Homemade apple pie may be one of the holiday season's simplest pleasures, but for most cooks, getting that perfect balance between sweet-tart filling and tender, flaky crust is anything but easy. Does making dough make you panic? Can't tell a Granny Smith from a Golden Russet? Fear no more. We asked some of our favorite pastry pros to share the tips and techniques that will help you find pie success every time.
Focus on Fruit
Most farmers markets offer an array of heirloom varieties to choose from, so nowadays there's no reason to pack your pies with bland supermarket apples. "Newton Pippins, Golden Russets, Bramley’s Seedlings—these are just a few of the heirlooms that work wonderfully," says Kate McDermott of ArtofthePie.com.
And don't limit yourself to just one variety, says Rowan Jacobsen, the James Beard Award-winning author of Apples of Uncommon Character. "I find it takes at least three varieties in a pie to strike the right balance between softness, firmness, and fragrance. If you think of firm apples—like Granny Smith or Belle de Boskoop, or one of my favorites, the Calville Blanc--as your bricks, you should also add some mortar—softer apples like McIntosh, Cortland, and Bramley Seedling—to keep them together."
Another surprise? McDermott and Jacobsen both say save yourself some trouble and skip the peeling: Apple skins soften in the baking process and add a beautiful aroma and blush to the filling when baked.
Invest in Your Tools
Never underestimate the power of the right tools. "We like to thinly slice our apples using a hand-crank apple coring machine—a decent one costs around $20," say Emily and Melissa Elsen, authors of The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book and proprietors of the Brooklyn, NY bakeshop of the same name. "When you're making a lot of apple pies, it makes quick work of the slicing and peeling—and we stack pack our pies really high and densely so they’re plump and delicious."
When it comes to getting a nice crisp crust, using the proper pan can make a big difference. "I always prefer a metal pan for apple pies," says Ben Mims, pastry chef and author of Sweet & Southern. "They conduct heat better than glass or ceramic pie dishes, creating a golden, evenly-cooked pastry—which is important because, if you're not careful, the double crust and amount of filling in a traditional apple pie can make the bottom soggy."
Know Your Dough
All butter? Crisco? Lard? A combo? Anyone who’s ever made a pie can tell you: The fat you choose has a big effect on the flakiness and flavor of your crust. “My favorite crust combines butter and cream cheese,” says pastry authority Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Baking Bible. “It’s the most delicious and it’s also flaky and holds its shape, which is crucial. You want your dough to feel just slightly stretchy.”
How about that top crust? Should you keep it simple or dress it up? “I like a plain top crust with vents, so that the apples stay moist,” says Beranbaum. “And I set the pie on a baking stone (or even on the floor of the oven) for the first 20 minutes of baking to make sure it gets crisp.” Or, for some real homestyle charm, you can try your hand at a lattice top. (Don't worry: it's easier than it looks.)
Or, if you’re feeling a bit unconventional Beranbaum says a crumb topping is also a delicious choice. "I blind bake (the technical term for pre-baking a pie crust without the filling) the bottom crust and then add the apples, keeping them covered with foil so they don’t dry out. Fifteen to 20 minutes before it’s all done, I add the crumble topping made from a spiced mix of brown sugar, butter, flour, and chopped walnuts.” Or you can try adding a savory twist. “I made a crust for apple pie recently with grated cheddar cheese stirred right into the pastry,” says Mims, “and that was really lovely looking and tasting.”