Welcome to Cookbook Showdown, where we test and compare different recipes for the same dish from high-profile cookbooks. For this edition, I’ve tested four of the best apple pie recipes found in popular cookbooks from Martha Stewart, Samin Nosrat, Ruby Tandoh, and Lucy Baker. Which pie will reign supreme? Keep reading to find out!
A Brief History of Apple Pie
Apple pie is recognized as one of the most iconic American dishes, but you may be surprised to learn that the dish is far older than the United States. In fact, apples arrived in North America around the same time as Europeans, who brought apple tree cuttings and seedlings with them to plant in the colonies. The earliest known apple pie recipes date back to 14th century England.
The profile of American apples was raised by Johnny Appleseed around the turn of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that we first see “as American as apple pie” recorded in the Gettysburg Times. By World War II, the dish found new popularity among American soldiers who often told journalists they were fighting for “mom and apple pie,” and the rest is history.
So what makes a classic apple pie so delicious, and how widely can recipes differ? First, you need the perfect flaky, golden brown crust. Opinions differ on whether that crust should be made with butter, which makes for the best flavor and flakiest pastry, or vegetable shortening, which is easier to work with, especially for complicated crust designs. Apple pie is usually made with pastry on both the bottom and top of the pie, sometimes with a lattice or other design on top. Dutch apple pies are instead made with a crumb topping.
When it comes to filling, you need flavorful apples that hold up to a long baking time, sugar, and warming spices like cinnamon. Some recipes may also call for butter, lemon juice, vinegar, or other unique ingredients. Apple pie is often served with whipped cream or ice cream on the side. Some people swear by serving apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese. Stay tuned for a special bonus where I give that style a try.
About This Showdown
There are endless variations on this classic dish. In fact, three of the four cookbooks I used for this experiment featured multiple recipes for twists on apple pie. But I set out to find the best traditional recipe, and I learned that slight changes in ingredients and techniques can make a big difference on the final results.
Full disclosure: Before this experiment, I had never made an apple pie from scratch. I’ve made plenty of other pies and have a fair amount of experience with making pastry, but I am by no means an expert.
In each test, I followed the recipe as closely as possible using the ingredients I could find in my local grocery store and the tools I have at home. All four recipes called for a butter-based crust with varying pastry techniques. Each recipe called for different combinations of apple varieties and spices. But in truth, the four pies were all fairly similar in technique and all turned out to be delicious and picnic-worthy. I served each with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, which makes for a great pie accompaniment.
Let’s take a look at how each pie turned out.
New Pies and Tarts by Martha Stewart
When it comes to home baking, Martha Stewart is about as recognizable as it gets. I journeyed into pastries for the first time with Martha’s New Pies and Tarts cookbook, and her pâte brisée recipe has seen me through many experiments. This collection has just about every classic American pie you can imagine, along with plenty of less familiar flavor combinations. Savory or sweet, rustic or artsy, Martha Stewart has the pie recipe for any occasion. I knew I could trust her to have a classic, reliable apple pie recipe, and she delivered. For more adventurous apple pastry lovers, check out the Apple Crumb Crostata, Savory Apple Galettes, or Apple Butter Hand Pie recipes. But for this cookbook showdown, I stuck with her classic apple pie recipe.
Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry) is simple, reliable, and versatile, making it the preferred pastry for many of the recipes in Pies and Tarts. It’s made with all-purpose flour, butter, salt, sugar, and ice water. The result was perfectly flaky with a smooth buttery flavor.
I used Granny Smith and Empire apples from the list of recommended varieties. The recipe also calls for cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon juice. It’s the only apple pie in this test that used only white sugar instead of brown sugar. The resulting flavor was exactly what you would expect from a classic apple pie: warm, inviting, and just the right amount of sweet. I think the filling could have used some kind of extra ingredient to give it more complexity. But overall, very tasty.
Martha Stewart Pie Scores:
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
Look, I’m going to try my best to be impartial here, but Samin Nosrat is basically my favorite writer in the culinary world. When I checked Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat out of the library in 2017, I read it cover to cover, every word. I ordered my own copy before I returned it to the library because I knew I couldn’t live without it. It’s more than a cookbook; it’s a culinary manifesto designed to free you from recipe reliance. That’s a long way of saying that I love this book, and I knew Nosrat’s apple pie recipe wouldn’t let me down. While Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts focuses solely on pastry, this book covers just about everything you need to know to cook good food. That’s a lot to take on, but it still had comprehensive instructions to attempt Nosrat’s version of the classic dessert.
Samin Nosrat’s all-butter pie dough recipe is very similar to Martha Stewart’s. It also calls for all-purpose flour, butter, sugar, salt, and ice water. The only difference is a teaspoon of white vinegar, and it’s unclear if that’s to balance the flavor or assist with the flakiness of the pastry. Nosrat recommends freezing all ingredients and tools before making the crust, which helps keep the butter nice and cool through the mixing process. The pastry turned out perfectly: so incredibly flaky and crisp and golden. It was a little difficult to handle while rolling out, but the result was worth it.
I used Honeycrisp and Fuji apples. I think these apples have a higher liquid content than those from other recipes, as the filling was runnier. But the apples combined with the cinnamon, allspice, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar made for a really delicious flavor. The vinegar balanced the sweetness nicely, and the allspice was a standout.
