What Makes McDonald's Pies So Delicious?

Fast food may be known mainly for meaty burgers, crunchy chicken, and greasy fries, but the desserts often stand out as well. The classic item that comes to mind for many people is McDonald's pies, especially its apple pie. The pockets of crisp, flaky dough and delicious filling are constant best-sellers, and the company has created several variations for McDonald's in the U.S. and abroad.

The pies may not look like much from the outside; most of them have a plain exterior, and they're among the cheaper menu items, which doesn't exactly scream that they're wonderful. But they're considered some of the more yummy fast food items around. This is partly due to the fact that fast food items are made to taste good and to make you crave them. But it's also partly due to some careful changes made to the ingredients, plus a fast food marketing strategy that never fails.

The apple pies now contain six different types of apples

Apple varieties are not completely interchangeable with each other. Each variety has a preferred culinary use; some are great for eating out of hand but don't hold up well when cooked, while others are perfect for applesauce but are terrible for eating. Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious apples, for example, are both excellent baking apples, while Empires and Braeburns are better for eating fresh than for baking. You can obviously use any apple for any culinary purpose, but the flavor and texture might not be optimal if you use the wrong variety.

McDonald's latest apple pie filling contains six different varieties of apples that combine to give you a marvelous combination of taste and texture. Golden Delicious is one, with its excellent baking texture; Jonagold is another, known for both its good baking and eating texture. Gala is also a good baking and eating apple, while Ida Red is a good baking apple with more of a tart taste for variety. Fuji is a very sweet apple, likely included because of its lovely flavor. Finally, the filling includes Rome apples, which have a flavor that becomes more intensely sweet when baked and are known for their thick flesh that doesn't become mushy when cooked. That's good news, given that McDonald's now uses bigger slices of apples instead of dicing them. Even better news? The apples are all grown in U.S. orchards — no imports here.

McDonald's pays attention to texture combination and consistency

McDonald's uses ingredients that interact to form the best texture combinations possible. Think about your favorite pie and how the creaminess or chunky nature of the filling pairs with the texture of the crust to give you a mouth-watering memory.

While opinions and taste are subjective, more often than not, the reviews you find of the pies mention these mixed textures and how they work with each other. For example, a 2017 review from Brand Eating of the Blueberry & Creme pie talks about how the fillings aren't "too runny" and how the sweet creme filling combines with the slightly chunky and not-as-sweet blueberry filling. This post on Reddit enthusiastically describes how the latest apple pie is "not too oily ... not too flaky, not too gooey." Sometimes, the ingredients alone aren't that big of a deal, but combining them turns them into something special. For example, a review from The Impulsive Buy calls the Peaches & Creme pie filling "mundane and ordinary" but says the combination of the filling and the crust is "like alchemy."

This strategy isn't limited to U.S. pies; SoraNews24 describes the Strawberry Daifuku pie served in Japan as a "great mix" of tart flavor from strawberry pulp followed by sweetness from red bean paste and "a surprising hit of sakura" (cherry blossom), with warm mochi blending with the crispy crust. Hey, McDonald's, we're begging you, please serve this pie in the U.S. Pretty please?

They've added a flavor powerhouse

Search online for the secret to making McDonald's apple pie taste so good, and you'll find a bunch of recent articles detailing the use of dehydrated apple powder to both thicken the filling and add a real boost to the flavor. There's just one problem with this: The current ingredient list for McDonald's baked apple pie shows no apple powder at all.

It turns out the apple powder is an older ingredient used in the previous incarnation of the baked pie. Khushbu Shah of Thrillist interviewed Serious Eats editor Stella Parks (aka BraveTart) in 2017, and she described the use of apple powder in the pies and its effect on flavor. McDonald's released their new pie recipe in 2018, with no powder in sight. Instead, the pies now contain apple juice concentrate.

According to Foodbeast, the concentrate is a replacement for high-fructose corn syrup. However, using juice and concentrate in pastries to enhance flavor is also an established strategy for making fruit desserts taste more intense. In a Reddit thread, for example, several commenters discuss using juice, concentrate, or syrup made from cooked-down (in other words, concentrated) juice to increase the apple flavor in a cake. While the apple powder undoubtedly made the pies taste delicious, the switch to juice concentrate continues to give the pies some robust flavor.

