McDonald’s apple pie has commanded the attention of the American dining public for years, going through numerous iterations in its nearly 50-year history. Perhaps better described as a hand pie, the pastry-wrapped apple-filled treat’s story starts with its debut in the late 1960s, runs through a fried-versus-baked debate, and ends in the present day with another attempt to make the dessert healthier.
Over the years, the fast-food chain has created more than 40 variants of the apple pie with assorted fillings, including strawberry, pineapple, and pumpkin. Outside the U.S., popular flavors include taro (China), sweet corn (Thailand), and berries and currant (UK). Here’s a quick look back at the McDonald’s apple pie story.
The recipe for McDonald’s apple pie came from a Knoxville, Tennessee, franchisee named Litton Cochran, who had opened that city’s first McDonald’s in 1960. The apple pie was the first dessert added to the McDonald’s menu in 1968, the same year that the fast-food company introduced the Big Mac. The original recipe and turnover-style pie was fried to crispiness with a light golden color and served hot in a folded cardboard carton.
In the 1970s, the McDonald’s apple pie inspired a new McDonaldland character, according to Mental Floss: the Apple Pie Tree. (The tree and the other McDonaldland characters that were introduced at that time, including Officer Big Mac, Grimace, and the Hamburglar, were retired in 2003; Ronald McDonald is the chain’s only mascot currently.)
McDonald’s made the decision to discontinue the fried pies in 1992, opting instead for a baked version to appeal to customer preferences and dining trends. Today, the baked pies are filled with six varieties of apples the company says are handpicked and grown in the U.S.: Fuji, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Rome, Gala, and Ida Red. In 2016, McDonald’s tasked a culinary team with creating a new recipe for the pie that used sliced apples instead of diced and swapped the standard solid top for a more decorative lattice-top crust. Versions of this pie were tested in Southern California and North Carolina before they were introduced nationwide. Then in 2018 the apple pie got a modern makeover: The new recipe contains less sugar and fewer ingredients overall, the company says, including real butter and additional cinnamon for more flavor.
Though McDonald’s fried pies have been gone for 25 years, nostalgia for the original lives on.
“The crunchy outer crust and the hot sweet filling inside is a match made in heaven. The pies were really apple turnovers in the shape of a golden-flaky rectangle,” the pie blog Everything Pies wrote in one post. For some, the new baked version never really replaced the taste of that crispy, fried crust.
Eric Greenspan, the chef behind the now-closed Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese in Los Angeles, found a treasure trove of McDonald’s original apple pies a few years ago while at a trade show in Chicago, according to Los Angeles magazine. Greenspan met a man connected to a vendor that supplied the pies to McDonald’s, and the chef tells Eater he was able to acquire cases of those original pies to put on his restaurant’s menu.
“People flipped out. We didn’t sell as many as we thought we would, because frankly it’s still fried apple pie after a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s aggressive,” he says. Even so, Greenspan says some fried pie aficionados came out to the restaurant for a taste of the unofficial fan favorite dessert.
“I’ve always believed in the saying that if you can’t make it better, you should buy it. Nobody makes something better than that,” he says. “It’s the bubbles. When you fry them, they bubble up.” It’s true that when that original recipe was deep-fried, tiny bubbles pocked the surface, creating a unique potato-chip crispness.
Other like-minded fans have tried to recapture that texture. Food obsessive J. Kenji López-Alt, the culinary director of Serious Eats, documented his own personal experiment in 2012. He procured two of today’s standard baked apple pies and fried them, first at 375 degrees Fahrenheit, which proved too hot, and then at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for three minutes, which resulted in a pie that had “a crisp crust with the deep, burnished hue that immediately took me back to my childhood.”
Here’s a look back at the evolution of the McDonald’s apple pie:
1968: Apple pie joins the menu
The first McDonald’s apple pie was deep-fried and served hot in a cardboard sleeve. Since then, McDonald’s has released more than 40 variants of its apple pie, featuring numerous other fillings, different cooking methods, and lattice or plain tops.
1971: McDonald’s introduces the Apple Pie Tree
McDonald’s introduced a flock of McDonaldland characters, including an Apple Pie Tree, the Hamburglar, Grimace, and Ronald McDonald, among others. The tree was a background character, often seen behind the core group with apple pies hanging from its branches. It was part of a brand marketing campaign and appeared in restaurant play areas around the country. McDonaldland characters (excluding Ronald McDonald) were retired in 2003.
1992: Baked pies
McDonald’s decides to replace its traditional fried pie with a baked version, causing some upheaval among its fan base. The chain also adds a baked cherry pie.
2011: The pie family grows
McDonald’s sells cherry, peach, strawberry, pumpkin, and sweet potato versions of its pie, in addition to a special holiday recipe.
2012: Pies get fancier
McDonald’s introduces a lineup of Signature pies, which kicks off this year with a strawberry and crème pie. The company also introduces a s’mores pie.
2013: More new pie flavors
McDonald’s runs tests of a new mixed berries and lemon pie, a cherries and crème version, and a peaches and crème pie.
2014: Fried pies make a (minor) comeback
Chef Eric Greenspan put a fried apple pie on the dessert menu at his now-defunct LA restaurant Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese after connecting with a vendor that sources the pies for McDonald’s.
2016: Welcome back, lattice-top
In 2016, McDonald’s began testing a new pie recipe that utilized sliced apples rather than diced and swapped the plain solid top for a more decorative lattice-top crust.
2016: The pie lineup expands further
New flavors released include strawberry and crème, cherry, cherries and crème, blueberries and crème, guava and crème, peaches and crème, pumpkin and crème, and sweet potato and crème.
2018: The apple pie’s modern makeover
In September 2018 McDonald’s unveils its latest attempt to make the apple pie healthier: The new recipe contains less sugar and fewer ingredients overall, including real butter, and adds additional cinnamon for more flavor.
Dana Hatic is associate editor of Eater Boston.
Editor: Daniela Galarza