Here we are, trying to plant an heirloom orchard on our homestead. We’ve got plenty of winter storage apples, cider apples and even an early summer apple that ripens on the 4th of July. Now comes my favorite type of apple: Pie apples.
Pie apples have a crisp texture that holds up well to cooking, and strong acidity that helps to balance out the sugar in the pie. More often than not, when someone tells you that a particular variety is a “good pie apple” it’s actually horrible for baking. Why is that? It turns out apple pie tastes have changed over the centuries.
A good pie apple used to mean one that turned to mush inside the pie shell. The pie shell itself was made from boiled water and flour, and was more a cardboard container than edible.
The book Apples of Uncommon Character notes that “old time pie apples” may not be the best modern pie apples. One of the apples was labeled an old-time English pie apple, which he translated to mean, it cooks down completely into a slimy mush in a pie shell. All this time, it’s been about changing tastes in pie. Historically, at least in Britain, a good pie apple was one that disintegrated completely in the shell.
Wolf River is one such example. If you actually try to make a pie with Wolf River you’ll be pretty disappointed with the results. We tried three times, with apples from three different Wolf River trees, and each time the result was the same. A gooey mess of applesauce inside a pie crust. They completely disintegrate. Beyond that, they don’t taste that great as a cooked apple.
Every time I see a barrel of wolf river apples at the farmers market labeled “Old Fashioned Pie Apple” it makes me want to pull my hair out. You grew those apples, have you really never bothered to make even one pie with them?
They may have once been considered a good pie apple, but applesauce pies have long since gone out of fashion. Pie has changed a lot over the centuries, and though I’m a big fan of heirlooms, be careful when someone tells you that it’s an old-time pie apple.
By today’s apple pie standards, a pie apple is an apple with strong cellulose and a good bit of acid. The cellulose in the cell walls of the fruit keeps it firm and crunchy even when cooked. The acid prevents the pectin from breaking down when cooked, which in turn further helps to strengthen the cell walls and keep the apple slices intact. Beyond that, the acid helps to balance out the sweetness of the added sugar, making for a more satisfying apple pie.
Best Apple Varieties for Pie
- Braeburn – A traditional baking apple that actually holds up to today’s standards of great apple pie.
- Golden Delicious – The flavor is a bit one dimensional for my tastes, but golden delicious make the perfect apple pie to suit the broadest range of tastes. Described as holding together firmly, but with an almost buttery texture.
- Golden Russet – Generally thought of as a cider apple, golden russet is high acid and very firm. They make beautiful pies if you can find them on the farmer’s market table.
- Granny Smith – A canonical pie apple, it holds its shape beautifully. Their flavor can fall a bit flat in a pie, and they’re best mixed with other varieties.
- Honeycrisp – Actually bred for a crisp texture and high acid, Honeycrisp is the perfect pie apple. They’re my go to for homemade pie.
- Johnagold – This apple tastes exactly like fall, and one bit and you know what apple pie should taste like. They don’t store that well, so bake them into pie quickly. Consider mixing with Granny Smith for a balanced pie.
- Northern Spy – A new England regional favorite, these apples store well into winter. They have a firm texture and nice acidity even after months of storage, and I use them for pies mid-winter.
- Pink Lady – A bit sweet for my tastes, but pink lady holds together beautifully and is just tart enough to make an interesting pie.
Apple Pie Recipes
Now that you have a few apples to choose from, here’s a selection of top-notch apple pie recipes.
- Easy Puff Pastry Apple Turnovers
- Apple Ginger Pie
- Apple Hand Pies
- Maple Sourdough Apple Hand Pies
- Vegan Apple Pie (No butter vegan recipe)
- Snickerdoodle Strussel Apple Pie (Gluten Free)
- Cranberry Apple Pie
Apple Pie Variations
Though they may not be pie, all these recipes also require a firm apple with a nice acidity.
- Apple Pie Bread Pudding
- Apple Pie Shortbread Bars
- Handheld Mini Apple Pie Cookies
- Carmel Apple Pie Parfait