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Do you need to add lemon juice when baking with apples?

Apple, peeled
Many recipes for apple pie and apple cobbler will call for tossing your sliced apples in a little bit of lemon juice before putting them into your dish. Lemon juice prevents oxidation of the apples, which means that it stops the slices from turning brown by providing a barrier between the apple’s flesh and the air. Lemon juice definitely works when it comes to preventing the browning of fruit, but a better question is do you really need to use it when baking an apple pie?

This is a good question because I know more than one person who has rushed around looking for a lemon, fearful of browning the apples that will go into their pie because it might make them “look funny.”  The short answer is no, you do not need to add any lemon juice to an apple pie or many other baked apple desserts.

In the case of that pie, you are going to toss your apples in brown sugar, cinnamon and other spices and put them in the oven to cook for at least an hour or so. Not only are many of the pie’s filling components brown to begin with, but you want your apples to turn tender and golden as they bake – not to remain pale and appear to be uncooked. Of course, the apples will cook regardless of whether lemon juice has been added, but giving them a very slight head start on browning by exposing them to air for a few minutes can actually make for a more attractive pie filling. This is a tip that has been given to me many times by chefs (mostly by chefs who also teach) and it is definitely true when you compare a browner, richer-looking pie filling to a very pale one. There is no need to add lemon juice to prevent discoloration when baking with apples. It won’t hurt the filling to have the lemon juice in there, but tossing the apples in juice isn’t necessarily benefiting the dessert, either.

Preventing discoloration is probably the most common reason to toss apples in lemon juice, but one other reason that lemon juice is added to a pie filling is to add some extra tartness to a batch of not-too-tart apples for those who don’t like their pie to be too sweet. I’ve found that adding a tablespoon or two of lemon juice does not do much to increase the tartness of apples when you have 2-3 lbs of apples going into a pie. Again, it can’t hurt the filling, but a better solution is to really try to find apples that suit your tastes (such as tart Granny Smiths) for better results.

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  • Amy @ What Jew Wanna Eat
    September 1, 2011

    What a good tip! I ALWAYS thought I had to add lemon when baking with apples too. I feel tricked!

  • Brenda
    September 1, 2011

    Love this post – apple pie is a HUGE fave in our house so this is good info!

    One thing you can do when you DO need to keep apples from browning (like with dips or salads) is to toss them with a little pineapple juice. The pineapple juice does just as good a job at keeping apples looking fresh and adds sweetness rather than a good pucker! I buy the tiny cans of pure pineapple juice and use them one at a time. And excess pineapple juice freezes really well so you can always have some on hand in an “apple emergency”!

  • Miriam
    September 1, 2011

    It sounds like you’ve had a different experience, but my family’s recipe for apple pie calls for soaking the apple slices in lemon juice and I think it always turns out delicious!

  • Nicole
    September 1, 2011

    Miriam – That is an interesting recipe. I can see that soaking them in lemon juice would impart more tartness to the apples – but a recipe that calls for that (I’m assuming that you’re actually using a good amount of lemon juice for soaking and letting them sit for quite a while, not just tossing them in a bit of juice) would be pretty different than what the average apple pie recipe would call for.

  • Miriam
    September 2, 2011

    Yes, it is different than just tossing. I think it started out as a discoloration thing, but we wound up adding more and more lemon juice for flavor.

  • Tara Bangs
    October 15, 2011

    Thank you so very much! Great information!

  • Alexis
    September 29, 2014

    I am baking a cake that calls for medallion sliced apples just layed on top. Do I need lemon for that? It’s not tossed with anything else.

  • Nicole
    September 29, 2014

    Alexis – If you are going to bake the cake after the apple slices are placed on top, I would skip the lemon juice because they will brown nicely in the oven during baking. If you are going to add the apple slices before serving (and leave them raw, unbaked), then lemon would help them hold their color.

  • Marsha
    August 24, 2017

    I know this post is ole but just throwing a question out there! Do you have to use the lemon juice in a peach cobbler? Or is used for the same reason as the apple and not really needed?

  • Nicole
    August 25, 2017

    Hi Marsha, It isn’t really needed for a peach cobbler. Some people like to add a little lemon juice or zest to peach desserts to contrast with the sweetness of the peaches and bring in a little extra flavor, but if the recipe only calls for a small quantity, it’s not needed.

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