Taste Test: Finding the Best Apples for Baking

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[Photographs: Blake Royer]

It's astounding these days the number of apples you can find at a market. No longer does the Red Delicious—which I remember as the quintessential lunchroom apple—hold the only place in the supermarket aisle. Pippin, Jonagold, Golden Noble, Winesap, Pink Lady, Schmidtberger Reinette—every name makes my mouth water with anticipation.

It used to be you bought a bag of Granny Smith apples when you wanted to bake, and you added enough sugar to counteract their tartness. But now which apples are the best for baking pie?

Certainly, not all of them are good for that purpose. There are many great eating apples, whether tart, sweet, mild, or fragrant. But would the same apples I love to eat as I'm walking home from the market perform well under a pastry shell? Check out the results of my taste test after the jump.

Taste Test Method

For an apple to succeed, it needs to hold its shape after cooking—just enough to remain un-mushy, but still melt in the mouth. It also must have a balance of tart and sweet, a complex yet bright taste, and most importantly, maintain a good "appley" flavor.

I tested a variety of cultivars available at my local Whole Foods, all organic, some familiar types and others more unusual. I bought about 3/4 a pound of each variety—two to three apples—then peeled, cored, and chopped them into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Each batch was tossed with 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of flour, and 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, typical ingredients for a pie filling. However, no other seasoning was used to let the full flavor of the apple stay prominent.

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The apple chunks were then pressed snugly into a medium-sized ramekin and topped with a round of pastry, which holds much of the moisture in and is just how the apples would cook were they in a real apple pie. I slit the top of the pastry with a knife to allow some steam to escape. I decided to use frozen pastry from Trader Joe's, which comes in discs rather than aluminum pie tins. This allowed me to cut them to size and use them for tops. But most importantly, the Trader Joe's pastry is made with real butter and, I'll admit, is delicious.

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Each "pie" was cooked at 375°F for 35 minutes. Once all of them were cooked and transferred to bowls awaiting tasting, I warmed them briefly in a low oven to equal temperatures.

After baking, I rated each batch for texture, tartness/sweetness, flavor, and "appleness." The results were surprising, with three clear winners and three runners-up. Two of them, however, emerged well behind the rest.

The Apples

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The apples I tested were as follows: Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Fuji, Jonagold, Russet, Orin, Gala, and Honeycrisp.

Both "Delicious" varieties were chosen because they are so readily available. Fuji and Gala are also quite ubiquitous. Honeycrisp is the apple everyone seems to be raving about these days—my wife and I have gone through close to a bushel just eating them for snacks this year—so I couldn't pass that up. The rest—Jonagold, Orin, and Russet—I picked up because they were at the store. I've recently read up on Russets while researching how to make hard apple cider, and remember one authority claiming they were the absolute best variety of apple on the planet. So yes, I picked up some of those.

These were the results.

The Runners-Up

Golden Delicious

Commonly referred to as a good baking apple, and easily located in your average grocery store.

Before Baking: Soft and sweet, a pleasant taste but a rather mealy texture.

After Baking: Gooey and sweet, the Golden Delicious baked into a pleasant flavor that was relatively apple-y. It completely lost its shape, though, and it wasn't far from being "mushy." But this tasted exactly like apple pie should taste, and I was pretty happy.

Jonagold

A less common variety, which is actually a hybrid of Golden Delicious and the more acidic Jonathon.

Before Baking: Crisp and tart with lots of juiciness.

After Baking: None of the tartness was lost in the baking—sweetness was fleeting at best. It scored a little higher than Golden Delicious on pure apple flavor, and its texture was fabulous, stewy but firm enough. But if you like sweetness, you might look elsewhere.

Honeycrisp

Developed in the early 1970s at the University of Minnesota, this has since become extremely popular. It is perhaps the most prized eating apple.

Before Baking: Honeycrisps live up to their reputation. These were firm and juicy, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart.

After Baking: Complex and subtle, this apple scored huge on the flavor scale. Some nice tart notes. Texture-wise, though, it was less exciting, turning out a bit mushy. A good choice, but its qualities in baking pale to those in eating.

The Winners

Michigan Russett

"Russet" apples are not actually a single variety, but "russeting" happens to some apple culitivars, when the skin becomes somewhat tough and leathery. Because of this "imperfection," they are not as commercially popular, but many consider them to have superior flavor and aroma. With that endorsement, it may surprise you to hear that these apples came in as the cheapest of those selected, a consideration when you're buying enough apples for a pie.

Before Baking: Less than perfectly crisp, the flavor of the flesh was nonetheless marvelous. Apple-y and heady, with an exceptional flavor.

After Baking: The apple flavor only became more superb with baking. Slightly more tart than sweet, but very well-balanced, the texture was also outstanding: not broken down, but gently yielding. For the person with more love of balance than sweetness, who doesn't mind gentle tartness, this is a remarkable baking apple.

Orin

Probably the least common apple that I tried, it is mostly prized as an eating apple. It's sweeter than it is tart, which appeals to some. These particular Orins hailed from Washington state.

Before Baking: Crisp and sweet, that's the name of the game with Orins. True to form, this was a refreshing apple.

After Baking: Sweeter than tart, but still well-balanced: Just as it is for eating, the balance of flavors was spot-on. It scored the highest of all the apples on the "appley" scale and had the same outstanding texture of the russet: firm, yet just soft enough to have relinquished itself to the pie.

Gala

Like the Jonagold, this apple descends from the Golden Delicious variety, this time crossed with Kidd's Orange Red. It is sweet and mild, and extensively cultivated.

Before Baking: Not the crispest of apples, though certainly pleasant, I've bitten into better apples. The flavor was good, though, and quite sweet.

After Baking: Like the Orin, this apple is on the sweeter side, but not overly so. It had a marvelous texture after baking, perhaps the best. It held its form, but melted with one bite. And what's more, it's one of the most readily available varieties year-round.

Skip 'Em

Inevitably, a couple apples just didn't turn out. In both cases, it was mostly a texture issue, and for opposite reasons: While the Red Delicious baked into a mushy, overly-sweet mess, the Fuji was far too firm and didn't create the yielding filling everyone wants in a pie. Perhaps the Fuji would be better sautéed first for awhile so it could cook longer—an experiment for another time. Neither the Red Delicious or the Fuji had an overwhelmingly good apple flavor, either.

Conclusions

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What makes a good apple pie apple? The two most important qualities are texture and good apple flavor, which I've learned since consuming more butter, flour, sugar, and apples than a man ought to in a two-day period. All three winners excelled in the texture department and had good honest apple flavor. Some were sweeter, some more tart. But that, to me, is more personal preference.

This experiment could hardly be called conclusive since there are so many more apple varieties to try that (for example, this survey left out Granny Smith apples, which are very tart and supposedly excellent for baking), but I feel that some good work was done nonetheless. If I were to make an apple pie tomorrow, I would go straight back to Russets and Orins, using both in a single pie to bring both the tart and sweet into a single batch (I'm a big believer in hybrid vigor).

But if my options were more limited and I only had one choice, the Gala is a very respectable baking apple. It's available most everywhere and has great texture, flavor, and is fairly priced.

Serious Eaters, what are your favorite baking apples?

About the author: Blake Royer founded The Paupered Chef with Nick Kindelsperger, where he writes about food and occasional travels. After a year in Estonia, he's now living in Chicago.

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