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From Orchard to Oven: the not-so-American Apple Pie

Ever heard the saying “as American as apple pie”? What about “for mom and apple pie,” the proclamation made by many American soldiers shipping overseas during WWII? Over the last century, American patriotism and apple pie have become synonymous. Which is quite ironic, given that neither apples nor apple pie, are all that American. 

Today is Apple Pie Day and to celebrate, we’re taking a look at the origins of this prized dessert and its star ingredient. 

Originating in the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan, and still found wild there, the apple has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. The hundreds of varieties known today result from a long and complicated history where multiple wild species contributed to the fruit’s lineage as it traveled from Central Asia to China and Europe along the Silk Road, and later to North America. 

While apple pie hasn’t been around for quite as long as the apple, it also has a long history. It is said to have originated in England, where the first recipe can be found in a 1381 work by the famous author Geoffrey Chaucer. Originally, it contained figs, raisins and pears in addition to apples, all nestled in a sugarless pastry shell known as a coffyn.

The recipe for apple pie, along with apple tree cuttings, came to North America on the ships of European settlers in the 17th century, and spread westward with the new country. A myth grew up about that, starring Johnny Appleseed, who legend has it walked barefoot from Pennsylvania to Illinois planting apple seeds and thereby staking claim to land and profits raised by apple cultivation. 

It was here in America that the apple pie we know and love today was born. As sugar became more widely available, the savory, sugarless British pies were fused with the traditional strudels of German immigrants to make the sweet and flaky combination that would win over the hearts of millions. In the early days of the American melting pot, apple pie reflected the diversity of a growing nation.

If you consider the origin of the crops that give us the ingredients that make up apple pie, there’s not much that’s particularly American. Apples originated in Central Asia, wheat in the Middle East, sugarcane in Papua New Guinea and cinnamon in Sri Lanka. 

The same applies to most of the dishes we consume. The crops that constitute their main ingredients originated in certain parts of the world, moved to others, where they were assimilated by different cultures, and eventually treated as if they were native. It makes food, perhaps, the world’s greatest immigration success story. 

But back to apple pie. By the mid-1800s, there were thousands of different apple varieties grown in the United States – an astonishing amount of diversity. Cary Fowler, Crop Trust Former Executive Director and Food Forever Champion, says that in America in the 1800s, farmers and gardeners were growing over 7100 named varieties of apples.  Today, most of those are extinct. 

Currently, we grow less than 100 apple varieties commercially in North America and only five are regularly found in supermarkets: Gala, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith and Fuji. 

So what happened? Why so many then, and so few now? And should we even care, especially if the ones now in production are the best? 

As Fowler says: “There is no best variety.” An apple that is small, tough and sour may still be valuable because of unique traits useful to plant breeders. Among these myriad varieties may be apples with resistance to pests, disease or higher temperatures, for example. 

While thousands of varieties have become commercially extinct, they are not all biologically extinct. “Apple detectives” track down old heirlooms tucked away in abandoned orchards or growing in back yards, and genebanks, such as those run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in Russia (VIR), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), and many others are helping to conserve them. 

The Crop Trust recently supported the development of a global conservation strategy, which outlines the actions needed to comprehensively conserve the world’s apple diversity. The strategy found that apple collections are held all over the world by public institutions, universities, private companies, botanical gardens, foundations, public parks and passionate individuals. These local and independent conservation efforts stand alongside bigger national collections, and the Genesys online catalog of genebank collections lists data on more than 44,000 samples in 91 institutions. 

While the strategy outlined an impressive breadth of conservation efforts globally, it also found several weaknesses. Many local collections are maintained by just one or a few committed individuals, often without stable long-term funding. This makes these collections extremely vulnerable in the long-term. 

The apples safeguarded by many enthusiasts globally not only have genes for resistance to the threats facing the modern apple orchard. They might just bring back some unique flavors too. In Upperville, Virginia, The Oak Spring Garden Foundation, a Food Forever partner organization, grows 28 apple varieties interspersed with native crabapples and other trees on its Biocultural Conservation Farm. 

Sir Peter Crane, Oak Spring President, wants the flavors to carry a taste of history: “We want to play a role in preserving not only the fruits but the traditions associated with them, which go right back to colonial times. Eating fresh apples in the autumn, preserving them for the rest of the year, and making cider were all part of daily life back then.” 

To highlight the unique flavors of the apple varieties still in production today, we’ve compiled a list below of some of our favorite apple varieties specifically for making apple pie. Ranging from sweet to tart to a fusion of the two, from well-known favorites like the Granny Smith to less conventional varieties like the Esopus Spitzenberg, we hope you enjoy learning just a bit more about the incredible diversity of one of the world’s favorite fruits. Happy baking!

Tart pie apples

  • Cortland

    With its bright red color and unique flat shape, New York’s apple pie aficionados love the Cortland apple for what it brings to the table. Its crisp, finely grained flesh will help your pie keep its shape and slices won’t brown when exposed to the air. For a visually unique, fresh and slightly tart dish, give Cortlands a try in these award-winning apple pie recipes.


