We’re all for a made-from-scratch apple pie, but if there’s one thing we’re suckers for, it’s a McDonald’s apple pie. The fruit-filled pockets definitely aren’t your usual slice, but they’re a definite underrated item on the chain’s menu. We found out the secret, and it’s actually a lot more natural than you’d expect from any 99-cent food that comes in a cardboard pouch. (Find out why Coke tastes better at McDonald’s, too.)
Apple pie is actually just as quintessential to the McDonald’s menu as the chain’s signature burgers. The pastries became the first dessert served at the restaurant in 1968—the same year Big Macs started getting sold nationwide, according to McDonald’s. Originally they pies were fried instead of baked, but the chain switched its recipe in 1992 when fried food started going out of style—similar to the reason you can only find baked potatoes at Wendy’s.
The move was a success. At this point, McDonald’s has offered more than 40 types of pies beyond apple in the United States, from pumpkin to strawberry to lemon. Head overseas and you can find taro in China, and chocolate custard in Europe. Still, in the U.S., there’s no questioning good ol’ American apple pie reigns supreme. (Learn how apple pie became an American classic.)
Even though you might think the pastries come frozen, the chain assures on its website that its apple pies are baked fresh every day. Equally surprisingly, sugar overload doesn’t seem to be why the pastries are so tasty. The McDonald’s dessert is health food by no means, but it lists sugar as the fifth ingredient down, giving it a total of 13 grams. Compare that to a Marie Callander’s frozen apple pie, which lists sugar second and has a whopping 21 grams of the sweet stuff. (If you’re showing signs that you eat too much sugar, find out how to kick a sugar addiction for good.)
The apples themselves seem like another possible secret behind the tastiness of a McDonald’s pie. After all, the fruits are American-grown and vary by season, though it always uses some combination of Jonagold, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Gala, Rome, and Ida Red. (Got your own apple overload? Find out creative ways to use apples besides eating them.) Actually, the pie’s secret is how it keeps that fruit filling together.
As fruits heat up in the oven, they release juices. The task for recipe developers is to find a way to keep that liquid from turning into a soupy, soggy mess. That’s where the McDonald’s version stands apart. The chain shows on its ingredient list that it uses sodium alginate (a substance that comes from brown algae) and hydroxylated soy lecithin (which can be extracted from soybeans, eggs, corn, or sunflower oil) as a thickener and to keep the ingredients together, but there’s another ingredient that really works its magic.
One other secret ingredient is apple powder, made of dehydrated apples and citric acid, a chemical that occurs naturally in citrus fruits. For one thing, that powder soaks up extra liquid to keep the filling nice and thick, former pastry chef Stella Parks tells Thrillist. As a bonus, though, it also adds little kick more of that fruity flavor you crave in an apple pie.
As for the restaurant’s other secret recipes, learn the surprising ingredient that makes McDonald’s fries so good.