With some 2,500 varieties of apple grown in the United States alone, deciding which to use in your next pie can be daunting. According to Gesine Bullock-Prado, author of the baking cookbook “Pie It Forward,” apple shopping doesn’t have to be complicated, but there is no simple answer to which variety is best.
“I use different apples depending on the pie,” said Bullock-Prado, a self-described “baking evangelist” who teaches baking at Sugar Glider Kitchen in Hartford, Vermont.
“I look at the flavor profile I’m going for,” she explained. “For an apple with a full flavor, I’d go for a russet variety,” she said, referring to a group of apples whose dappled skin lends a rich undertone to a pie. If the recipe calls for a few extra ingredients, she opts for Winesap. “It has a little more adult flavor,” said Bullock-Prado. “A Winesap holds up when you are surrounding it with other fruits that have big personalities.”
From classic heirlooms to the reliable favorites you can find in nearly every grocery store, these are Bullock-Prado’s top 10 picks for apple pie.
For what Bullock-Prado calls “traditional apple pie,” which can be little more than pie dough, apples, spice and a bit of sweetener, this crisp cultivar is a favorite. “It’s one of those incredibly special apples, in that it has both sweetness and tartness and it holds up beautifully,” she said. The last part is due to the Jonagold’s high level of cellulose, which means the fruit won’t break down during baking.
2. Reine Des Reinettes, AKA King Of The Pippins
A beloved dessert fruit since the 18th century, the Reine des Reinettes is a standout among the handful of russet apples making a comeback in modern orchards. Bullock-Prado advises leaving the fruit unpeeled in the pie for an extra shot of flavor. The skin of russet apples “not only has brightness of color,” she said, “it has a brightness of flavor that brings something else to the table.” The thicker skin on russet apples also makes them good for storage.
If you can’t find the Reine des Reinettes, Bullock-Prado’s preferred variety, she suggests seeking out another russet apple with the characteristic mottled skin.
3. Northern Spy
Plenty of acidity means this late-season apple stands up to pies with powerful flavors. “It’s got a more tart, less honeyed profile,” said Bullock-Prado. “I would use this in a caramel apple pie.” Noting that the quality of Northern Spy apples doesn’t decline over a few months of storage, Bullock-Prado recommends the sharp-tasting fruit as a safe bet even when you’re buying from a big grocery store instead of a local orchard.
4. Crispin, AKA Mutsu
Its ivory flesh and rounded flavor shine in minimalist pies that won’t overpower this Japanese variety’s gentle character, said Bullock-Prado. “I would use it in what I’d call a ‘lean apple pie’ where you’re not adding a lot of creams and sugars and spices,” she added. “It’s so sweet and round on its own.”
When she’s making a peek-a-boo lattice crust, Bullock-Prado looks for an apple that won’t brown upon exposure to air, such as the sweet, cold-hardy Cortland. “It’s one of the apples where the flesh is actually beautiful,” she said. “If you’re going to be seeing the apples, Cortlands are fantastic.”
Mixing up your pie filling with additions such as cranberries, cherries and plums calls for this tangy heirloom apple, which is also popular for cider. “It will have its own flavor profile that stands out,” Bullock-Prado said. “It’s really lovely to get complex flavor when you are surrounding it with other fruits that have big personalities.”
The French retort to apple pie is tarte tatin, an upside-down confection of apple, caramel and a lofty puff of mille-feuille pastry. When that’s on the menu, Bullock-Prado reaches for a Braeburn apple that will lend some tart juice to the caramel sauce. “You can really create an apple-forward caramel base,” she said. “It has so much flavor.”
8. Pink Lady
A tannic backbone with plenty of acidity means this crisp apple is Bullock-Prado’s top pick for enriched, creamy pies. “My grandma’s apple pie has custard and a bit of rum in it,” she said, “which is an incredibly German thing to do.” Developed in Australia in the 1970s, the trademarked Pink Lady has enough zest to shine even when combined with those aromatic ingredients.
9. Granny Smith
“Everyone goes crazy for heirloom apples,” said Bullock-Prado, “and so many of them you can’t find at the grocery store.” But the Granny Smith, you can find. Bullock-Prado sees it as an old standby that remains a reliable favorite. “They hold up well in storage, and they’re tart with a subtle sweetness,” she said.
This old-fashioned baking apple doesn’t get a lot of respect these days. “Everyone now is like, ‘Don’t use Macs because it’s just mush when it bakes,’” Bullock-Prado said, but she sees the humble fruit as a perfect wingman. When combined with other apples, the Macintosh acts as a mild-flavored binding agent so pie slices won’t crumble on the plate. “It’s well-rounded and sweet, with just a hint of tartness,” she said. “It’s a lovely addition.”