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Choosing the Best Apples for Pie-Baking

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I’ve only ever known three apples in my childhood: the Red Delicious in the school cafeteria, the Fuji as my parents’ chosen sweet snacking apple, and the Granny Smith for baking due to its overwhelming tartness. Throughout the years, Gala and Honeycrisp grew in popularity, and became available in most mainstream grocery stores. Now that I’ve moved to Berekey, I have 15-20 different varieties of apples to choose from at my local grocery store; Gingergold, Jonagold, Braeburn, Gravenstein, Newton/Cox Pippin, Russet and Famaeus just make my baker heart leap in excitement. 

What makes a good pie? 

First let’s discuss what we’re really looking for. In my years of baking, I have made numerous bad pies with apples that simply aren’t suited for baking. There wasn’t exactly an apple pie rulebook out there; most recipes just tell me “apples” or “Granny Smith. ” Seriously unhelpful. Another obstacle is sourcing the right apple, which can be monumentally difficult if you live next to markets with limited selections. 

We are looking for apple pie with superb apple flavor and good structure. The apple flavor should be maintained throughout baking, with a hint of acidity that make the flavors more vibrant. The apple should not become mealy or mushy during the baking process either. It must have a good bite, without being too firm. 

Methodology

All apples were peeled, cored, and then sliced into 1/4-inch pieces. To maintain a controlled environment: I used the same amount of sugar, spices, and flour in the filling. Time and temperature were constant. All pies were left to cool overnight before tasting.

In the raw tasting, the following properties were considered: 

  • Apple flavor
  • Sweetness
  • Tartness 
  • Firmness
  • Crunchiness

In the baked tasting, an additional property was considered: 

  • Structural integrity, or how well the apple structure can withstand to the baking process.

Note: The apple labeled “Gala” is actually Braeburn. I didn’t realize this until I was started piecing together my analysis. The data I had gathered from the tasting notes didn’t match the properties of an actual Gala apple. I had to dig through the trash to recover the stickers— only to find that I actually had a Braeburn! Doh. 

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THE WINNERS

 

1. Braeburn

Cultivated in the 1950s for its desirable characteristics, this apple is said to be ideal for baking. It should maintain its structure during baking, while releasing very little liquid. 

Before baking: Sweet and sub acid (mildly tart). Exellent apple flavor. Firm, but not too crunchy. 

After baking: Maintained its sweetness throughout baking, with very little noticeable acid.  Has softened, but still retained a good texture without much crunchiness. Probably ranked the highest in apple flavor post-baking. 

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2. Honeycrisp

Honeycrisp was created to have a good balance of flavor and a satisfying crunch, earning its position as the prized snacking apple. 

Before baking:  Most crisp of all samples. Overt sweet and tart notes. Good apple flavor. 

After baking: Maintained much of its sweetness and tartness. Still good apple flavor coming through. Its structure has not degraded much throughout the baking process–still has a crunchy bite. 

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THE RUNNER-UPS

 

3. Granny Smith

Before baking: Bright and overtly tart. Little to no sweetness. Very good fragrance and flavor, but the lack of sweetness is regretful. 

After baking: Maintained crispness and structural integrity. Less crisp than Honeycrisp, but has a great bite. A very one-dimensional flavor; lacking apple-y complexity and sweetness. 

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4. Jonagold

Before baking: Superb apple flavor, tart with moderate sweetness. Very firm. 

After baking: Tartness has balanced out well after baking. Lost much of its firmness, but still holds its shape. Decent choice for baking apple, but you might want to combine this with a firmer fruit.

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THE LOSERS — JUST PASS ON THESE

 

Gingergold

Before baking: Bright, crisp, and somewhat apple-y. Good balance of sweet and tart. A little mealy texture. 

After baking: Good tart flavor, but little apple flavor. Mushy. Structure does not hold to baking.  

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Sali Red Delicious

Before baking: Very little apple flavor, chalky (gross), somewhat sweet without any tartness. Oxidizes much more quickly than any other apple. 

After baking: Not much flavor, bland. Mushy apple sauce texture after baking. This was by far the worst apple in both raw and cooked states. Definitely would not recommend this in any situation.

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Conclusion

Braeburn has by fair maintained the best flavor after baking. The only down side is that it lacks the crisp texture which gives the pie a good mouthfeel. Honeycrisp has a fair apple flavor, but has a notable acidity which makes the flavors more vibrant. It also has a great crispness– truly refreshing. Granny Smith is still my choice for salted caramel apple pie. Its tartness makes it the perfect medium for the salted caramel.

Using Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, or Jonagold on their own would not be a terrible choice. However, we know we can improve the overall taste of the pie by using apples which complement each other during baking. The following combinations seem viable to me: 

  • Braeburn + Honeycrisp
  • Braeburn + Granny Smith
  • Jonagold + Honeycrisp 
  • Granny Smith + caramel 

Since I have not tried all the apples out there, I cannot say these results are in any way conclusive. There could be even better flavors out there! We will just need to wait until the next installment to find out. 

PS: Fuji is a notoriously bad apple for baking. In fact, it’s so bad that I’ve chosen to completely omit it from the experiment. It stays too firm during baking and secretes excessive amount of juices under high temperatures. I know this because I’ve made this mistake 4 years ago. It’s another apple to pass on. 

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