How to Choose the Best Apples for Baking Pies, Crisps, and Crumbles

There are thousands of apple varieties out there—here’s how to pick the right one for your baking project.
A latticed pie made with apples and cranberries on a table with a pie server.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Prop Styling by Anne Eastman, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich

Choosing the best apples for baking—specifically, the best apples for apple pie—can be a challenge. In addition to the standard specimens you’ll find at the supermarket (we’re talking Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, and Galas), there are hundreds of heirloom apple varieties sold at farmers markets and orchards. Some are ideal for eating out of hand, others shine when baked, and still others are best pressed into cider. How is one supposed to distinguish between the thousands of varieties of the fruit available? It’s like comparing apples to…well, apples.

You might be tempted to categorize the fruits by color: Apples can range from light yellow and green to deep red. But the primary difference between apples boils down to two factors: flavor and texture. Some apples pack a lip-smacking tartness (think sour apple), while others lean into a honey-like sweetness. Some apples are firmer, able to hold their shape when cooked; others are mealier and will collapse when introduced to heat. Determining where an apple falls on the sweet-tart/firm-mealy spectrum will help you understand how to best harness its potential—and most importantly, which varieties to seek out for your homemade apple pie.

Picking the best apples from the bunch:

Though many types of apples can be found in grocery stores year-round, the fruit is technically in season from late July to late November. This is when apples will be at their most flavorful, ideal for eating on their own or swaddling in buttery pastry.

When shopping for apples, look for ones that feel firm and smell fragrant. Avoid apples that have bruises or soft spots. Even the firmest apples will become mealy the longer they’re stored, so seek out the freshest fruit. To judge an apple's freshness, flip it over and examine the blossom on the base. As an apple ages, the blossom opens up; if the blossom is closed, it’s fresh, but if it’s open, it’s likely an older apple.

Choosing apples for apple pie:

When selecting the best apples for pie making, firmness is key. Look for crisp, crunchy apples, which have a lower water content and are less likely to turn to mush. While you may like Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious, and McIntosh apples for snacking, these mealy apples run a higher risk of disintegrating in the oven. Instead, use these varieties to make applesauce, dried apples, or in raw applications like charoset, not apple pie. Choosing apples that can hold their shape under high heat will also help you avoid a concave top crust. This is especially important if you pre-cook your apples, which makes it harder for them to maintain their structure.

The best apples for pie should hold their shape, like in this vintage ’70s Gourmet number, not collapse into applesauce.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Prop Styling by Anne Eastman, Food Styling by Rebecca Jurkevich

In terms of flavor, the best apples for baking are more tart than sweet. The logic is simple: Most apple desserts also include sugar, so the best way to balance the sweetness is with tart apples.

For the most sophisticated, well-rounded flavor, use more than one variety of apple in your apple pie. Typically, about 6–8 apples will fill a 9-inch pie pan, so there’s plenty of room to mix and match with different varieties. Using a combination of tart and sweet apple varieties will create the right flavor balance for the best apple pie.

The 7 best apples for baking pie:

Our favorite apple pie recipe calls for Honeycrisp, Braeburn, or Golden Delicious apples, or a mix of all three. Honeycrisp apples err on the sweeter side, with a distinct honey-like flavor; Braeburns toe the line between sweet and tart; and Gold Delicious apples intensify in flavor when baked. Mixed together, these three varieties create a powerful, balanced apple pie filling.

Here are a few of the apple varieties we seek out when baking apple pie:

