My first job, when I was 14 years old, was working in a bakery located adjacent to an apple orchard. The wife ran the bakery while her husband ran the orchard. I had the chance to visit with them again a few weeks ago. They are in their 80s now and retired from the farm, but she still bakes a mean apple pie. Her advice on which apples to use for pie? A mix of Cortlands and Macintoshes, and that's about it.
There are over 2,500 varieties of apples in the U.S. alone; over 7,500 around the world. Centuries ago, there were even more varieties, but as farming became industrialized, only those varieties with certain qualities were grown and some varieties became extinct. This article by Rowan Jacobsen explores the history of apples and how some farmers are bringing historical varieties back into the orchards. Other farmers are creating new varieties even as we speak, though it takes at least 10 years to get a new variety of apple to a commercial market. Many of the currently popular varieties of apples, such as Honeycrisp, Ginger Gold, and Pink Lady, are less than 50 years old.
Apples for Baking
Some apples turn to mush when exposed to the heat of the oven, while others keep their shape well. According to my old bakery boss, the best pie is one that mixes both kinds of apples so you have a balance of apple mush and firmer pieces of apple: great texture, with lots of apple flavor. That's where the Cortlands and Macs come in. Cortlands are sweet and perfect for baking, as they hold up well in the oven. Macs are a bit more on the tart side, and turn to mush when baked, but they are the perfect complement for the Cortlands. You can certainly find newer varieties of apples that work well in pies too, but sometimes I think old-school is best.
If you're itching to make an apple pie now, and don't want to wait until the Cortlands and Macs are ready, try making a pie out of Paula Reds. They are ripe and ready in mid-August, and while they, like Macs, turn to mush in a pie, having a fresh, homemade apple pie a month before the rest of the apples are ready for picking is pretty delightfully delicious.
Apple pie is pretty straightforward. Mix peeled and chopped apples with cinnamon, sugar, and a few tablespoons of flour, put your filling into a pie shell, and bake til bubbly and toasty brown on top. King Arthur Flour and NYT Cooking both offer fairly simple pie recipes. Don't hestitate to buy a premade crust if that'll get your pie in the oven faster.
So now that you’re ready to make pie, the real question is: are you going to put cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream on top?