For the best apple pie, don’t rely on Granny Smith

January 18, 2012

The apple was not born here, although in a pie there is no fruit more American. As to what goes into that pie, feelings run strong. Should the crust be made with butter, shortening, lard or two of those combined? Should you get fancy with spices, nuts and raisins, or stay pure? Most important of all, what kind of apples should you use? If you’re a gardener with an eye to spring planting, you might also be wondering what kind of pie apple to grow.

Recently I had a chance to talk apples with a Virginia gentleman named Tom Burford, widely known as “Professor Apple.” “I’m dogmatic and opinionated,” the professor warned, and went on to explain what a pie apple is not.

“Don’t rush out and subscribe to what popular culture has thrust upon us and use Granny Smiths,” he advised firmly. “They are starchy and usually picked unripe, so they don’t have the flavor. If you use unripe apples, you’ll have to alter your pie in appalling ways,” he went on. “I’ll taste a pie and tell the baker, ‘This is an interesting cinnamon and raisin pie. But where are the apples?’ ”

A good pie apple, he insists, like a good cider apple, has an ideal balance of sugar, acid, tannins and aromatics. He notes the classic York apple and the modern GoldRush as fine examples. Preferring to mix several apples in a single pie, he suggests Braeburn as a companion for GoldRush, which “has an acidity that really gives sharpness to your pie.” Braeburn, which “keeps its flavor remarkably well in cooking,” is a good apple to plant in the Washington area, as are Grimes Golden, Winesap and Stayman. Above all, he urges, one should “avoid any bland-tasting ones” (that means you, Red Delicious) and “never plant any that you can walk four blocks to the market and buy.”

For another view I called up my friend John Bunker, the Professor Apple of Maine. It turns out he’s a fan of the single-apple pie. Burford delights in mixing the sweet ones with the tart, and those that are firm when cooked with those that soften to something close to applesauce. Bunker, on the other hand, looks for perfection in one variety. So its taste must blend the tart with the sweet and have an in-between texture when baked. Northern Spy and Baldwin, both northeastern apples, came first to his mind, followed by some more southerly choices such as Smokehouse, King David, Arkansas and Albemarle Pippin (also called Newtown Pippin). He concurred on the virtues of Winesap and Stayman. He regards Cortland, so often touted for pies, as “ho-hum.”

Cooks have a lot to learn about this subject. I admit I’ve sometimes chosen a pie apple by size alone, because big ones are faster to peel and slice. And recipes I’ve followed tend to lean on compensatory measures, such as spiking the pie with lemon — no substitute for lively apple flavor. So 2012 will be the year I taste our orchard, pie by pie.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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