Why It Works
- Using apple cider vinegar and a tart variety of apples lowers the pH of the filling and prevents apples from blowing out during the cooking process.
- Pouring hot water on the apples and allowing them to stand for 10 minutes stabilizes the pectin so that the apples soften slightly, but still retain their form while cooking.
- Salt can weaken pectin and soften cell walls. Garnishing the dessert with flaky salt at the end—as opposed to seasoning the apples while cooking—helps the apples maintain their structure.
When I first moved to New York, I, like many newcomers and tourists, flocked to Buvette, a trendy little French spot in the West Village serving tiny portions of croque monsieurs and coq au vin. The food was good, if a little overpriced, but the one thing that kept me going back was their tarte Tatin. Each slice arrived at the table draped in a cloak of crème fraiche, with tender, caramelized apples glistening atop crisp pastry. It became a routine: On my days off, I often found myself sitting at their bar with a book, a cup of coffee, and a slice of tarte Tatin.
The dessert hails from the town of Lamotte-Beuvron in the Sologne region in north-central France, and is rumored to have been popularized at the Hôtel Tatin run by sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin. According to Friends of the Tarte Tatin, a website “created to share the secrets of the famous tarte,” the dessert was created sometime around 1880 and reportedly “had a solid following” by the time the Tatin sisters opened their hotel in 1894.
Some say Stéphanie Tatin dropped her apple tart on the floor, picked it up, and decided to bake it anyway. Others, like food writer Felicity Cloake, suggest Stéphanie may have either baked the tart upside down or without its pastry base. “Neither sounds very likely to me,” Cloake writes for the National Geographic, “but nevertheless it’s claimed she decided to make the best of a bad job and serve it anyway.”
The sisters are often credited with the invention of tarte Tatin, but Both Cloake and writer Stephen Harris note that upside-down fruit tarts were a specialty of the Sologne region long before the sisters debuted the tarte Tatin. “It was called tarte Solognote, and may have been similar to a cobbler with the crust cooked on top of the apples,” Harris notes in The Telegraph. Similarly, in 1985, cookbook author Patricia Wells suggested in The New York Times that the tarte Tatin was known as the tarte renversée (upside-down tart) before the Tatin sisters popularized and renamed it.
There are many creation stories for tarte Tatin, none of which are particularly well-documented, but no matter which is true, the tart is now a staple at French restaurants and cafes worldwide (some better than others, as a recent subpar slice I ate in Paris reminded me). As nice as my old routine of gobbling up a piece of the tarte at Buvette was, tarte Tatin is also something you can make at home—and frankly, with some of the techniques I'm about to explain below, your chances of a great result will probably be better than mine were in Paris.
The Key Techniques for the Best Tarte Tatin
Tarte Tatin can be a tricky dessert to make: You have to nail the caramel and perfectly cook the apples without burning either, and when it’s baked and cooled, you have to invert the whole thing onto a plate. Once it’s in the oven, there’s no easy way of telling what's happening under the pastry: Are your apples beautiful and glistening or have they exploded into applesauce? It's a nuanced culinary dance that requires a fine-tuned sense of… just about everything.
While lots of practice, trial and error, and consistency with your choice of ingredients can eventually make the traditional method doable, I realized in the course of developing this recipe that I could come up with a more foolproof version by breaking the recipe down into more discrete parts. It also helps to understand the science of how apples cook, soften, and turn to applesauce, because then we can apply strategies that stop that last part from happening.
Understanding Pectin: The Key to Apples That Don't Fall Apart
I made many, many tarte Tatins while developing this recipe (so many, in fact, that I eventually sent an email to all the residents in my building offering to hand them off, which led to a days-long barrage of door knocks as eager neighbors dropped by unexpectedly in hopes I might have another). Some turned out beautifully, while others became applesauce in the pan. I experimented with macerating the fruit to pre-soften it and reduce cooking times (more mush), using different varieties of apples (lots became mush!), and changing the stovetop cooking times and the oven temperature (so mushy so often!). Eventually it became clear that I wasn't going to figure it out unless I took the time to understand the cell structure of apples and the science of pectin, a fiber and gelling agent in fruits and vegetables that helps to hold their cell walls together.
As Kenji wrote in his Perfect Apple Pie recipe, the cell walls of apples are mostly made up 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,” he noted. “Destroy either one of them and the apple collapses, rapidly losing volume, and releasing its liquid in a torrent of juice.”
When apples are heated too quickly, whether in a pie or tarte Tatin, their cells (which Kenji likens to little water balloons) start to expand. Pectin begins to disintegrate at 183ºF (84ºC), and once apples reach that temperature, their cells rupture and release all the liquid within, resulting in, well, applesauce. Pectin doesn’t start off heat-stable, but there are ways to stabilize it so it doesn’t collapse during the cooking process.
