(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 21, 2008. Your comments are welocme, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Regional differences across the United States often seem very peculiar to me. Perhaps it’s just that I grew up in the rural Midwest never venturing too far from home; no relatives in distant states to visit nor grand vacations across the country exposing me to new and exciting realms.
It was with great excitement then, when I visited my (future) in-laws in the Northeast for the first time. Regional accents were captivating to me of course; I still like to tease my husband “Pahk your Cah in Hahvahd Yahd.” I also learned many new region-specific words; please don’t order a milkshake, order a “frappe.” From a gardener's perspective, I knew the zone there was warmer than my own zone five and eagerly anticipating seeing the huge rhododendrons and hydrangea. It wasn’t clear to me however, the great regional variations in harvested food until one day when — as if he was passing the torch — my father-in-law divulged his son’s favorite apple was the 'Macoun'. With a warm smile, I made a mental note. Now, what the heck is a 'Macoun'?
Available only in October and November, the 'Macoun' is a cross between a 'McIntosh' and a 'Jersey Black' and is a favorite in the Northeast. Since learning of the 'Macoun' all those years ago, I discovered many regional varieties of apples. But which of those might lead me to producing “the perfect apple pie?”
Qualities in a Pie Apple
Freshness — Like with most foods, freshness is key when choosing apples for a pie. Newly picked apples from the fall's harvest are the ideal. If you live near an orchard, you are fortunate to perhaps pick your own apples. Chances are your choice of apple varieties will be greater there as well as at a local farmer's market. If you are baking a pie in the off season you will may be confined to choices from the produce section at your local grocery store. If this is the case choose firm apples with no bruising. The color should be consistent with that of the variety and contain no browning near the core. Look for smooth skin without blemishes or wrinkles.
Texture — The best apple pies are reported to have firm apples that hold their shape during baking. Often the most flavorful apples make wonderful applesauce or are great for eating fresh but just won't maintain their shape during baking.
Taste — Taste is subjective of course; some prefer a sweet pie, others enjoy a tart version and still others opt for an pie with a bit of spice. Fortunately there are excellent baking apples in all of these categories.
Many bakers will tell you that given the choice, they prefer a blend of apple varieties in their pies. A mix of firm, tart 'Granny Smiths' with a softer, more flavorful 'McIntosh' is a winning combination; both are easily obtained at most grocers.
If you search cookbooks and the Internet for information regarding best apples for pie, you'll discover that everyone has their favorites. Most lists I found did not include 'Gala' apples but many people post that pies made exclusively with 'Galas' are excellent. Those in the Northeast insist that delicate-skinned 'Northern Spy' is THE choice ("Spies are for Pies") while some in North Carolina bow to newer 'King Lucsious'. Lately I've had success with a store-bought apple combination of 'Granny Smith', 'Gala', 'Golden Delicious' and 'Fuji'. Here is why I like the combination; the 'Granny Smith' is a tart apple but is included for its firm consistency; 'Gala' provides the wonderful apple flavor; 'Golden Delicious' is a very soft apple and adds moisture; and the 'Fuji's' sweetness puts a finishing touch on the pie.
Clearly there are as many different ideas about what is the perfect apple for a pie as there are apples. And fortunately for my husband, the only way to determine the best apple for a pie is to practice, practice, practice. Here is a list of some of the most popular. This fall, start your quest to discover your favorite apple or apple combination.
TartMid'Mutsu' (a.k.a. Crispin) SweetMid'Northern Spy'
Sweet/TartMid/Late'Pippin, Cox's Orange' Sweet/TartMid'Pippin, Newtown'
TartLate'Rhode Island Greening'
Sweet 'Stayman Winesap'
'King Lucious' Tart
Many thanks to the U.S. Apple Association, the New York Apple Association and DG members for supplying photos in this table.