This Thanksgiving, I sought out to unearth the most "American" apple pie recipe.
But it turns there are thousands of recipes all different, all with a twist. It's hard to understand what exactly an American apple pie is even supposed to be. Butter or shortening? Granny Smith or Golden Delicious?
The human brain is not nearly powerful enough to solve this problem, so I decided it was time to employ the power of computers. I wrote a computer program to analyze 140 apple pie recipes on the Food Network’s website. The program figured out which ingredients were most commonly used. It also calculated how much of each ingredient was used per serving so that I could average out all 140 recipes. At some point, the data required manual cleaning, so this isn't an exact science. But the basics rule was: If an ingredient appeared in at least 10 percent of recipes, it went into this pie.
Without further ado, here’s the ingredient list:
The most American pie obviously relies on the staples of baking: Nearly every recipe has sugar, flour, and butter. After that, though, there's a drop-off: 88 recipes call for cinnamon, and 54 call for eggs. Heavy cream and cornstarch show up in about 11 percent of the recipes. Apple pie, it turns out, is just as diverse as America itself.
As I mentioned earlier, I only looked at ingredients that showed up in more than 10 percent of recipes. But there are lots of other ways Americans have changed up their apple pies. Here are a few of them:
Granny Smith apples were by far the most popular kind in the recipes. Golden delicious came second.
Other options: McIntosh, Pink Lady, Gala, Cortland, Mutsu, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Jonathan, Rome, Empire, Macoun, and King Luscious.
Pecans were the most popular nut, with 13 recipes putting an average of half a cup in their pies. Walnuts and almonds were rare, but they did show up in some recipes.
Only three recipes added bittersweet chocolate chips, which indicates you shouldn’t do it.
Oh, and five recipes called for sharp cheddar cheese. We won’t go into detail here; we'll only mention that Vermont has a law that says apple pie should be served with a slice of cheddar cheese, milk, and ice cream. Do with that information what you will.
Ginger, allspice, cinnamon sugar and cloves weren’t common but appeared in some recipes. Vinegar and red wine vinegar also made appearances but were rare.
If the immense amount of sugar isn’t enough, some recipes called for caramel, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and confectioner's sugar.
Some cooks wants to add even more apple flavor to their pies using apple liqueur, dried apples, apple cider vinegar, apple cider, and apple juice. These were not common additions.
Oranges, raisins, blueberries, and dried cranberries were in a few recipes, as was orange juice, apricot jam, and various citrus zests.
In case butter bores you — or you want a different texture for your dough — various chefs replaced the butter with shortening or lard. Less common was sour cream, tapioca, vegetable oil and extra-virgin coconut oil (yuck).
Some recipes called for deglazing the pan with dark rum, whiskey, brandy, or even wine.
There were all types of additions to the pie crust, including baking powder, baking soda, milk, evaporated milk, and buttermilk.
You got this far down and now you’re asking?
Well, no, it’s not technically American.
Early settler brought the pie from England, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Even abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged the pie was English in origin, but in 1869 she wrote that when the apple was "planted on American soil," it "forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species." By the time Beecher said this, the phrase "American as apple pie" was already in use.
Here’s a look at how often this phrase appeared in books over the past 215 years, from Google's Ngram Viewer:
By World War II, soldiers said they fought the war for "mom and apple pie." By 1960, the use of the term skyrocketed. In recent years, though, we haven’t said it quite as often.
How to bake the most American apple pie
The program did a poor job of figuring out what to do with these ingredients, so I figured out the "average" way of baking an apple pie the old-fashioned way: by reading a ton of these recipes. Full disclosure: I haven’t tried this yet. Should you try it and get good results (or even not-so-good results), let me know.
- Whisk together flour, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl.
- Work 1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter into the ingredients until it's grainy. Work quickly as to not melt the butter.
- Add an egg. Stir until dough comes together. You can add ice water as necessary. Don’t knead any more than you have to.
- Shape the dough into a disk. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
To make the filling:
- Put the lemon juice in a bowl. Peel, core, and wedge the apples — preferably Granny Smith, although Golden Delicious was also popular — into the bowl. Mix.
- To the bowl, add the brown sugar and 1/3 cup of white sugar.
- In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the apples. Cook until soft and the juices are released.
- Remove from heat. Add cornstarch, 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the mixture.
- Let cool completely.
- Cut the dough in half. Flour the surface.
- Shape both halves into disks, each about a foot wide. Put disks in the fridge, separating the two with wax paper. Remove after 10 minutes.
- Put one disk into pie tin. Pour in apple filling. Trim the edges.
- Put the other disk on top. Trim the extra dough. Crimp the edges.
- Whisk the other egg. Brush on top of the top layer.
- Bake at 375 for one hour.
For the whipped cream:
- Whip heavy cream.
- Once fluffy, with stiff peaks, add the remaining sugar and remaining vanilla extract.