The Food Lab: How to Make a Gooey Apple Pie

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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Sometimes it's easy to dismiss that haunting feeling that your opinions are merely opinions and not, as you previously believed, facts. Those Beatles haters? They're the cynical, miserable sods, right? It's not the band that's the problem. Someone doesn't like pizza? They probably also hate gravy and ice cream and everything else good in the world.

But when people you know and love and respect start to question your taste in apple pie, that's when you really have to stop and reconsider the universality of goodness. My original apple pie recipe makes a pie that, to my taste, is just about as perfect as can be. The apples have a bright, fresh flavor; it's not goopy; and it's not overly spiced. That said, it is, shall we say, a little wet. When it's properly cooled and rested overnight, that wetness is more of a pleasing moistness that oozes out of the pie as you slice it. But try to cut that pie open when it's even a bit too hot out of the oven and you end up with a pie plate full of apple soup.

I can see the appeal of a firmer, gooier apple pie. I loved Hostess hand pies as a kid, with their gelled filling and tender chunks of fruit. Now and then, I even enjoy the odd McDonald's apple pie, whose filling has the texture of a jelly doughnut and the flavor of spiced apple cider from concentrate.

So this time around, I'm not after the bright, fresh, light apple pie I love. Instead, I'm after a pie that slices cleanly and holds its shape as you lift it out of the pie plate. A pie with chunks of apple that are tender yet intact, lightly bound in a thickened sauce that's just sweet enough, with a hint of spice. This is the pie for all you gooey-pie-lovers out there (and you know who you are).

Pie Precedents

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I do want to quickly note that my taste in apple pie does not even run the soupiest of everyone I know. I remember discussions with my old boss Chris Kimball, back when he used to run Cook's Illustrated (remember those days?). He'd talk about how he couldn't stand apple pies with gooey, cooked fillings. The original Cook's Illustrated Classic Apple Pie (warning: paywall) was made the easiest way: by tossing seasoned apples into a pie crust and baking it. The result is apples that have a bright flavor but a texture that verges on applesauce, with a very thin liquid surrounding them. It's a pretty soupy pie, and it's delicious.

Cook's Illustrated's more recent Deep-Dish Apple Pie (again, paywall), a recipe developed by my friend Erika Bruce, calls for par-cooking the apple filling in a Dutch oven. The pie comes out with intact-but-tender chunks of apple bound in a gooey sauce.

But hang on a second. The pie in which the apples are par-cooked, then baked, comes out with apples that are more intact and less mushy than the pie in which the apples are just tossed in raw? How does that work out? Surely cooking them twice would cause them to break down more, right?

Nope, and here's why: Like all fruits and vegetables, apples are held together by pectin, a carbohydrate glue that acts as the mortar between cells. Breaking down this pectin by heating it to around 185°F (85°C) will turn your apples mushy. However, as the magazine explains, natural enzymes in the apple can convert that pectin to a more heat-stable form if the apple is held for prolonged periods of time at temperatures close to (but not exceeding) 160°F, or 71°C.

To confirm this, I cooked two miniature apple crisps by tossing apple slices with cinnamon, sugar, cornstarch, and a little lemon juice. Then I took half of the apple slices and cooked them to 160°F, holding them there for 15 minutes before letting them cool to room temperature. I then baked both batches of apple in identical containers, topped with a simple oat, butter, and brown sugar crisp topping.

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As you can plainly see, the par-cooked apples stayed fully intact, separating into individual slices. They had a tender bite, but weren't mushy. The raw apples, on the other hand, got the applesauce-like texture that I remembered from that original Cook's Illustrated apple pie.

There are a number of ways you can get your apples to 160°F and activate those enzymes. The microwave and the stovetop both work well, though both require some temperature management and a careful eye on the thermometer. (You don't want to overheat the apples, or the enzyme will get deactivated and you'll end up with applesauce.) The key is to take it slow, and stir constantly.

With the apples par-cooked, we've essentially ended up with my original Perfect Apple Pie, meaning we haven't solved the problem of too much juice as if that were really a problem in the first place.