  • Bramley's Seedling

    When you take that first bite into your freshly-baked pie, hard apples tend to slide away from each other and often turn your hard work into a steamy mess. That’s why British bakers have used huge, tart, green Bramley’s Seedling apples for more than 200 years, as they melt when baked and help bind together harder apples. Give this time-tested strategy a go in this tasty recipe from the BBC.


  • Empire

    Empire apples have bright white flesh, a crisp texture and a sweet flavor profile indicative of its parents – the Red Delicious and McIntosh. Derived from a seed grown at Cornell University, it was bred to have a low likelihood of developing fireblight, which may make it a more common variety in the future. Martha Stewart recommends Empire for her tried and true recipe, but if you’re looking for something a bit different, we recommend Farm Star Living’s mini cinnamon Empire apple pies.  


  • GoldRush

    Photo: Frank C. Müller

    A relatively new variety, GoldRush was derived from the Golden Delicious, with crosses with many other varieties, including the Winesap, also on this list. It has a rich, spicy flavor with a lot of acidity and sweetness and makes for an attractive smooth-skinned dessert apple. While it may be new on the market, some chefs already claim it makes the best apple pie ever. 


  • Granny Smith

    Although it’s now available year-round in your local supermarket, the Granny Smith originated in the mid-nineteenth century as an heirloom variety from Australia. It has grown into chefs’ go-to baking apple, prized for its bright, tart flavor, rigid texture and long storage life. This homemade recipe swears by Granny Smith as the best variety for pies, especially when paired with sweeter varieties.


  • Gravenstein

    Photo: Sven Teschke

    Hailing from Denmark, the Gravenstein apple is celebrated in Europe and across North America, and locals throw a festival solely in its honor every summer in Sonoma County, California. Strictly seasonal, Gravenstein apples are a wonderful summer bounty with a unique berry-like fragrance. It’s a popular component in apple sauce and cider recipes, but we think its natural habitat is in an old-fashioned apple pie.


  • Jonathan

    The Jonathan apple, along with its tangy flavor and crisp structure, comes with a dash of mystery. Two theories battle over the origins of this variety, one suggesting an orchard in rural Woodstock, New York, the other from an abandoned orchard in Ohio, where a curious local boy named Jonathan spent much of his free time. Whatever its origin story, we’re glad it’s here for us to enjoy in this tasty, classic apple pie recipe.


  • Northern Spy

    Photo: Vintage Virginia Apples

    Only producing fruit every two years, sourcing the rare Northern Spy apple is just part of the fun. The wait for this early-nineteenth century variety is worth it and the tangy, slightly tart flavor of Northern Spy apples blows away some more common varieties. It’s a great but under-appreciated variety for baking pies, so try subbing it into the mix for this wonderful caramel apple pie.


  • Stayman-Winesap

    Photo: Chris Martino

    If you’re looking to get a little more creative with your pies, look no further than the Stayman-Winesap apple. This tangy heirloom variety adds complexity to an old standard, especially when mixed with other fruits, like cranberries, cherries or plums. But for the purists, the Winesap does just fine in this crumbly recipe.


  • Suncrisp

    Photo: Vintage Virginia Apples

    The Suncrisp apple isn’t known for its beauty. With a slightly dull yellow flesh color and orange skin, it’s often not sold directly to consumers. However, its refreshing tart flavor, which has a hint of spicy complexity, paired with its firmness and good storage qualities, make it a favorite among companies producing apple goods. If you can manage to get your hands on a Sunscrisp, we recommend trying this recipe for making apple pie in a glass.


  • McIntosh

    The McIntosh is a classic bright red variety, perfectly at home in a warm apple pie that changes in flavor as the harvest season progresses. Earlier batches tend to be greener and more tart and by the late-season harvest, they are sweeter and juicier. So whenever you’re cooking, the McIntosh is ready for a tasty baked treat, like this recipe that calls for McIntosh and McIntosh only.


  • Belle de Boskoop

    The “Beauty of Boskoop” bears the name of its hometown in the Netherlands. This rustic Dutch variety is tart, fragrant and will stand up well to the heat of your oven. You can find it in anything from savory salads to desserts but, you guessed it, we like it in pie, like this recipe that kneads it into a warm challah.


Sweet pie apples

  • Crispin (Mutsu)

    Also known as Mutsu apples, the Japanese Crispin variety is perfect for baking a mouthwatering pie. Its moderate sweetness is gentle and mixes well with your favorite spices without overpowering them. Throughout the baking process, Mutsu apples stay solid, resulting in a lovely, balanced apple pie.


