How many of you have ever baked an apple pie?
OK, I see quite a few hands up.
Now, how many of you have baked a GREAT apple pie, one you were completely, 100% satisfied with?
Down go the hands!
This iconic treat could very well be America's national dessert. "American as apple pie," right? U.S. soldiers heading off to World War II coined the slogan, "For Mom and apple pie." And if you're a child of the ’70s, you probably remember "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" blaring out of your black-and-white TV.
So OK, it's a dessert everyone knows, and most love. But how many of us can claim we bake great apple pie?
To me, pie – any kind of pie – is a lot like your hair. You fuss with it, try different conditioners, use a new hairdryer, put it up, leave it down – and you're never... quite... satisfied.
And yes, apple pie is something I've fussed with endlessly over the years.
Butter crust. Crisco crust. Combo crust.
Macs and Cortlands. All Northern Spy. Ginger Golds mixed with Granny Smiths.
Thicken with pearl tapioca. With cornstarch. With flour, or (my current favorite), Pie Filling Enhancer.
Nutmeg - yes or no?
See what I mean? The paths to pie perfection are endless. And my fellow King Arthur Flour test bakers and I have meandered down a slew of ’em.
The result? We know quite a bit about apple pie. And we're happy to share our favorite tips with you here.
And next time I ask if you've ever baked a GREAT apple pie – I hope you'll answer with a resounding YES.
1) Use a combination of butter and shortening in your crust.
Now, I know this proclamation is bound to engender controversy; but that's my opinion, and I'm stickin' with it!
Either of these fats alone will make a tender, flaky crust, though the butter/shortening crust will yield a "sharper" looking crimped edge; check out our butter vs. shortening blog post for more on that.
But it's the taste of both fats I really love. Butter's flavor is a given. But shortening also lends pies a certain traditional taste – "browned fat" doesn't sound very enticing, but it's the best way I can describe it!
My favorite crust recipe? Classic Double Pie Crust. With just five ingredients – flour, salt, shortening, butter, and water – it's as basic as they come. And like the single strand of pearls or simple black dress, it goes with anything – from lemon meringue to chocolate chunk pecan to all-American apple.
2) For best texture, use as little water as possible in your crust.
Now, don't go TOO far and make an all-fat crust, without any water at all; it'll be greasy. The more water, the more the flour's gluten will develop and toughen; minimizing water means your crust will be super-tender.
Check out my fellow baker Susan Reid making her signature minimal-water pie crust in Pie, Any Way You Slice It.
3) Choose your apples carefully.
When you’re making apple pie, choose apples according to how soft you like your filling. Of commonly available apples, McIntosh will make a very soft, smooth filling; Cortland, a bit less soft; and Granny Smith, the most toothsome, chunky filling.
Check out local varieties by slicing in chunks, and microwaving for several minutes, side by side; you’ll be able to tell easily which apples soften as they cook, and which remain firm. You'll also be able to assess their flavor: tart, sweet, aromatic?
My personal favorite pie apple is Northern Spy, available at our local farm stand for only a limited amount of time in the fall. But for year-round versatility, I choose the ubiquitous Granny Smith.
4) Slice apples as evenly as possible.
Apple slices all the same thickness will cook evenly, which means your filling will be perfectly al dente, rather than an unhappy combination of mushy and crisp.
5) Use a handy-dandy apple peeler/corer/slicer.
This old-fashioned tool is the best way to (peel, core, and) slice apples evenly. I can pick a fresh apple off the tree in my backyard, and turn it into a pile of peeled slices in just 10 seconds flat – no joke!
It only takes me a couple of minutes to prepare enough apples for a deep-dish pie – and all without any hand or wrist pain from gripping a peeler.
6) "Pre-thicken" the filling.
Apples vary a lot in their juiciness, and it can be dicey trying to figure out how much thickener to add. Up your odds of success by leaching some of the juice out of the apples first.
Mix the apples with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice and the sugar called for in the recipe, and let them rest at room temperature for an hour. Apples that I've just sliced (above left) have already begun to exude juice; but look how much more they give up as time goes on!
Now, don't throw this juice away. Instead, simmer it on the stovetop or in the microwave until it's reduced by about half, and has become syrupy. Drizzle it over the apples once you've piled them into the crust.
7) Use top-quality ingredients. Always.
I like King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour for my pie crust; I find its medium-level protein makes a crust that strikes a nice balance between ease of handling, and great texture.
And as for the filling: a heaping teaspoon of intense Vietnamese cinnamon; a drizzle of boiled cider, and an aromatic hint of vanilla make my pies stand out from the competition!
8) Get to know your thickeners.
There's nothing quite so disappointing as cutting into a gorgeous, golden-brown apple pie, and watching its filling collapse in a sodden heap.
What's the best way to avoid this scenario? Well, it can be a bit complicated... tapioca, cornstarch, flour, ClearJel, how do you choose? And how much do you use?
Check out our post on thickening fruit pies for lots of good information about thickeners.
9) Make sure dry filling ingredients are thoroughly combined.
For best and most even distribution, shake the dry ingredients – spices, thickener, salt – in a jar before adding them to the apples. That way, you won't end up with any "hot spots" of cinnamon or, worse, salt.
10) Add a bit of fat to the filling.
Pats of butter or a drizzle of heavy cream add rich flavor to the filling. They also improve the mouth-feel, acting as a gentle binder between apples and juice.
11) Brush the top with milk or cream, then sprinkle it with sugar.
Sugar adds both crunch and flavor to what might otherwise be a rather bland expanse of crust atop the apples. Looking at the unbaked pie, that's coarse white sparkling sugar on the left, cinnamon-sugar on the right; I flopped the two in the pic of the finished pie, with white sugar on the right, cinnamon-sugar on the left. Both yield good results; the sparkling sugar is crunchier, while the cinnamon-sugar, obviously, has more flavor.
Can you combine the two? Sure! I've done it, and it's yummy.
12) Bake the pie on a parchment-covered baking sheet.
Or rue the folly of your ways.
You never know whether or not sticky juice is going to bubble up and out of your pie. SOOO much better to have it drip onto a piece of disposable parchment, than onto the floor of your oven.
13) Let the pie cool completely before slicing. Really.
See how nice this pie looks? No crumbled edges, no lava-flow of filling. That's because I let it cool COMPLETELY – which means, not even a hint of warmth – before I sliced it.
Not to say you can never enjoy a hot slice of apple pie; either rewarm individual slices briefly in the microwave, or reheat the entire pie in a 350°F oven. But your first step is always, always to let the pie cool to room temperature. This gives both the starch you've added as thickener, and the pectin in the apples themselves, time to do their job: congealing the filling.
Do you have a favorite apple pie tip? Please share it in comments, below. It takes a village to bake a great apple pie!