  • Granny Smith apples: Bright green with a citrusy flavor, Granny Smith apples are perhaps the most popular baking apple in the US. These apples are tart and crunchy with high acidity. They don’t have the strongest apple flavor, so they’re great for mixing with sweeter varieties for a balanced apple pie filling. Granny Smith apples are widely available year-round.
  • Pink Lady apples: If you’re tired of sliced apples turning brown, go for a Pink Lady. This apple has pinkish red skin and bright, creamy white flesh that takes longer to oxidize, which means they won’t brown immediately after slicing. Pink Lady apples have a balanced sweet-tart flavor profile and pair well with Granny Smith or Braeburn apples. Use this versatile apple in baked goods, like an Apple-Walnut Upside Down Cake, or savory applications, like roasted chicken or a fresh salad.
  • Mutsu apples: Also known as Crispins, Mutsu apples have green skin and a firm flesh that lends great structure to an apple pie. They’re sweet in flavor and would work well mixed with a tart variety, such as Granny Smith.
  • Golden Delicious apples: As the name suggests, Golden Delicious apples have a golden-green skin. Their flavor can vary depending on climate, with cooler climates increasing their acidity. As Golden Delicious apples cook, the sugars caramelize and they release some of their acidity, resulting in a rich sweetness and a more intense apple flavor. They’re not as firm as other varieties and, like all apples, become mealy the longer they’re stored. Be sure to buy them only when very fresh.
  • Jonagold apples: A cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious apples, Jonagolds have a crisp, creamy yellow flesh and a sweet, honey-like flavor with a hint of tartness. They’re in season in the early fall, so look out for them at your local farmers market from September to October.
  • Braeburn apples: With a red and yellow exterior, refreshingly crisp Braeburn apples develop a pear-like flavor when baked. Over the past few years, Braeburns have grown in popularity thanks to their depth of flavor and ease of production. They are quickly becoming one of the more popular baking apples (try them in an elegant apple tart) and work well in apple pie.
  • Honeycrisp apples: The name says it all—these crisp apples are sweet like honey. Similar to Golden Delicious apples, Honeycrisps take on a more complex flavor as they bake and the sugars concentrate. Honeycrisp apples are only available for a few months in the fall, so use them while you can—in addition to apple pie, try them in Apple Sticky Toffee Pudding. Since they’re sweeter than other apples, they also pair well with savory elements, like cheddar cheese in this apple-cheddar Dutch baby.

Golden Delicious apples shine in this baked apple pancake.

Photo by Isa Zapata, Prop Styling by Christina Allen, Food Styling by Emilie Fosnocht
More great apples for baking:

Classic apple pie isn’t the only thing we’re baking this fall. Whether you’re making an apple crisp, apple pie cookies, or apple cake, the rule holds that the best apples for baking have a firm, crisp flesh that holds its shape when baked. Beyond that general guidance, some apples can specifically be paired with certain desserts, like a wine can be paired with a cheese. The subtle spice notes of Winesap apples might pair well with a dessert that uses lots of fall spices or alcohol.

  • Winesap apples: Popular in cider production, this heirloom apple variety gets its name from the fruit’s spice-like aroma, subtle savoriness, and deep-red color, reminiscent of red wine. Winesap apples are tangy, yet sweet and hold their shape well when baked. Winesaps also work well in dishes that use alcohol, like this apple tart.
  • Northern Spy apples: Similarly known as a cider apple, the Northern Spy is a large red apple with a tart bite. Its thin skin and tender flesh make it great for eating out of hand, as well as in cooked applications.
  • Cortland apples: If you’re a fan of the classic McIntosh, this is the baking apple for you. These juicy green and red–blushed apples have a tart flavor and crisp texture; they’re similar to a McIntosh apple, but hold their shape better. Like Pink Lady apples, Cortlands are also slow to oxidize and work well in a galette or tart, like this fall galette, where the individual apple slices are more visible.
All the apple recipes you need:

Now that you’ve picked your apples, all that’s left to do is settle on a recipe. If it’s pie you want, we’ve got a few options. Step one: Make a flaky, all-butter pie crust (or buy one—we won’t tell). Go the traditional double-crust route, swap the top crust for a bacon lattice, or follow the lead of our friends at Bon Appétit and make Dutch apple pie, piled high with cinnamon streusel. For a truly special autumn centerpiece, try Cheryl Day’s stunner of a Salted Caramel Apple Pie; the apple filling is thickened with flour, not cornstarch, and uses both lemon juice and zest for puckery brightness. It’s full of baking spices and rich salted caramel. Don’t forget the vanilla ice cream. Baked enough apple pies for the season? Try more of our favorite apple recipes.