Lucky us. We are in the Second Golden Age of the Apple, with more great new varieties appearing in markets than we’ve seen in decades. But lost amid the snap-crackle-pop of all the Honeycrisps and Jazz of the produce aisle is a sad little secret: Not a one of them is a top-notch baker. For that, we have to hearken back to the First Golden Age of the Apple, the 1700s and 1800s, when more than 7,000 varieties graced American farms, many of them selected specifically for their pie prowess. Although these varieties are hard to find in supermarkets, they are increasingly common at farmers markets, farmstands, and pick-your-own orchards. Combine them with some tricks our ancestors knew well (use several varieties for maximum interest; mix sweet and tart, firm and goopy; and work some leaf lard into the crust), and prepare for pie perfection.
Escpopus Spitzenberg / Bramley's Seedling
1. Esopus Spitzenberg
“Who would put into a pie any apple but Spitzenberg, that had that?” wrote the famed minister Henry Ward Beecher in 1862. A century and a half later, the question stands. Widely considered the most flavorful apple America has ever produced, the pride of New York’s Hudson Valley pushes both sweetness and tartness to an extreme, and infuses your pie with notes of lychee and roses.
2. Bramley’s Seedling
Too often Americans make their pies with nothing but overly hard apples (I’m looking at you, Granny Smith!), which slide away from each other as soon as your fork strikes. The Brits have long understood that you need some glue to hold the thing together, and for more than 200 years their go-to glue has been Bramley’s Seedling. The huge, green, very tart apples look like unripe grapefruits in the tree, but when cooked they melt into a thick pulp that works wonders when combined with a firmer apple. (Honorable Mention: McIntosh or Cortland.)
Gravenstein / Belle de Boskoop
Love it or leave it. Some people think this treasure of Sonoma County (where you can still find the Gravenstein Apple Fair every August) is too soft for pie, but others believe its unmistakable berry-apple fragrance is the very harbinger of fall. Pick them early for pie.
4. Belle de Boskoop
This tart and snappy Dutch belle makes me think of some ruddy barmaid in a nineteenth-century tavern: Plump and rustic, with an acid tongue, she can be awfully saucy in her youth, but as she mellows with age, her sweetness begins to shine through. She will win you over in pies, crisps, and strudel, where her firmness is divine and her zippy edge keeps things lively. (Honorable Mention: Any russet, such as Golden Russet, Roxbury Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, or Zabergau Reinette.)
Northern Spy / Pink Lady
5. Northern Spy
Your grandmother may well have insisted on Northern Spy for her pies. She was right. This early-1800s star is one of the few apples that can stand alone in pies. Bright and lively, firm yet tender-skinned, it’s experiencing a well-deserved resurgence as a new generation of bakers discovers that no other apple can match its bag of tricks.
6. Pink Lady
Not all modern apples fall flat in pies. Pink Lady is super-crisp when eaten fresh and nearly as crisp in pies, where its rosy hue and sweet-tart balance work wonders. No peeling, please.
What apples do you swear by for pie? Tell us all about them in the comments!
For more apple facts, apple recipes, and great writing, pick up a copy of Rowan's new book, Apples of Uncommon Character.
Pie photo by James Ransom. All other photos by Clare Barboza.