My first thought was to add more thickener, bumping up the level of cornstarch from two to four tablespoons. This works, but you end up with a goop-to-apple-chunk ratio that's way off base. Using different thickeners, like tapioca starch or regular flour, didn't help either.

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Instead, I went with the easiest method: reduce the juices. Crank the heat up to medium-high, and let those apple juices cook down (don't worry, the apples' heat-stable pectin will keep them nice and shapely as they cook) until they form a thick sauce in which a distinct trail appears on the bottom of the pot as you drag your spatula through it. Once the apple juices have thickened, it's necessary to completely cool the filling before you put it in a pie crust—you don't want to melt the butter in the crust!. This is most quickly done by spreading the apples into a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet to maximize surface area.

Sous Vide Supremacy

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Of course, if you have a sous vide cooker (like the Anova Precision Cooker), this whole temperature game becomes much easier. By bagging your seasoned apple slices and placing them in a 160°F (71°C) water bath, you can very easily set their pectin before finishing them on a stovetop, just like with the Dutch oven method.

I tried holding batches of apples in my sous vide setup for times ranging from 15 minutes up to six hours, and found that the optimal balance was around one hour. Not so long that this becomes an all-day project, but long enough to give you apples that hold their shape extremely well as they bake. (Besides, you'll get diminishing returns with sous vide times longer than an hour.) Compared to the all-stovetop or microwave method, sous vide is easier (no fiddling around with heat levels) and way more foolproof, and it produces superior results.

Pie Times

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Once you've got that filling par-cooked, the rest is, well, pie. Start by making a good pie dough, like our Easy Pie Dough (now complete with step-by-step photo illustrations and metric units for the non-Americanly-inclined!), and line a pie plate with one of the disks. Add the (completely cool!) apple filling, and top it with a second disk.

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Next, trim both edges together until they overhang the pie plate by about half an inch. Then you can tuck them underneath until they're flush with the edge of the pie plate. Flute the edges using your thumb and forefinger from one hand and the forefinger from the other. I find that lightly flouring your fingers for this step can help you work faster, and prevent you from accidentally sticking yourself to the dough.

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Finish off your pie by brushing it with an egg white (this helps it brown and gives it a nice, glossy appearance), sprinkling it with sugar (to give it crunch and texture), and cutting a few vent holes (them apples gotta breathe).

If you've taken a long time to assemble the pie, if your home is particularly warm, or if you're just the paranoid type, at this stage, you can stick your pie back in the fridge for half an hour, or into the freezer for 15 minutes, to ensure that the pastry is nice and firm. The goal is to cook it hot right at the beginning, so that the outer layers of pastry firm up and give the crust structure before the cold interior layers start to soften so much that the pie crust slouches or melts. I start my crust at 425°F (220°C) for about 20 minutes, then lower the oven to 375°F (190°C) and continue baking it until it looks like this:

Looks almost good enough to eat, doesn't it? But don't! Not yet, at least. Leftover apple pie is good warmed up. It's settled enough and lost enough moisture that, even when warm, it'll retain its gooey texture and hold its shape. But fresh-from-the-oven apple pie still needs to cool before slicing, lest all that work we put into those tender-yet-firm apple slices and the gooey reduced liquid binding them together goes to waste in a puddle at the bottom of the pie plate.

Let your pie cool fully to room temperature before slicing—I make mine the day before and let it rest on the counter overnight before serving—then slice it with a sharp knife.

Repeat: LET IT COOL.

This is what you'll be rewarded with.

Okay, you've convinced me. Maybe I can learn to love two different styles of apple pie. What's that called? Pie-lyamorous?

Now repeat after me, in unison: We are all individuals. We do not all have to love the same pie. We are free to make our pies in whatever manner we choose, and we are prepared to judge each other harshly for the personal choice we make.

And if your choice in apple pie sparks a debate at the Thanksgiving table this year, remember: You can always bring up politics or religion or some other less controversial subject.