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. Juliet Jankowitz

    Northern spy… super for pie, along with another rare one that I can’t recall at this moment. If I think of it I shall come back with the name.

    Reply
  2. john burke

    Rhode Island Greenings, Sierra Beauties. Both available in Northern California from September to November (Greenings first, then Sierras.)

    Reply
  3. Nancy Walker

    Lodi apples are my faves for pies. They are ripe in June in middle TN. Unfortunately I cannot find them marketed here at all. Up until this year, when my forty year old Lodi apple tree finally died, I would harvest and freeze apples ready to go into a pie crust, making my pie baking easy the rest of the year. Wonder why no one grows these any more? We used to get early June apples for baking at local groceries.

    Reply
  4. Darcie Boschee

    Where I live now (MN), I like to use crisp Haralson and Wealthy apples, combined with one a bit softer like Sweet 16 or a golden hybrid (can’t recall the name at the moment). When I lived in West Virginia, my neighbor had a Winesap tree and they were wonderful in pies. I just planted one called Prairie Spy, which I hope will be similar to Northern Spy, another fine apple. If you live near an orchard, the knowledgeable folks will gladly give you advice on which apples are best for which applications.

    Reply
  5. JULIA Roque

    I used a combination of Granny Smith, honey crisp and Fuji, the contrast in the texture and taste was wonderful and I used 2/3 cup brown sugar, and only 1/4 cup white sugar, which I probably could have omitted the white sugar all together. I made a very large pie- 12 I ch+ pie pan- so used 4 large Granny Smiths, 2 large Fuji and 2 large honey crisp. Baked in a European convection oven, the pie turned out golden and delicious! We served with natural vanilla ice cream.

    Reply
  6. Sue

    Duchess apples are the best, in my estimation. However, they are extremely, if not impossible, to find now. Am I dating myself?

    Reply
  7. Louise

    The best Apple to make a pie is a bramberly apples which is found in the UK and Ireland . This is a apple that is the size of a soft ball very sour at the beginning of the season getting sweeter by the end , can be found as root stock here in the U S , the apples turn up every once in a while in farmers markets if you see them grap a few make a pie go easy on the sugar ( taste the apples first) enjoy!

    Reply
  8. Christian Nairz

    I have never heard of any apples mentioned in this article. I just got some Winesap apples today at a local apple orchard, pippins are also great and fairly easy to get where I live in Northern California.

    Reply

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