The Best Pie Apple (and Our 2022 Calendar!)

Apple pie, piled high. (Russell Steven Powell)

WHAT IS THE BEST APPLE for apple pie? It is among our most frequently asked questions. It is a matter of considerable debate, and inspires strong passions. But there is no wrong answer.

A truly mouth-watering pie is piled high with apples, with a flaky crust and just the right amount of seasoning.

Making great piecrust can take years of practice. But as the apple filling is the main attraction, there will be few complaints from your audiences along the road to mastery.

Apples pair extremely well with cinnamon, but too much nutmeg or clove can obscure rather than enhance the apple flavor. A little goes a long way.

The apples must be baked to perfection, with some texture but cooked through. It’s disappointing to bite into apples half-baked.

We go light on the sugar — we want to taste the naturally sweet apples! Adding another fruit like cranberries or raisins can add texture and flavor to a pie.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE APPLES? How to choose? Should you use a single variety, or a mix?

While many cooks are passionate about their choices, fortunately apples are very forgiving. As Ken Haedrich writes in Apple Pie Perfect, almost any apple you enjoy can make a good pie, especially if it meets the above criteria.

Yet some varieties are preferred by pie-makers more than others, while others are available only certain times a year. A mix of two or more varieties can add complexity and distinction to a pie.

Whatever apples you bring home from the orchard can make a delicious pie. Apple pie, after all, is a New England tradition, enjoyed as much at breakfast the morning after as dessert the night before (if it makes it that far). A scoop of vanilla ice cream, a slice of cheddar cheese, or a dash of whipped cream can put a good pie over the top. Few foods are as satisfying.

Here are some excellent apple pie choices. If you don’t have any of these on hand, experiment! There are many more good ones to choose from. 

Have others you prefer? We’d love to hear from you!

(Click on the apple’s name for more information.)

Gravenstein apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

The heirloom Gravenstein is experiencing a mild comeback, in part due to its excellence in pies, juicy yet firm, with a light tang. Ripening in late August, Gravs keep longer than many early season varieties, but their season is relatively short compared to some of the apples that follow. Now is the time to try them.

Paula Red apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Paula Red is a chance seedling — meaning it was found in nature rather than developed in a lab. As a result, its parentage is unclear. Yet it was discovered near an orchard of McIntosh trees, and it shares many characteristics with McIntosh, including outstanding, sweet-tart apple flavor. So it may include McIntosh in its lineage. Paula Red’s main distinction is that it ripens before McIntosh. It does not store as well, but it is a great choice from mid-August through September.

McIntosh apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Mcintosh’s famous sweet-tart flavor excels in pie, and it is among the most aromatic of apples. Breathe deep around a McIntosh pie! It is a juicy apple that softens when baked. For cooks who want McIntosh’s flavor but prefer a firmer texture, mix a few Macs with a variety that holds its shape when baked, like Cortland, Golden Delicious, or Mutsu.

Cortland apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Cortland is in many ways the ideal pie apple. It is large, so fewer are needed to make a pie. It has great flavor from its McIntosh parent (its other parent is the heirloom Ben Davis). It holds it shape when cooked. It blends well with other varieties.

Empire apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Empire also shares a McIntosh parent, only with Red Delicious, which makes it a little sweeter than a Mac. But it still packs plenty of apple flavor when it ripens in late September.   

Northern Spy apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Northern Spy, like Gravenstein, while excellent for fresh eating, has endured in popularity in part due to its excellence in pies. It imparts a rich, spicy flavor, is good-sized, and holds its shape when baked.

Golden Delicious apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Golden Delicious ripens in early October. It is a mostly sweet apple, with greater complexity than Red Delicious (the two are unrelated), with a hint of pear. It can easily carry a pie on its own.

Mutsu apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Like Golden Delicious, Mutsu, also known as Crispin, is a large, yellow, late-season apple that holds its shape when baked. Mutsu has great flavor but is sometimes hard to find. You’ll only need a few to make a pie.

Baldwin apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Baldwin, like Northern Spy, is a late-season heirloom that was New England’s most popular apple before the bitter cold winter of 1933-34 killed off thousands of Baldwin trees. Baldwin can still be found today at many orchards due to its spicy, sweet-tart flavor. Outstanding eaten fresh or cooked, it holds its shape nicely when baked.

Idared apple. (Bar Lois Weeks)

Idared is a good example of an apple variety that ages like a fine wine, its flavor improving in storage. Harvested in mid- to late October, this large apple is good when picked, but is coveted for pies in cider after the first of the year for its rich, complex taste.

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We’ll have Paula Red apples from Cold Spring Orchard, and McIntosh from Phoenix Fruit Farm, both of Belchertown, Massachusetts, among the many varieties on display at the New England Apple Association booth in the Massachusetts Building at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. this weekend.

We’ll also have single-serving apple pies, apple pie squares, and many other apple treats for sale. If you are not out at an orchard, we hope to see you there!

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IF YOU ARE NEW to making pies, need a refresher, or are just looking for new ideas, view the three-bite series on apple pie-making below, featuring Andrea Darrow of Green Mountain Orchards, Putney, Vermont.

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THE 2022 NEW ENGLAND APPLES WALL CALENDAR is here!

Every month features:

  • Beautiful photographs of New England orchards by Russell Steven Powell and Bar Lois Weeks (plus front and back covers — 14 in all);
  • Photographs and descriptions of a different variety of apple; and
  • Health tips about the benefits of eating apples.

Inside the back cover is a list of New England orchards, complete with contact information and websites.

TO ORDER:

Send $10 to: 

New England Apples, PO Box 41, Hatfield, MA 01038

Price includes postage and handling.

BETTER YET, support New England’s apple growers by becoming a member of New England Apple Association, and receive a calendar as our gift!

New England Apples individual membership form

For more information, write to info@newenglandapples.org. 

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VIEW THESE THREE VIDEOS for tips on making apple pie, from expert baker Andrea Darrow:

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