Why It Works
- Braeburn or Granny Smith apples have the most balanced flavor.
- Pouring hot water over the apples and letting them sit for 10 minutes ensures perfect apple pie filling texture.
This is the final entry in my three-part primer on Apple Pie.
The first dealt with the science of pie crust, along with a recipe for foolproof pie dough. TL/DR version: You don't have to cut butter into your flour very carefully. The key is to add the flour in two batches, forming a flour/butter paste with the first.
The second article was about choosing the best apple cultivar for pies. Results? Golden Delicious or Braeburns are the way to go, displaying the best single-apple flavor balance of all the varieties tested. The only problem is that their texture is not perfect.
See how they get just a bit too soft in the pie? I want apple slices that retain their structure as they bake, fully softening so that there is no crispness remaining, but still remaining firm enough that an individual slice retains most of its initial shape. That's exactly what we're going to address this week.
Apple Anatomy, 101
The basic structure of an apple is simple. Like all plants and animals, it consists of teeny tiny cells—imagine them as tiny water balloons all bundled up really close to each other. Inside these water balloons are a number of things. The cytoplasm makes up the majority of their filling and is mostly comprised of water. This is the part that houses all of the cell's active mechanical parts, as well as all of the apple's flavorful compounds. In addition to the cytoplasm, there's a small air bubble called the vacuole.
The exterior of these water balloons—the rubber part, if you will—is called the cell wall, and it's mostly comprised of cellulose and pectin. These two compounds behave differently from each other, and the simplest way to think of them is to imagine cellulose as the bricks and pectin as the mortar that's holding them together. Destroy either one of them and the apple collapses, rapidly losing volume, and releasing its liquid in a torrent of juice that saturates the bottom crust.
You end up with a pie with a huge space between the upper crust and the apples, the bottom crust swimming in soupy liquid, the slices reduced to mush. This is not my idea of fun, and I seriously hope that it's not yours either.
So the question is, why does this happen?
Let's consider the case of an apple pie made by placing raw apple slices tossed with sugar, a bit of cornstarch, and a touch of cinnamon directly into the empty pie crust. Before the pie even hits the oven, the sugar will begin to draw out some of the moisture from the apples via the process of osmosis—that's the tendency of a liquid to travel across a permeable membrane (in this case the cell wall) from an area of low solute level (the interior of the cells) to an area of high solute level (the exterior of the apple slices—sugar being the solute).
This process is mainly a surface treatment. The exterior of the apple slices may soften ever so slightly as the balloon-like cells partially collapse when they're robbed of liquid, but the cells on the interior are still totally intact. So the apple slices will remain firm and crunchy.
As the pie starts to bake, the first thing to happen to the cells is that the air inside them (the vacuole) will begin to expand as it heats up (a given volume of air will expand greatly when heated, while a volume of water will stay the same size). This expansion puts a lot of pressure on the cell walls. The balloons are literally ready to burst, and indeed some of them do. The apples soften a bit and turn from opaque and crisp to slightly translucent and softer. The only thing holding them together at all is their pectin and cellulose-based walls.
Now it'd be great if we could keep our apples in this exact state—they're soft, but they still have some structure. Unfortunately, at this stage, your pie crust will still be completely pale. You have no choice but to continue baking.
As the filling reaches 183°F (84°C), we reach a critical point. This is the temperature at which pectin begins to break down. When the mortar in a brick building begins softening, there's suddenly nothing holding the bricks together. Cells collapse, liquid gushes out, and you've got apple sauce on your hands.
How do you prevent this from happening?
Well, we've already learned that lowering the pH of an apple pie filling (that is, making it more acidic) can help matters a bit. Pectin is stronger in more acidic environments, which is why tart apples like Granny Smith tend to hold their shape better than purely sweet apples like Red Delicious. Many recipes call for adding lemon juice to pie filling for this very reason.
Problem is, I'm 100% happy with the flavor of my pie filling as-is. It's intensely apple-y, and already has a good balance of sweetness and tartness. Adding lemon juice or another acid would throw this balance off. There must be a different way.
Pop quiz: you start with two identical batches of apples. One of them you slice, season, and throw raw into a pie shell and bake. The other you slice, season, par-cook in a skillet for a bit, then throw into a pie shell and bake. Which comes out softer?
Obviously the one that was cooked more should come out softer, right? Wrong!
Well, really, it depends. Cook a pot of apples on the stove too hot and indeed, they'll eventually break down into apple sauce. But cook them more carefully, and a pretty awesome thing happens: an enzyme naturally present in the apples will convert the pectin in the cell walls into a heat-stable form, very much like curing the cement mortar in between the bricks and allowing them to fully harden.
This process takes both careful temperature control and time. Ideally, you want to hold your apples in the 140-160°F (60-71°C) temperature range for around 10 minutes before allowing them to cool. There are a few ways to accomplish this.
- On the stovetop is very difficult. Your heat source is unidirectional, meaning that it comes only from the bottom. You have to stir pretty much constantly in order to prevent the bottom of the pan from getting above 160°F before the apples on the top have been heated through. Once you get to the requisite temperature, you need to perform some pretty tricky acrobatics with the burner and the pan to keep it there for 10 minutes. Not ideal.