- Pectin thrives in acidic environments, so we want to decrease the pH of the filling. It’s why we sometimes add a squeeze of lemon juice into our jams, jellies, and pie fillings. Kenji prefers not to add lemon juice to his pie, as it’d throw the balance off, which is totally understandable. But what we’re making is entirely different: tarte Tatin is, essentially, an upside-down caramel apple tart that would benefit from some acid to cut through the sweetness of the caramel. With that in mind, I decided to add acid (in this case apple cider vinegar) in two ways: when pre-cooking the apples by soaking them in hot water, and when making the caramel. Similarly, it's important to use tart apple varieties like Pink Lady and Granny Smith—let's take the acid wherever we can get it.
- Salt weakens pectin, so we’re going to skip the salt. Salt draws water out of fruits and vegetables—which may be great in other applications, but not when we want our apples to hold their structure in tarte Tatin. In his book On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee explains why salt weakens pectin: the sodium ions displace the calcium ions in the pectin that keep the cell walls of fruits and vegetables intact, thereby dissolving the pectin and cell structure. While it's tempting to add salt to the caramel and the apples as they cook, it's safer to skip it to keep the apples as intact as possible.
- Don't macerate. Macerating pulls liquid from the apples and helps to break down its structure, reducing the time needed to cook them. At first I thought this might be a useful approach if it meant I could get away with a shorter overall cooking time for the apples while still achieving a nice, tender final texture, but I couldn't make it work in reality; the apple just broke down too fast once in the heat. Once again, we want our apples to hold their shape—so we’re going to pass on a maceration step.
- Soak your apples in hot water. Both Kenji and McGee have written about the enzyme in apples that converts pectin to a heat-stable state when warmed to a certain temperature. According to McGee, the enzyme is activated at around 120ºF (50ºC). Kenji recommends keeping your apples in the 140 to 160ºF (60-71ºC) zone for around ten minutes, which is the route I go in this recipe. Like Kenji, I pour hot water over my apples and soak them for 10 minutes before removing them. This helps to soften the apples and stabilize the pectin without destroying the structure of the fruit.
- Cool and dry your apples thoroughly. After the apples have soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, I spread them out on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. This allows for more air circulation around the fruit so it can cool and dry efficiently. The apples will release some liquid into the caramel as it cooks, but we want to dry them as much as possible, since too much liquid will water down the caramel.
Making the Caramel
As a restaurant pastry cook, I burned caramel many, many times before I got it right. It’s one of those things that can go from zero to smoking if you’re not paying attention. I’ve been told to never stir caramel just in case it causes the sugar to seize—but with practice, I’ve discovered that, yes, you can stir caramel without it seizing as long as you use a clean, dry whisk or silicone spatula. In fact, I find stirring necessary in order to melt the sugar evenly.
To make your caramel, you’re going to start by melting half the sugar in a skillet set over medium heat. You want a moderate amount of heat that isn’t so high that your sugar will burn, but also isn’t so low that you find yourself just stirring lukewarm sugar for 30 minutes. When the sugar begins to melt and caramelize, you’ll gradually stir in the rest. This will allow the heat of the caramel to dissolve the remaining sugar and speed up the process in a controlled manner.
When all the sugar has melted and the caramel is an amber color, it's time to add the butter, vanilla extract, and apple cider vinegar, whisking constantly until it bubbles, thickens, and turns into a butterscotch color. It might look like it wants to seize, but keep going! Everything will eventually loosen up and come together. You just have to trust the process!
For Tender, Caramelized Apples, Let Them Simmer
Once the caramel’s ready and the apples are soaked and dried, I add the apples to the caramel in the pan. To ensure the apples really take on the color and flavor of the caramel, I use tongs to dip each piece in caramel before arranging them in a two-story ring around the skillet, then fill in the center with more caramel-coated apples. After all the apples have been arranged, I simmer the apples on the stovetop for about 5 minutes, which softens them slightly and jumpstarts the caramelization process.
Roll, Then Chill, Your Pastry
Before doing anything with the apples or the caramel, you first want to prep the pastry by rolling it out, then keeping it in the fridge until you're ready to set it on the apples in the pan. Not only is it good to get this task out of the way before the other steps become distractions, but allowing the pastry to rest while you prepare the caramel and apples helps the gluten relax, minimizing the chances of it shrinking while it bakes. (And if it does shrink, not to worry—it will still be delicious!)
