I can't think of anything more American to devour on Thanksgiving than an ooey-gooey heap of caramelized apples piled into a crispy, buttery crust. A good apple pie can be oh-so-good, but a bad one, well, it's just flat out depressing. Unfortunately a lot can go wrong when it comes to the classic dessert, but I've done some research to ensure that it doesn't.
Read on for apple pie perfection.
With so many hundreds of recipes floating around for "the best" apple pie, weeding out the good from the bad can seem downright overwhelming. Not to mention the number of variables at work, like what kind of apples to use or which pie pan works the best?
To answer some of these elusive questions, here's a list (and a recipe) to take the guesswork out of making the ultimate apple pie. Here is everything you need to know about apple pie:
Choosing the right apples is key.
The types of apples you choose are crucial to the success of your pie. Each type of apple provides both positive and negative qualities. Tart apples hold up well during cooking but don't offer the best "apple-y" flavor. Sweet apples provide wonderful flavor but often turn to mush.
Most bakers prefer using a mix of sweet and tart apples, which together yield a flavorful sauce and tender yet firm bite. Northern Spy and Cortland apples are two worth seeking out; they are considered the gold standard for pies. Granny Smith are also very common for pies; they are quite tart and hold their shape well. Other apples to consider for pie are Gravenstein, Braeburn, Cameo, Pink Lady, Jonathan, and Empire.
It's worth it to pre-cook your apples.
Par-cooking the fruit helps discourage the gap that often occurs between the top crust and filling, since apples shrink considerably upon cooking or baking. Some cooks place a pie bird, a ceramic object often shaped like a bird, on the center of the crust, which prevents the crust from sagging as it cooks.
Another benefit of precooking the filling is that it means you can make it in advance. You can also taste the the filling before you make the pie and adjust the seasonings accordingly rather than guessing. I prefer to be very light handed with spices, because to me they overpower the delicate flavor of the fruit.
Choose your thickener wisely.
There are a multitude of thickening agents used to set up the filling in pies. While flour is the most common, it often gives the filling a cloudy appearance and alters the taste. Cornstarch sets clear but can breakdown after prolonged cooking. Tapioca starch not only sets clear and doesn't alter taste, but also doesn't break down under high heat.
I find the mix of tapioca and cornstarch produces a thick syrup with a smooth, glossy finish. Other options to consider are ClearJel, a modified food starch has the ability to thicken both unbaked and cooked fillings, as well as dry pectin, the same ingredient often used to thicken jams and jellies. King Arthur Flour also makes two popular thickening ingredients — Pie Filling Enhancer and Signature Secrets — that both get rave reviews.
A metal pie plate is best.
Although any strong pie plate will certainly do, double crust pies like this one usually turn out better when baked in metal, preferably aluminum. Metal is an excellent heat conductor and will produce a crispier, more golden crust than glass or ceramic. (I have been having great success with this one from Williams Sonoma.) Whatever dish you choose, opt out of using disposable.
The freezer is your friend.
Freezing an unbaked pie can actually produce better results than baking the pie immediately. Once in the oven, the bottom crust thaws quickly and gets a chance to cook while the filling is still thawing, preventing the juices from making the bottom soggy.
To freeze, prepare the pie through all of the steps including shaping and venting the top crust. Cover the entire pie in plastic wrap, then slide it into a large plastic bag and seal with a twist tie. Only freeze pies in a metal or disposable aluminum pie pan; glass and ceramic pie plates will shatter when they hit the oven.
If you freeze your pie ahead, add 20 to 45 minutes to cooking time. Bake the pie within four months for best quality.
My favorite apple pie recipe.
If you don't already have an heirloom recipe recorded in your family history, I promise this apple pie is definitely worth your time. If you've never made an apple pie from scratch before (or even if you're an old pro), I suggest spreading the process over the course of a few days. There are lots of tips in the recipe for how to plan ahead.
For you veteran apple pie makers out there, what are your favorite tips and tricks? Let's share!
