For many years, both professional and amateur chefs have argued over which type of apple makes the best apple pie. The decision rests largely on the expectation of what an apple pie should taste like. Very sweet pies can be made from sweet apples like the Golden Delicious. However, most favor a pie that has a bit of tartness. Several varieties produce a an apple pie with a little “bite” to it, but each variety differs in flavor.
Gravenstein apples are usually the first pie apples of the season. When fully ripe, these apples may be enjoyed simply for eating, although they remain somewhat tart. They also make exceptionally good applesauce. Trader Joe’s, for example, specifically markets unsweetened, organic sauce, which is a pleasant addition to meals including chicken or pork.
Even at full ripeness, a Gravenstein does not taste completely sweet, but it is complex in flavor. Its taste evokes white wine and honey. Luther Burbank greatly encouraged the cultivation of the Gravenstein and is quoted as saying that “if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”
Sonoma County, in Northern California, used to be one of the largest suppliers of this delightful fruit. Now only a handful of growers remain, and the apple is hard to get. It also has a relatively short season, appearing in early August and lasting through possibly early October. Many argue that the Gravenstein makes the best apple pie. It is a hard apple to top in a pie, as it provides intense, rich, and complex flavor.
Many cannot get Gravensteins and instead wait for the appearance of Granny Smith apples. Granny Smiths do not have a lot of taste, particularly when purchased from a supermarket. Organic Granny Smiths can be a little more complex in flavor, but at full ripeness still require a great deal of sugar and extra spicing to create a good apple pie.
When available, an excellent alternative to the Granny Smith is the Rhode Island Greening. Similar in shape and size to the Granny Smith, it is complex in flavor, with a wine-like taste that is simply delicious. When the Gravenstein season has ended, Greenings are the next best choice for an apple pie. They do not require as much spicing, though they do need to be amply sugared to produce a pie that is not too tart. Baking unfolds a Greening’s complexities. For those on the West Coast of the US, these apples are difficult to find, but East Coast denizens are in luck, as Rhode Island Greenings are principally grown there.
Pippins, small and tart, can also make an excellent pie. Again, their tartness mellows as they bake. They are a little difficult to peel, given that they are about half the size of Granny Smiths and Greenings. However, they are worth the extra trouble, producing a delicious apple pie. Pippins are harder to find than Granny Smiths and appear shortly after Gravensteins. They are a good apple to choose when Gravenstein supply is diminishing and Granny Smiths or Greenings have not yet made their appearance.
Some bakers favor the Winesap, available more frequently in England and Canada, and sometimes on the East Coast of the US. Other choices for apple pie baking include the Braeburn; the Bramley, most popular in England; and the Summer Rambo, available mostly in France. Any apple that is juicy and at least partially tart will make a better choice for an apple pie than most “eating” apples.
Also, choosing organic apples to fill your apple pie can make a big difference in flavor over those apples grown with pesticides. Even when peeled, conventionally grown apples tend to have a bitter taste that may not be resolved during baking. Though many apples will yield a pleasing apple pie, most cooks defer to the power of the Gravenstein to produce the superlative apple pie.