They've moved away from using artificial ingredients

One of the better characteristics of the latest apple pie at McDonald's is that it now uses no artificial ingredients. What you're tasting, whether you like the taste or not, is either "real" food or ingredients derived from real food. This change was the latest in a series of recipe revamps that saw the company remove artificial ingredients and replace them with ones that are recognizable to customers. According to McDonald's, these changes are in line with customer preferences.

That's not just marketing talk. Food Dive reported in 2021 that consumers were paying closer attention to ingredient lists and basing more of their purchasing decisions on what they saw. 22% of consumers surveyed said they try to buy foods without artificial ingredients. While ultra-processed fast food is designed to make you crave more, that apparently hasn't been enough to dampen consumers' desire to move away from artificial ingredients.

The final baking is done onsite

The pies are baked at a central location and shipped to individual restaurants, which likely isn't a surprise. But instead of shipping pies that are ready to eat, save for maybe a little warming up at the time of purchase, the pies are shipped frozen. Final baking, which can take up to 12 minutes per batch, is done at the restaurant to give customers a hot pie that they can let cool as they eat their other food first. The company that makes the pies is Bama Companies in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This one location makes all of McDonald's pies, from the basic apple to the seasonal holiday pies. Bama was actually part of the team that redeveloped the apple pie recipe, changing the cut of the apples and helping to remove those artificial ingredients.

By the way, if you ever want to order a lot of pies, such as for a party, call the restaurant ahead of time. They can fit only so many pies into the oven at once — according to one Redditor, one restaurant's oven fits only 16 pies — and the restaurant has a limited number of pies available each day. If you're ordering a lot, give the restaurant notice and find out both if they have enough pies available and how long they'll need to cook what you want.

The dough-to-filling ratio is a winner

One of the compliments that McDonald's pies has received — including the latest version of the baked apple pie — is that the pies have just the right amount of filling to pastry. One doesn't overwhelm the other; the textures blend nicely, and the overall taste of the pie becomes spectacular. For example, this Redditor adored the dough-to-filling ratio of the apple pie and called it "perfection." Brand Eating's review of the Blueberry & Creme pie also called the filling and dough "well-balanced." Chinosity's review of the Taro pie served at McDonald's in China calls out both the combination of taro chunks and gooey filling and the combination of the dough and starch in the filling as "perfect."

This is more than just preference. Texture is just as important as taste when deciding if a food is worth eating, and combining and balancing different textures makes food more interesting, even if you've eaten a lot of it. Think of apple pie filling that's just the thick syrup with no apple chunks; it wouldn't take long before you decided you didn't want to eat anymore. Add in the apple chunks, perhaps some crust, and you get a novel texture that you can adjust slightly when you take bites. You'd be more interested in eating that than just the syrup.

There's a new emphasis on spice over sugar

American food rightly has a reputation for being sweet; we like our sugar and sugar substitutes, and we want that sweetness at every meal. But that sweetness comes with a cost in the form of higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Finding ways to preserve taste while reducing sugar is a necessary task for any company creating new recipes, and McDonald's made a change that may help reduce the desire for more sugar in their pies.

One of the changes that McDonald's made for its latest version of the apple pie put more of an emphasis on spices instead of using sugar to tempt your tastebuds. Sugar is still a huge part of the pie, but McDonald's has added cinnamon to give the pie more flavor rather than relying on adding even more sugar. Cinnamon and apple is an extremely common flavor pairing, but cinnamon has the interesting side effect of potentially curbing your appetite just a little, according to CNN. It won't make you feel totally full, but the more complex flavor profile may help lessen the need for additional sugar in whatever you're eating. Study results are mixed, but one did record a reduction in sugar cravings when spices were added to food. That dovetails nicely with McDonald's new emphasis on cleaner and more basic ingredients.

The latest apple pie recipe took four years to create and test

After receiving a lot of criticism for changing the fried apple pie to the first baked version, McDonald's did not mess around when making its latest round of changes. The company wanted to create a pie that moved away from artificial ingredients and that customers would love, but they wanted to avoid the backlash that they got last time.

The result? Four years of testing, including making the pie commercially available to customers at specific restaurants in Southern California and North Carolina. McDonald's and Bama Companies started working on the new recipe around 2014, according to a 2018 report on KTUL's website, and found that people preferred the latest version of the pie over the previous baked version. They started serving the pies at locations in California and North Carolina in 2016 and expanded it to all locations in 2018.

