Remember when I wrote about apple crisp and I told you that even though there are huge differences between apple varieties you could just buy a mix of apples and it would be fine? That’s not so much the case for apple pie.
A sauce apple is going to be disappointing in an apple pie. The apple will break down completely as the pie cooks and you’ll end up with something approaching applesauce in a thin layer at the bottom of your pie. There are also apples that just don’t have a ton of flavor (every time we pick out the pretty apples at the grocery store, we contribute to the scourge of pretty apples that taste like foamcore).
And if I’m going to put in the effort to make a pie crust, I don’t want to be disappointed because I chose the wrong apples.
I’ve been lucky lately in that I’m a member of the wonderful Out on a Limb Apple CSA, so I get a whole selection of apples every two weeks along with a newsletter that explains which varieties are best for fresh-eating or sauce or baking or pie. I made two really good pies last week with a mix of Twenty Ounce, Rhode Island Greening, Whitefield, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, Wagener, and Wolf River apples.
But unless you also have access to heritage apples in Maine, that may not be helpful to you.
So I dug up my apple cookbooks, and my more old-fashioned cookbooks like Joy of Cooking, to get you a list of pie apples (sources listed below)
The first and most important thing is that I don’t believe in single-variety apple pies. Unless you have an apple tree in your yard that produces great pie apples, or you’re specifically trying to figure out how a particular apple works in pie, I just don’t think there’s an upside to single-variety pies. The Apple Lover’s Cookbook categorizes apples as firm-tart and firm-sweet and recommends a mixture of each in your pies.
The second important thing to know is that if you’re at a farmer’s market (particularly in apple-growing areas this time of year), the farmer or person working at the stand should be able to help you. Tell them you’re looking to make a pie, and want a mix of apples that will stand up to cooking. If they can’t help you, don’t buy your apples there.
Finally, some apples were recommended in one place as great pie apples, and another source said they fell apart when cooked. So there’s either variation in how people define good pie apples (I HATE mushy apple pies), or variation within apple varieties, or something. I looked for apples that were consistently recommended.
Arkansas Black - Typically a Southern or warmer weather apple
Baldwin - Joy of Cooking recommended for baking, firm-sweet according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook. A New England native.
Braeburn - Recommended in An Apple Harvest
Calville Blanc - Recommended in An Apple Harvest and The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. Apparently “the favored cooking apple in France, and a must-have if you want tomake an authentic tarte tatin or any other kind of tart.”
Granny Smith - Martha Stewart and Splendid Table recommend granny smiths as a classic pie apple. Another cookbook of mine says “When Northern Spy or Calville Blanc isn’t available, this is a decent alternative for pies…” which sounds a lot like damning with faint praise to me. I don’t buy these unless there’s no alternative.
Gravenstine - Firm-sweet according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook. According to my CSA, one of the oldest varieties still in existence. It’s a summer apple.
Jonagold - Firm-sweet according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook, which notes that it has “enough acidity to make it an even better pie apple than the Golden Delicious.”
Rhode Island Greening - Recommended in a bunch of places: Joy of Cooking says it “cooks best of all”; firm-tart according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook; an “old time tart gem” according to a Splendid Table apple guide.
Northern Spy - Recommended in a bunch of places: firm-tart according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook which says “many cooks call the Northern Spy the best pie apple around;” a “tart stalward” according to the Splendid Table guide.
Stayman Winesap/Stayman - Joy of Cooking recommended for baking; Stayman Winesap is a good firm-tart according to The Apple Lover’s Coobook, which says that it’s sometimes known as “Stayman.”
Rome/Rome Beauty - Joy of Cooking recommended for baking, unless it’s overripe in which case it becomes mealy; The Apple Lover’s Cookbook seems to think it’s fine/good but not as great as the Northern Spy.
Out on a Limb Apple Varieties Guide (probably somewhat specific to Northern New England)
An Apple Harvest: Recipes & Orchard Lore by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva
The Apple Lover’s Cookbook by Amy Traverso
The Joy of Cooking