cinnamon, etc.) to fit, so none of my apple pies really come out quite like the others.

    Reply
  7. Peggy

    Northern Spy is my favorite, either alone or in combination with Granny Smith, Braeburn or Jonamac. I get lots of Northern Spys in the fall and prepare and freeze a whole bunch of apple pie fillings. I just made my last apple pie from last year’s crop and as soon as the Northern Spys are ready I can’t wait to start making more new batches.

    Reply
    1. Frances

      I just bought a bushel of Northern Spies today for this reason 🙂 Spies for Pies is what I learned when I lived in Michigan.

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