It's classic comfort food

People want comfort food. It's food that evokes good memories, and that makes us feel better when we're stressed, cold, tired, or otherwise not feeling our best. Who hasn't craved something like stew on a cold winter's night or cake after a bad day? Pie is considered a classic comfort food, so ending a meal with a piece of pie can turn the meal into a more emotionally satisfying experience.

This could be one of the reasons why McDonald's pies taste so good: They may trigger a feeling of being home and being comforted. McDonald's even says their latest version of the apple pie was made to give it more of a "homemade taste." On top of all that, apple pie tends to rank near or at the top of surveys of favorite pie flavors, beating out classics such as pumpkin, chocolate, and sweet potato.

The recipe really was a family favorite

Many companies have staff who create recipes specifically for those companies. These companies may be manufacturers who want a recipe bank on their website that shows how customers can use their products, or they may be restaurants that want to add more products to their menus or modify what's already there. While the McDonald's apple pie has gone through a few changes that the company made, the original recipe wasn't created in some corporate kitchen.

McDonald's apple pie has its roots in an actual family recipe that one enterprising McDonald's franchisee thought would increase sales. Back in 1960, McDonald's didn't have anything that you could eat for dessert. They did offer shakes, but those weren't really a meal-ending dessert; they were something you ordered in place of a drink. The company had been trying to figure out what to do as other dessert foods didn't sell well. A man named Litton Cochran, who ran a McDonald's in Knoxville, Tennessee, thought the little pies his mother used to make him might be a hit, and they were. It took a few years, but by 1968, the company had licensed the pie recipe and rolled it out to every location.

Limiting some pie flavors could increase customer cravings

Limiting a menu item can turn something that used to be ignored into a hot commodity. Take the McRib, for example; it used to be a regular menu item but didn't gain the notoriety and popularity it has now until McDonald's made it available for limited times only. People now eagerly await the next appearance of the McRib and trade the latest rumors about when it will come back. The limited availability — not to mention the company's penchant for hinting that you never know if the next time you see it will be the last — turns these items into special treats that people are thrilled to see and eager to eat.

McDonald's has also turned some pie flavors into seasonal items that get a lot of attention when they reappear, and this seasonal scarcity can generate enough excitement that people rush to buy the pies each year. A great example is the taro pie that's occasionally sold at McDonald's in Hawaii; its reappearance in 2016 actually made it into a segment on TV station KHON. The holiday pie is another example; this cookie-and-custard pie is a favorite of many, but its brief appearances around the winter holidays mean the demand is suddenly concentrated into a short window of time — and fans are thrilled when the pie finally appears at their local restaurants.

The apple pie is part of an amazing secret menu item

Fast food secret menus are more like collections of menu hacks, according to Quartz, and it's rare to find a restaurant with an actual secret dish that only a few insiders know about. It seems like every fast food chain has a so-called secret menu now; the concept is no longer limited to In-N-Out. McDonald's secret menu isn't exactly official like In-N-Out's is. However, the menu contains certain recipes that have become classics, and the apple pie is part of one of the most popular items.

This is the apple pie McFlurry, a combination of a McFlurry dessert and pie chunks. Instructions for the apple pie McFlurry are online, and generally assume you have to mix it up yourself, but occasionally you run across an employee who'll make it for you. The instructions are simple: Order an apple pie (some sources say to order two) and a McFlurry with hot caramel sauce on the side. Cut up the pies, add them to the McFlurry, and mix. Hot pie, hot caramel, and cold ice cream make for an amazing combination.

Fried pie nostalgia will live forever

We can't end this list without some discussion of the classic fried apple pie and fans' undying love for the burning-hot dessert. No matter what McDonald's does to its apple pie, the original fried version is almost always held up as the pinnacle of taste and texture. The fried pies are still available at McDonald's in Hawaii because restaurants there were able to show that the customer demand was substantial enough to keep the fried pies available. And that retro McDonald's in Downey, California, is another location that still sells fried pies.

Occasionally, the pies show up in unexpected places. In 2013, Los Angeles-based chef Eric Greenspan found out that a vendor he knew had knowledge of a company that used to make the fried pies for McDonald's. Greenspan, the vendor, and the company were able to work out a deal that led to the company providing Greenspan with the pies, which he started serving. The pies fried up just like the old McDonald's fries pies, much to the delight of his customers.