  • Fuji

    Another Japanese variety, the Fuji apple got its name from the city of Fujisak, where it was developed by growers in the 1930s and brought to market in the early 1960s. It was developed as a cross between the Red Delicious and another American variety, the old Virginia Ralls Genet. It’s now one of the most popular apple varieties in the world, particularly in Japan, where it holds the position of unrivaled champion given its similarity to the beloved Nashi Pear. Given its crisp texture and delicate sweetness, it has the power to stand alone without added sugar in a number of recipes, including our favorite, this Fuji apple crumb pie recipe


  • Golden Delicious

    You probably recognize these bright yellow apples from the supermarket, and perhaps you pass them by when you want a crispy, sweet snack. When eaten raw, Golden Delicious apples have a somewhat mealy texture and unremarkable flavor, but the heat of the oven brings out a delicious, honey-like sweetness. That makes this variety great for a tasty custard apple pie.


  • Red Roma

    The appeal of the Red Rome apple is obvious: its rich red skin and perfectly spherical shape have earned it the crown of the “most beautiful apple.” Looks aside, though, this variety doesn’t pack much of a flavor punch. But since we eat first with our eyes, the Red Rome can kick your old-fashioned apple pie recipe up a notch by mixing in some bright, appealing color.


  • Jonagold

    A 20th-century cross between the Jonathan and Golden Delicious varieties, Jonagold apples bring the best of both varieties to your oven. The Golden Delicious apple’s greenish-yellow color and honeyed flavor meets the bright red color and bolder taste of the Jonathan variety. In the same hybrid spirit, mix tradition with a modern twist with Jonagold apples in this traditional apple pie recipe.


  • King of the Pippins

    A favorite French dessert variety since the 18th century, the King of the Pippins (or “Reine des Reinettes”) is a russet apple, a family of thick-skinned apples bursting with sweet flavor. The skin is the star for this variety, which adds a sweet, bright tang to any of your favorite desserts. May we suggest something like a rustic French apple pie?


  • Virginia Beauty

    Photo: Vintage Virginia Apples

    The treasure of the mountainous Appalachian region of the United States, a local farmer has described the Virginia Beauty apple as having a flavor that “lingers in the memory for a lifetime.” Inside its glossy red skin is tender, sweet flesh. If you can get your hands on this rare variety, it will bring a rich, sweet, unique character to your everyday apple pie.


Pie apples which are both sweet and tart

  • Braeburn

    For an apple pie that beautifully balances the sweet and the tart, look no further than the Braeburn apple. Native to New Zealand, the orange-yellow Braeburn has natural hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, which makes it a natural choice for celebrating Apple Pie Day. With such a flavorful variety, maybe this could be your excuse to be adventurous and try this unique and cheesy apple pie recipe.


  • Cameo

    The Cameo apple was found by chance in a Washington orchard among Red and Golden Delicious apples. As a result, this variety blends the rich flavors of its parents into an irresistible, crisp hybrid of sweet and sour. It holds up well when baked, so try subbing it into a recipe for a balanced, textured apple pie.


  • Cox's Orange Pippin

    Considered by many the quintessential English dessert apple, this variety has a long, prestigious history in Britain. Cox’s Orange Pippin was first grown in Buckinghamshire in 1830, and has long been prized for its vibrant orange-red coloring and aromatic, crisp flesh. Wrap it in pastry and pour some cream on top and it’s only natural this variety makes its way into a classically British apple pie.


  • Honeycrisp

    A 20th-century variety whose name gives it all away: it’s sweet, it’s crisp, it’s a favorite for apple pie. The Honeycrisp apple is a seasonal fall fruit whose flavor intensifies in the oven and holds its texture. This apple is the official fruit of the US state of Minnesota, where a cold autumn makes a great time for baking a warm, delicious apple pie.


  • Pink Lady

    Hailing from Australia, the Pink Lady apple has a complex flavor that mixes a tart first bite with a sweet aftertaste. Farmers take this variety very seriously, with strict criteria regarding sweetness and acidity. If it makes the cut, the Pink Lady is a super crisp addition to a flavorful dessert, especially when mixed with cranberries or other tart fruits.


  • Yellow Transparent

    The Yellow Transparent apple is the perfect example of a variety with international origins, widely adopted into American orchards. In an effort to introduce cold-hardy varieties into production, the USDA brought the Yellow Transparent apple from Russia. Now, it’s grown all over the US from Vermont to Florida, and can be baked into delicious apple pies anywhere in between.


  • Esopus Spitzenberg

    Photo: Vintage Virginia Apples

    Considered by many to be the most flavorful apple America has ever produced, the Esopus Spitzenberg, was discovered in the 18th century near Esopus, New York. Equally balanced between sweetness and tartness with a buttery yellow flesh, it’s one of the few American varieties that can match the complexity of English aromatic apples. Widely planted across the country at the time, rumor has it that it was the favorite apple of President Thomas Jefferson. Despite its popularity, its celebrity status has waned over the years, likely due to its susceptibility to common diseases. It’s now only available in a few nurseries and cultivated by home gardeners. Should you find this little gem, we recommend savoring every bite in this naked apple pie recipe, so that nothing detracts from its unique flavor.


 


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