Classic Double Crust Apple Pie
Yields one 9-inch pie
For the crust:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
12 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour (about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
For the apple filling:
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
5 pounds of various sweet and tart apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon tapioca flour
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 egg white, lightly whisked
Coarse sugar, for sprinkling
Ice cream for serving (vanilla bean, caramel, and cinnamon would all be good)
For a step-by-step guide to making pie, see:
→ How to Make a Pie from Start to Finish
For the crust: Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and place in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and continue pulsing until the majority resembles coarse meal and the remainder of butter is the size of small peas, 5 to 10 quick pulses.
Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Run your hands through the flour, using your fingers to pinch any remaining larger pieces of butter into smaller crumbles. Add 1/2 cup of cold water to the mixture and toss with your hand until shaggy clumps begin to form. Sprinkle more water over the flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until about three quarters of the dough holds together when squeezed with your fingertips; the remainder should still quite dry and crumbly. Turn the entire mixture onto a work surface. Gather the loose bits into the dough and use the heel of your hand to press, i.e. smear, the dough out in a few forward, sharp motions.
Divide the dough in half with a bench scraper and transfer each section to a sheet of plastic wrap. Gather the edges of the plastic wrap tightly to form a round mass. Use the heel of your hand to flatten the ball into a disk — this allows you to shape the dough and collect any remaining crumbs. Chill the dough for at least one hour, or overnight.
Remove the disks from the refrigerator, unwrap, and place on a lightly floured work surface. (If refrigerated longer than one hour, let sit for 15 to 20 minutes until pliable.) Begin rolling out the first disk, rotating the dough a quarter of a turn after every few rolls and lightly dusting the underside with additional flour to prevent sticking. Continue rolling until the diameter of the dough is 3 to 4 inches larger than a 9-inch pie pan and about 1/8" to 1/4" thick.
Use a bench scraper to gently loosen the dough from the work surface. Fold the dough in half away from you, lift, and carefully arrange over the pie plate, aligning the seam with the center of the pan. Open it up and gently ease the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan. Roll out the other portion of dough into a circle about 1-inch larger than the pan. Transfer this round to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate both the bottom crust and the top crust for at least 30 minutes.
For the pie: Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven (or divide into two skillets if necessary) over medium heat until foaming. Add the sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the butter and stir until combined. Gently fold in the apples.
Cover and cook the apples, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is boiling and the apples have started to soften, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the cider vinegar, tapioca flour, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Make a well in the apples and pour the mixture into the bottom of the pot. Gently toss to combine. Continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes; you want the apples to become tender but still have a little bite. Allow the warm filling to cool at least 30 minutes, or overnight, before continuing.
To assemble the pie: Place a parchment-lined baking sheet on the center rack in the oven and preheat to 425° F.
Remove the pie pan from the refrigerator and brush the insides of the pie shell with a thin layer of egg whites (to help prevent it from becoming soggy and to improve crispness). Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer the cooled apples to the pie, creating a tall mound in the center. Pour the excess juices from the Dutch oven into a liquid measuring cup. Drizzle 1/2 cup of the liquid over the apples and discard the rest.
Drape the second round of dough over the pie. Use kitchen shears to trim the excess to about 3/4-inch. Fold the edge of the top crust over the bottom crust and gently pinch to seal. Use the index finger of one hand and the thumb and index finger of the other to create a fluted edge. Cut 5 slits into a star pattern in the center. Brush the top crust with remaining egg whites and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
→ If at any point during these steps the dough begins to feel too warm, put the pan in the freezer for a few minutes to firm back up. The assembled pie can also be completely frozen for four months (see Recipe Notes).
Place the pie on the preheated baking sheet and cook for 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 325°F and cook until golden brown and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Cool the pie on a wire rack for a minimum of three hours, or overnight, before slicing. As it rests, the fruit will reabsorb some of the juices; if you cut too soon, the pie will be soupy. Serve with ice cream.
The pie will keep at room temperature, covered, for up to 2 days and refrigerated for up to five days. Reheat in a 350°F oven until warmed through.
• To freeze, prepare the pie through all of the steps including shaping and venting the top crust. Cover the entire pie in plastic wrap, then slide it into a large plastic bag and seal with a twist tie. Only freeze pies in a metal or disposable aluminum pie pan; glass and ceramic pie plates will shatter when they hit the oven. If you freeze your pie ahead, add 20 to 45 minutes to cooking time. Bake the pie within four months for best quality
(Image credits: Nealey Dozier)