The Food Lab Redux: Use Science to Bake the Best Apple Pie

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Classic all-American apple pie with an easy, flaky pie dough. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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I'm not much of a sweet tooth, but for some reason, I get an almost unshakeable craving for ice cream once a year. Is there a behavioral psychologist in the house who might explain that one to me?

Similarly, the only time of the year I ever feel like eating pie is in the fall, and nine times out of ten, that pie I'm craving is apple. So I don't want just any apple pie. If I'm going to eat it, it had better be the best darned homemade apple pie around. Fortunately, with years of testing, pages of notes, and thousands of words worth of summarizing under my belt, I have a recipe that delivers just that.

It all starts with a foolproof buttery flaky pie crust that's easier to roll out than any pie crust you've ever seen. You ever have problems with your pie crust cracking or falling apart as you roll it? You can say good bye to them. Or perhaps you're a pie crust virgin? No problem, this recipe is the only one you'll ever need (and as a bonus, it doesn't even require the shot of booze that my old Cook's Illustrated pie crust relied on!).

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Just look at those flaky layers, would ya?

The secret is in understanding that contrary to conventional wisdom, pie dough does not consist of pockets of flour coated in thin layers of butter, but rather the opposite: It's pockets of butter coated in a thin layer of flour. Once you understand this, it's a short leap to realize that the butter need not be pure butter—it can be a butter and flour paste. By incorporating flour and butter until a paste forms, then cutting in some more dry flour, you end up with a dough that is smooth and malleable, but bakes up as crisp and tender as any traditional pie crust out there!

P.S. You science geeks can read up all about the science of pie crust right here to get at the details.

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Next we move on to the filling, and that, of course, starts with selecting the right apple. I baked my way through 10 of the most common apple varieties to determine which was the best for the pie. The most important element is acidity. The more tart the apple, the firmer it bakes. It all has to do with pectin, a molecular glue that holds together an apple's cells. The lower the pH (read: the tarter it is), the more strongly that pectin binds. Golden Delicious provide that perfect balance between great, full apple flavor and aroma, with just enough acid that the chunks of apple tenderize without turning to mush.

Once you've got those Golden Delicious, where to next? You might be tempted to just toss them with cinnamon and sugar, toss them in the pie shell, and walk away. Do this and you end up with a waterlogged pie with apples that have turned too soft. Instead, try par-cooking your apples a bit before they enter the pie. As we discovered when experimenting with pie fillings, by pre-heating apples to around 160°F and letting them sit, enzymes convert their pectin into a more heat-stable form. Subsequent cooking will not cause them to lose their shape.

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The easiest way to do this? Pour boiling water over your sliced apples and let them rest for about 10 minutes before drying them, tossing them with cinnamon, sugar, and cornstarch (to help thicken their juices), and piling them into the pie shell and baking them.

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The end result is the all-American apple pie to end all American apple pies. Tender chunks of apple bound in a silky glaze underneath a golden dome of crisp, flaky, tender crust bursting with buttery flavor. Now if that's not worth coming home for Thanksgiving, then I don't know what is.