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After baking four popular apple pies in a head-to-head showdown, I consider myself somewhat of an apple pie expert. I discovered that a combination of butter and shortening makes for the easiest, flakiest crust, and I’ve (begrudgingly) accepted that it really is essential to wait at least five hours before slicing into the baked pie. But perhaps most importantly, I learned that choosing the right mix of apples can make or break the whole thing.
The key word is “mix.” Instead of selecting one variety of apple, it’s best to opt for a few, which will give the filling a more balanced and nuanced flavor. You’ll want some sweet and some tart, and most should be firm enough to hold their shape when baked. No one wants a mushy pie!
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, we like to aim for two to three varieties per pie. It’s enough to pack your pie with complex flavors and textures, but not so many that your taste buds are thrown into a tailspin. (Plus, the hope is that you can source all your apples from one spot.)
The exact ratio is up to you. If you prioritize a more puckery pie, use mostly Granny Smiths and toss in a Honeycrisp and a Jonagold. If you like your apples to slump and soften, use mostly Golden Delicious with a Braeburn thrown in. I personally like the pear-like flavor of Braeburns mixed with intensely sweet-tart Jonagolds; the mix results in a well-balanced pie with tender apples that still hold their shape. In terms of size, medium to large apples are also ideal, as they take less time to peel and slice.
In the fall, head to the farmers market or orchard to get apples local to your area, which will be more flavorful than the ones in the grocery store. (I always think of Kate McDermott’s mantra from her book Pie Camp: “flavorful fruit = flavorful pie.”) This will also give you a chance to try varieties that aren’t as widely available (think: Northern Spy, Winesap, Sierra Beauty, and Crispin, which are all great for baking). If you’re not familiar with some of the apple types at your local orchard, the folks working there are always happy to share information.
Bright green Granny Smith apples are one of the most popular varieties for pie. Their puckery-tart flavor prevents fillings from tasting too sweet, they’re easy to find year-round, and they hold their shape beautifully when baked. Because their overall apple flavor is quite mild, you’ll want to pair them with sweeter, more intense varieties. You’ll also want to peel them first, as their skin is on the thicker side.
The Braeburn apple was discovered as a chance seedling in New Zealand in the 1950s, and its parents are thought to be a Granny Smith and an apple called Lady Hamilton, according to the University of Illinois Extension website. They range in color from greenish gold with red to almost entirely red. They’re slightly sweeter in flavor than Granny Smiths and very aromatic, with subtle notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, meaning they can easily stand up to strong spices in fall pies. Once baked, many find they flavor reminiscent of pears.
Jonagolds are a cross between a Jonathan and a Golden Delicious apple, which gives them a well-balanced blend of sweet and tart flavors. Their crisp, firm texture also means they hold their shape well when baked.
Also known as Cripps Pink, Pink Lady apples are easy to find and have a super-crisp texture and a beloved sweet-tart flavor. They don’t oxidize as quickly as other varieties, meaning you can slice them in advance.
A favorite apple for eating out of hand, Honeycrisp apples are also great for baking. They taste sweet with a hint of honey, but are mild enough that they can play well with practically any other variety.
While this sweet variety doesn’t have the crispness or structure of a Granny Smith or Pink Lady, it won’t turn to mush, either. In fact, its soft flesh and honey-like flavor is the reason why Cracker Barrel uses it in their signature fried apples. Pair with a more tart variety for a well-balanced pie.