Keeping the buttery pastry cold will help the dough hold its structure while it bakes, and also result in a puffier pastry. As the crust bakes, the butter melts and creates little pockets of steam within the dough, causing it to puff up into crisp, flaky layers. When you’re ready to cover the apples, remove the pastry from the fridge, set it over the apples in the pan, and gently tuck it around the edges of the apples, moving quickly to avoid burning yourself. Pressing down gently on the pastry ensures the apples are in even layers before it all goes into the oven.
Cool Your Tarte Tatin Before Inverting
For a syrupy caramel that just glazes the apples, you’ll need to give it time to cool and set, which takes about an hour or two. Your pan should still be warm to the touch, but not so hot that you can’t hold it without oven mitts. To invert your tarte Tatin, place a large plate or your serving platter over the top of the pan, then flip quickly and confidently.
Your tart should slide right out onto the plate, and if some of your apples have moved in the process, just rearrange them using an offset spatula. Even if the original tarte Tatin wasn't the result of a goofy kitchen accident, we can still learn from the story. Sometimes things go a little wonky, but they're usually fixable (and delicious) as long as you're willing to roll with it.
- One 14-ounce (397g) package thawed puff pastry
- 3 quarts (2.8 liters) boiling water
- 8 medium-large Pink Lady or Granny Smith apples (about 3 pounds; 1.3kg)
- 3 teaspoons (15ml) apple cider vinegar, divided
- 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
- 8 tablespoons (113g) unsalted butter, cubed
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
- Flaky sea salt, for garnish
- Crème fraiche or whipped cream, for serving (optional)
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and place a rimmed baking sheet on it (this is to catch any drips when the tarte Tatin bakes). Preheat oven to 400ºF (205ºC). On a well-floured work surface, roll 1 sheet of thawed puff pastry into a circle roughly 11-inches in diameter. Using a fork or a docking tool, prick the dough all over to dock, then place on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment, loosely cover with plastic, and refrigerate while you prepare the tarte Tatin filling.
Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Place in a large bowl and toss with 1 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar, then pour boiling water over the prepared apples. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer apples to a rimmed baking sheet lined with a cooling rack and let stand until cool, about 10 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels if needed.
In a 10-inch stainless-steel or nonstick skillet (see note) set over medium heat, melt 1/2 cup granulated sugar until it begins to melt and caramelize. Add the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and stir, using a clean, dry silicone spatula, until all the sugar dissolves and becomes an amber color, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar, and cook, whisking constantly, until the caramel bubbles, thickens slightly, and turns a butterscotch color, about 3 minutes. (The caramel will spit and look like it wants to seize, but keep going—the sugars will melt and loosen up as it continues to cook.)
Remove from heat and, using tongs and working one apple quarter at a time, add apple quarters, turning each piece to coat all over in the caramel and arranging them rounded side down to build a ring around the circumference of the skillet. Once the first ring is complete, repeat with additional apple quarters, dipping them into the caramel in the center and forming a second ring, also rounded side down, directly on top of the first, but positioned to fill the spaces between the apples in the first ring.
When the second ring is complete, dip remaining apple quarters into the caramel in the center, turning to coat, then fill in the center hole with 2 layers of apple quarters, all rounded side down (it is possible you will have a couple apple quarters left over that won't fit). Gently press down with a silicone spatula to ensure all the apples on the bottom layer come into contact with the caramel.
Return the pan to medium heat; bring caramel to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the caramel has darkened slightly and is bubbling around the edges and the apples on the bottom are just beginning to become tender but still retain their shape, about 5 minutes.
Top the apples with the prepared dough, tucking the edges down around the fruit. Gently press down on the pastry to flatten the apples underneath as much as possible. Transfer skillet to the oven and bake until the pastry is golden and the apples are bubbling around the sides, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and cool until pan is still slightly warm but cool enough to touch, 1 to 2 hours (don't let the pan fully cool, as that could cause the caramel to thicken such that the tarte Tatin won't release when flipped). Cover the pan with a large dinner plate or platter, then carefully and quickly flip. Remove the pan. Garnish with flaky salt. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche or whipped cream, if desired.
I do not recommend using a cast-iron skillet—its color will make it difficult for you to gauge how dark your caramel is.
If using a non-stick skillet, I recommend using a silicone whisk to prevent scratching your pan.
2 rimmed baking sheets, cooling rack, 10-inch stainless-steel or non-stick skillet (you could also use a 10-inch stainless-steel-lined copper skillet)
Make-Ahead and Storage
The apples can be prepared and left to dry on the cooling rack for up to 3 hours.
The tarte Tatin is best served the day it’s made; the longer it sits, the soggier the pastry will get.