- In the microwave things are much easier. Microwaves heat much more evenly than burners do. You can throw a bowl of apples in there and microwave it at three-minute intervals, stirring in between sessions until it gets up to the right temperature. After that, just let it rest, giving it the occasional zap at three- to four-minute intervals to keep the temperature in the right range. Better, but it still requires a bit of vigilance.
- A sous-vide set-up is by far the most reliable and easiest way, and if you've got one, use it! Just seal your apples with their sugar, cinnamon, and cornstarch, bag 'em up, and cook 'em at around 155°F (68°C) for an hour or so before baking them as usual. You can, of course, do this in a beer cooler as well. But if you want the absolute easiest method, go for the...
- Hot water pour-over method. This is by far the simplest. All you've got to do is heat up a pre-determined amount of water on the stovetop to a boil and pour it directly over your room temperature apples in a bowl. If everything is measured right, you end up with apples sitting right at around 160°F. Cover the bowl, let it rest for 10 minutes, drain the apple slices, and you're good to go.
The beauty of this method is that by using a pre-determined amount of hot water for a certain amount of apples, you don't even need to use a thermometer to check on their temperature (of course, I do anyway). Just pour, wait, and proceed.
After ten minutes in the bowl, your slices will have softened ever so slightly, but still retain most of their form. After this point, even if you bake them into a pie, they still pretty much retain their basic shape and a bit of pleasant al dente firmness.
Now that is one good-looking pie.
And of course, now that you have this method of producing perfectly textured apple chunks, you aren't limited to simply making perfect pies with it. There's a whole world of apple-stuffed desserts that can benefit from the hot water pour-over. How about...
Apple Pie Alternatives
Don't feel like making a full-on double crust with all the requisite rolling, folding, trimming, and crimping? Well, for times a double crust just ain't worth the effort, a skillet apple pie is clutch. I like to take my treated apple slices, toss them with sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of cornstarch to thicken their juices (just follow the proportions in the recipe below), pour the mixture into a cast iron skillet or pie plate, then top it off with a single pie crust. It bakes just like a regular pie.
If you want to get extra special, try adding a layer of nice nutty aged cheese, like good cheddar, or perhaps some Comté, to the top of the apples. You'd be amazed by how well cheese and apples go together.
Or, turn your skillet pie into a perfectly fine pandowdy by breaking up the crust halfway through baking and pushing the edges directly into the filling to soften up a bit as it finishes baking.
Apple crisps and apple crumbles are perhaps the easiest variations to make. Just make your apple filling, then combine 3/4 cup all-purpose flour with 3/4 cup old fashioned oats, 3/4 cups chopped or slivered nuts (I like almonds or pecans), 3/4 cup brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1/2 a cup of butter. Work the mixture together with your fingers, spread it over your apple filling, and bake at around 375°F (190°C) until nicely browned.
If you've got a thing for biscuits, then a cobbler is your dessert of choice. All you've got to do is make your apple filling, drop it into a deep-sided pot (I use my enameled cast iron Dutch oven), drop a few balls of biscuit dough on top, and bake.
Anyhow, you get the point. This filling will work for really any sort of pie-like apple creation. Heck, if you wanted, you can just go ahead and eat it on its own; it's that good.
For the record, I go super-light on cinnamon because I want my apples to taste like—shock!—apples, but feel free to add extra cinnamon, other spices, more sugar, lemon juice, whatever the heck you feel like. After all, it's only apple pie.
4 to 4 1/2 pounds Golden Delicious, Braeburn, or other baking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/4-inch slices
3 quarts boiling water (or cider, see notes)
10 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling over crust
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (or more, to taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons cornstarch (see notes)
1 recipe Easy Pie Dough
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and place a heavy rimmed baking sheet on it. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Place apple slices in a large bowl or pot. Pour boiling water or cider directly over top. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 10 minutes. Drain apples well and let sit in a colander in the sink, tossing occasionally until completely dry, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and add 10 tablespoons sugar, cinnamon, salt, and cornstarch, and toss until apples are evenly coated. Set mixture aside.
Roll one disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12 inches in diameter. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Add filling, discarding any excessive juices in the bottom of the bowl. Roll remaining disk of pie dough into a circle roughly 12 inches in diameter. Transfer to top of pie. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim the edges of both pie crusts until they overhang the edge of the pie plate by 1/2 inch all the way around. Fold edges of both pie crusts down together, tucking them in between the bottom crust and the pie plate and working your way all the way around the pie plate until everything is well tucked. Use the forefinger on your left hand and the thumb and forefinger on your right hand to crimp the edges. Cut 5 slits in the top with a sharp knife for ventilation.
Use a pastry brush to brush an even coat of lightly beaten egg white all over the top surface of the pie. Sprinkle evenly with a tablespoon of sugar. Transfer pie to sheet tray in the oven and bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F (190°C) and continue baking until deep golden brown, about 25 minutes longer. Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.
For a looser, juicy pie, use 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. For a firmer filling that holds its shape more when sliced, use up to 4 tablespoons cornstarch.
For best results, pair this recipe with our Easy Pie Dough recipe. See our article on the best apples for pies to select good apples. You can use hot cider in place of water to soak the apples. The cider can be saved for drinking.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 15g||20%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||26%|
|Total Carbohydrate 69g||25%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||21%|
|Total Sugars 33g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|