The ideal apple depends on the pie recipe – some recipes compensate for the bitterness or sourness of an apple variety with extra sugar or honey, while others accentuate an apple's natural sweetness with minimal extra flavoring. Ultimately, your apple choice will depend on the varieties available in your area, but knowing how to categorize and evaluate apple flavor will help you make baking decisions.
The most readily available variety of tart apple is the Granny Smith, whose flavor has dramatically less sweetness than the other apples available in a commercial grocery store. Tempered with the right amount of sugar, Granny Smiths make great pies. They hold their shape will as they soften, accentuating the fresh, homemade quality of the pie. Certain regions, including the northeastern U.S., still cultivate a wide range of heirloom apple varieties. If you have access to local apples, ask your farmer for a crisp, tart variety suited to pie-making.
Mildly Tart Choices
Other readily available apples that have a hint of tartness include the Empire, an incredibly juicy sweet-tart variety, and the Jonathan, which has a slightly spicy flavor to it. The Ginger Gold apple, an early-season fruit, may not be available all year-round, but it provides a mild tartness that is very desirable in a pie. Jonagold apples may be more difficult to find in certain areas, but provide a perfect blend of sweetness and tartness.
One strategy for balancing full-flavored tartness with sweetness is to combine two or more apple varieties in a single pie. Once classic combination is Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. Granny Smiths lend tartness and structural integrity to the pie, while Golden Delicious Apples have a fuller and more complex sweet-tart flavor. Experiment with combinations of sweet and tart apples for a more complex and personalized pie.
Apples to Avoid
While most fresh apples can lend good flavor to a pie when used with the right proportions of other ingredients, some apples fail to produce good results due to their consistency. Apples that have a tendency to become mushy or lose their shape as they bake will result in a mushy pie filling that can saturate the crust. McIntosh and Cortland apples are sweet and juicy varieties that run a risk of becoming mushy in a pie. These apples are better suited for snacking or for a raw dish like a fruit salad.