Samin Nosrat Pie Scores:
Flavour: Eat What You Love by Ruby Tandoh
You may recognize Ruby Tandoh as a contestant from the 2013 season of the Great British Baking Show. Since then, she’s made a name for herself in the food writing universe and has published three cookbooks, with a fourth coming in October. Flavour is an ingredient-driven book, with recipes organized by star ingredients and a special focus on seasonality. The fruit section starts with a recipe for classic apple pie, along with four twists on the same recipe including a blackberry and marzipan apple pie and an apple, rosemary, and black pepper apple pie. Let’s see how the basic version turned out.
If you’ve watched any British baking show, you’ve probably seen them use a pastry technique of rubbing cubes of butter into flour with their fingertips. I’ve seen this done for years and have always wanted to try it. But most advice I’ve seen from American pastry chefs for keeping the butter cold scared me off from using my hands, or even looking at the butter the wrong way in fear of melting it. I followed Tandoh’s recipe and tried the rubbing technique. I’m not sure if that was the cause, but this was definitely the most difficult pastry to handle. It cracked at every turn, and since this was also the only recipe I used that didn’t call for a sprinkle of coarse sugar on top, there was nothing to hide its flaws. The result was dry but not terribly flaky. Salted butter gave it a nice flavor, though.
This pie is made with Granny Smith and Braeburn apples. For seasoning, it is the only recipe I made that uses solely cinnamon. With the addition of cornflour but no butter, vinegar, or other liquid to help create a sauce, the apples were a little dry and firm even after over an hour of baking. The cinnamon flavor was prominent, but I missed the addition of other spices.
Ruby Tandoh Pie Scores:
The Boozy Baker by Lucy Baker
Cookbook author and Turnip the Oven food blogger Lucy Baker is known for her love of fruit and vegetable-forward dishes, as well as her sweet tooth. In The Boozy Baker, she shares recipes for 75 desserts made extra decadent by the addition of various alcoholic beverages. Even better, many of the recipes come with a recommended cocktail pairing. Lucy Baker’s apple pie has an added dose of hard apple cider, but unfortunately no bonus cocktail recipe. Luckily, I had some extra cider to drink on the side from my favorite local DC cidery, Anxo.
This all-butter pastry was very similar to the first two I made, with one exception: an added tablespoon of vodka. This is a somewhat common ingredient in pie crusts, as it’s said to evaporate out in the oven and leave a nice, flaky texture. The pastry turned out wonderfully, if a little extra browned at the edges. The flakiness was spot-on, so I think I’m officially a believer in adding vodka to pie crusts.
This filling was different from the others I tried in three ways. First, it used only one variety of apple — Granny Smith, a fairly dry, tart apple. Second, it included a fair amount of hard apple cider. And third, it’s the only filling cooked on the stove before it goes into the oven. That made for added cooking time, but created a really incredible caramelized cider sauce. It was the thickest, most flavorful pie filling of any I tried. And the addition of allspice and lemon zest really gave it an extra punch.
Lucy Baker Pie Scores:
Final Reflections & The Winner
I learned a lot about apple pie through this cookbook showdown. The butter-rubbing method I’ve so often seen on television isn’t for me, and adding a dash of vinegar or vodka to pastry is a must. And every one of these pies turned out better than a pie made with apple pie filling from a can. In that way, they’re all winners. But this cookbook showdown of the best apple pie recipes demands someone come out on top. Let’s go to the slice-by-slice:
So, without further ado, let’s get to the winner.
The Winner: Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
The pie crust from Samin Nosrat’s recipe really put it above the rest of the group. Freezing all of the ingredients and equipment before making the pastry made a big difference in keeping the butter cold, leading to a flaky, flavorful crust. The filling was a perfect blend of apple, spices, and a dash of acid from the apple cider vinegar. Nosrat is known for balancing flavors, and that really shone in this pie, making it the winner.
Honorable Mention: Lucy Baker, The Boozy Baker – Best Sauce
Lucy Baker’s method of cooking the apples in apple cider, spices, and sugar created a nice, thick, caramelized sauce. Thickening the liquid prior to baking the pie helped the crust get nice and crisp. I would have eaten the pre-baked apples and sauce with a spoon.
Honorable Mention: Martha Stewart, Pies and Tarts – Most Versatile
Martha Stewart’s apple pie recipe really nailed the basics, although it lacked a little je ne sais quoi. If you want to take an apple pie recipe and play with special ingredients and twists to make it your own, this is a great starting point.
Bonus: Apple Pie and Cheddar Cheese
I read so much about eating apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese while working on this Cookbook Showdown that I had to try it. From what I understand, this is especially popular in the Midwest and New England. The cheese can be served on the side or melted over the top.
I love a salty/sweet combo, so while I was a little skeptical, I was fairly certain I would enjoy this pairing. It seems akin to pineapple on pizza, a controversial topping that I personally love. I tried apple pie with the cheese on the side and again melted on top, and my final opinion is…meh? I didn’t hate the flavors together, but it just doesn’t come close to some good vanilla ice cream as an apple pie accompaniment. Next time, I’ll save the apple/cheese pairing for a fancy sourdough sandwich. (Speaking of, check out Cookbook Showdown: Sourdough Recipes to see which sourdough cookbook reigned supreme!)