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. James

    It’s amazing that you would recommend anything but a McIntosh for ANYTHING, let alone delicious apple pie. It makes the best pies — juicy and sweet. Nothing tastes better. No apple will ever taste better. It’s shocking to see people writing about Granny Smith or those other bitter apples. I’m not into pretty and neat. Only taste matters to me.

    All of the New England states grow super wonderful McIntosh apples, especially Vermont. Make sure you don’t eat them when they are hard and too green. Let them soften on a table for a few days. The shaded ones taste the best.

    My mother made unbelievable apple pies, leaving the juice in the pies. I used to love to take the McIntosh juice created and spoon it over the crust. She had to use store-bought, often waxed apples, but now I get to buy fresh apples from New England orchards from Trader Joe’s, available from late September to January, and some years as late as May. Fortunately, I made the pies with her and can duplicate her recipe.

    Reply
  2. Vera / Growntocook

    From the apples I tried ‘Gravenstein’ made the most delicious pie, though a mix of different varieties is indeed even better 🙂

    Reply
  3. J.E. Young

    NEW WEST COAST APPLE: The Lucy Glo! I just tasted this apple, and I think it might help with the baking apple problem that we on the west coast often face lacking, as we do, winesaps and spys. The Lucy Glo and the Lucy Rose both have flesh that is striated with pink. The Lucy Rose is a very pretty, freckled red and very sweet—definately a snacking apple. The Lucy Glo, on the other hand, is greenish and has a tart flavor with a lime finish. Its density suggests it would hold up baked in a crust. I plan to give it a try. If it works, the West Coast may finally have an apple other than Granny Smith for baking. One issue with the Lucy Glo, it has a thick skin. Some apples you can leave the skin on, but not this one. It’ll have to be peeled. Here’s hoping it delivers!

    Reply
  4. Bob Miller

    Wow, I haven’t seen a Cortland or Russet since I was in the Navy in upstate New York, they have great apples there. Here in California we have lots of Gala and Fuji as well as Granny Smith. Melrose is popular in Washington and Oregon state but I haven’t seen any in California. Gala’s and Granny Smith combined make a good pie for me.

    Reply
  5. Sharon

    We nick-named them “wool-fibbers,” as the one-apple-per-pie Wolf River Apple is definitely a must try; we love them best for pies!

    Reply
    1. Marcia White

      I love RI Greenings with Cortlands. I also use Gravensteins with Cortlands. All are readily available at orchards here in New England

  6. Diana

    My favorite to use in a combination with other apples would be Jonathan for their intensely tangy flavor. I like to mix with winesaps and/or Macouns (used to get them in central Jersey), although I never see them in DC.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Cathy, can you tell us what apples you like for pie that are available out there? We’d love to know…Susan

  7. Teddi

    I have found that even if you know what type apple you want, you need to taste test them. I have had Granny Smith apples the were delicious, and some that were just sour. Same with just about any other apple. For me, the most consistent is the Honey Crisp. It has the best sweet to tang ratio as well. The problem is, it is only available for a month or two.

    Reply
    1. JACKLYN CAMPBELL

      Teddi: My favourite apple too! I have yet to bake a pie with them, have you? If so, how was the outcome?

  8. Sue

    A few years ago I stopped at an orchard and asked the owner what her favorite pie apple was. I’ve been making pies with Melrose ever since & always get compliments.

    Reply

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