The 6 Best Apples for Pie

October  1, 2014

Today, James Beard Award-winner Rowan Jacobsen, author of Apples of Uncommon Character, dishes on six apple superstars that will rock your pies.

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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.

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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

3. Gravenstein
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.

More: Here are the tools you'll need to bake the perfect apple 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.

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Rowan Jacobsen

Written by: Rowan Jacobsen


Catherine K. October 9, 2015
For years, I have only used PIPPIN apples (French).
These gems are not only the perfect medium firmness for pies, but the juice and taste goes beyond just being A+ if that is possible.
A recent trip to New York and many phone calls later revealed one orchard that still raised Pippins; available late December.
The apples mentioned above are really old world apples and the best of apples....I hope Pippins return.
Pippins are no longer a farmers favorite; however, I have never found another apple replacement
Jerry F. April 30, 2016
Hello Catherine, I have read yours and similar comments about "Pippins". A pippin is a tree that originated from discarded apple seeds (pips) and so whose exact parentage cannot be easily determined. Of the hundreds of thousands of pippins that have grown, only a small number have been deemed worthy of propagation and so cultivated. In my orchard I am growing Allington Pippin, Cox Orange Pippin, Fall Pippin, Golden Pippin, Green Newton Pippin, Herrings Pippin, Kerry Pippin, King of Pippins, Lambrook Pippin, Newton Pippin, Oxheart Pippin, Parks Pippin, Pine Golden Pippin, Ribston Pippin, Scarlet Pippin, St Edmund’s Pippin, Stone Pippin, Strawberry Pippin, Sturmer Pippin and Tallow Pippin. If you had another name or some more information, maybe we could figure out just which pippin you so appreciate. I would like to know. Because we very much enjoy our pies. Sincerely, Jerry Fottral Plum Creek Farm, Swisher, IA [email protected]
Judy October 7, 2015
Jonathons. And If I can't find those here in California I use Pink Ladies.
Sharon F. October 19, 2014
I love the Pink Lady variety, though I have yet to try and bake a homemade apple pie! Some of these other varieties sound really delicious, I must try and find a couple of them and give them a taste-test!
john October 19, 2014
I have grown up in NH and am fortunate to have an orchard that has many unique varities in the next worn. But when my Dad planted a vineyard in Belmont, NH there were 3-4 abandoned apple trees at the bottom of the slope. While tending his grapes he would also fertilize, spray, and recover these trees which produce my "new" favorite across the board. Spigold, a Northern Spy Golden Delicious cross. Only last year I found a nursury that carried it so someone else must have discovered it, as well. Like its parentage it is an October product, but a beautiful, large fruit.
rob October 18, 2014

The very best pie apple, by far, is the Newton Pippin, second best would be the Cox's Orange Pippin. Both are EXCELLENT. The Newton is generally available towards the end of September, through October and early November in most areas of the US at specialty fruit stores, but almost never in the major supermarkets.

I've been in the pie/baking business for, OMG, I just realized it is 39 years, now. I must be getting old. One should always use three apples in a pie, one firm/tart, one medium soft/sweet-tart, and a third would generally be another firm/tart. This will give texture, tartness to offset sugar, and a 'roundness' to the flavor/texture profile of the end product.
Susan October 18, 2014
I love this advice, Rob! And will take it as I make my Thanksgiving pies this year!
Ann H. January 18, 2015
Pippins are the very best for pies. I have not found an apple that can match them for flavor or texture.
Mark O. October 18, 2014
Grimes Golden - Developed in 1805 in WV and can still be found in VA/MD/WV and is available from a few nurseries. Golden Delicious was developed from Grimes Golden. Without a doubt the best cooking apple I have ever found, both in texture and in taste.
Margaret October 18, 2014
Have used only Northern Spy for years now - best ever.
Dawn October 18, 2014
What if I live remote (which I do) and have a choice of Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Gala in our one grocery store. That's it. Those are my choices. What do I use for an apple pie?
Author Comment
Rowan J. October 19, 2014
I'd mix Granny Smith with Gala, 2-1. Bon App!
MK S. October 7, 2014
There was a time (latter half of the 1970's) when I always managed to get a box or so of Gravensteins from friends' or relatives' trees in the Seattle/Tacoma area. What I couldn't manage to eat were made into apple sauce. After moving to Los Angeles in 1979 I was pleasantly surprised to find Gravensteins for a couple seasons in a small local grocery chain (which, of course, was subsequently gobbled up by one of the two grocery giants in Southern CA.) The last time I saw more than a picture of a Gravenstein was 1981. Thank God Ralph's and Vons didn't kill the Gravensteins for the rest of the world!
Susan October 7, 2014
Environmental constraints limit the range of apples I can grow (not enough chill hours for many), but I'm hoping a small orchard of Anna, Golden Delicious, Gala, Arkansas Blacknose, and Golden Dorsett will somehow add up to PIE. :)
ChickenQueen October 3, 2014
A lot of these apples aside from pink lady aren't even available in the Richmond,VA area. At least I have never seen them and I am an avid Apple lover. (Say that last sentence 3x fast!
Alex October 3, 2014
I usually use golden delicious, but all of these apples sound/ look delicious. Here is an awesome recipe to use them all.
Susan October 3, 2014
I usually use a combination of apples in my pies ... Golden Crisps hold their shape if they're fresh from the orchard and get combined with Macintosh that cook down to a soft mush. Deep in winter, I use Cortlands and one Granny Smith for my pies. You have to go with what's fresh vs what's keeping well at the time of year that you're baking.
M T. October 2, 2014
Gravenstein for general baking, crisps,crumbles,turnovers. Cortlands, for pie because they stay al dente.
dymnyno October 2, 2014
The Gravenstein definitely has my vote!
Author Comment
Rowan J. October 2, 2014
You should do pretty well out there, Sipa. And if not, check out Scott Farm in southern Vermont.
Sipa October 2, 2014
Rowan your book is lovely. I'm heading to the Berkshires on Saturday and taking the book with me. I hope to find some of the apples you highlight in the book whilst there.
ChefJune October 2, 2014
Here in the New York Metro area, we also have the fabulous Mutsu's and Mutsu's Mother. Both VERY crisp, the Mother is VERY sweet, and the child is quite tart. Together they make the best pies and tarts I've ever created. And that's saying a lot!
epicharis October 2, 2014
Rubyjons, Northern Spies, and Stayman-Winesaps are my favorites for pies. Rubyjons have the most incredible flavor and they get even better when baked.
Marilyn October 2, 2014
My family here in Ontario Canada have used Northern Spy apples for our pie baking, for generations.