Recipes

perfect apple tarte tatin

[Welcome to the second episode of the Sous-Chef Series, a sporadic feature on SK in which I invite cooks I admire over to my small kitchen to teach me — and thus, us — to make one of their specialties. Spoiler: I’m the sous! Previously: Making potato vareniki with Kachka’s Bonnie Frumpkin.]

Almost without fail, the more bafflingly short an ingredient list and the more stunningly delicious the outcome, the more likely it is to rivet me. I don’t need all recipes to have 5- or 10- or fewer ingredients — I fare poorly under arbitrarily restrictive confines — but doesn’t it just blow your mind that you can make the apple tarte tatin above with only apples, sugar, butter, lemon juice, and a sheet of defrosted puffed pastry?

Or, you should be able to. When made well, this upside-down apple tart looks like snug copper cobblestones on top of a rippling puff of flaky pastry. If you’re lucky, the apples will taste like they drank a cup of caramel and then napped in what they couldn’t finish. I love it enough that I’ve written about it twice (!) in eleven years but my efforts were… mediocre at best. I mean, just look at them — too thin, too sparse, too pale, apples either under- or overcooked, and way too many apples have dissolved long before the cooking time should have been up, despite being “good baking apples.”


apple tarte tatin master, susan spungenI’d begrudgingly resigned myself a life of tatin mediocrity when I spotted one of the most stunning ones I’d seen to date on a magazine stand. And I had a feeling I knew who had cooked/styled it — my across-the-street neighbor. Her name is Susan Spungen and she’s a cookbook author and food stylist and whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably admired her behind-the-scenes handiwork on movies — see: that croissant scene in It’s Complicated, oh and everything Amy Adams and Meryl Streep cooked in Julie & Julia. It was on the latter project that she got very, very good at apple tarte tatins. She explains “It was a quick shot, but I worked hard to get the right look and technique, so I could make it over and over again, and have it look exactly the same each time, which is essential for a movie scene.”

I invited myself over and watched her make one in her tiny kitchen, not even breaking a sweat, and it was perfect. I thought it would fill me with the confidence I needed to replicate it at home. But two years later, it had not. So, this fall, I asked her to come to my place this time, I took 200 pictures and almost as many notes. I then made four more without her and all except the one I made with what turned out to be the wrong apples, looked exactly like hers. With this I knew it was time to write what I hope will be the last tarte tatin recipe you’ll ever need.

Here are a few things I learned from watching a professional, and basically making five tatins in two weeks:

1. The type of apple matters. You need one that holds its shape after it bakes. The internet is full of lists of “good baking apples” and “bad” baking apples and I cannot tell you which one will never lead you astray because there’s (believe it or not) a limit to my madness and I won’t be testing any recipe with every variety of apple. However, I was crazy enough to audition four here. I homed in on ones that I can buy at both grocery stores and local greenmarkets right now: Pink Lady, Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smiths. The first three worked great; the last one fell to mush. It may be because it was from a grocery store (I actually don’t find them at markets much) where they’re often very, very old, or maybe it’s just that they’re all wrong for this recipe. I don’t think it’s worth the risk to find out. If you make it with another kind with success, shout it out (and whether it procured locally or from a grocery store) in the comments.

peel your applesfirst cut: just under 1/2 applecut any extra core outcoat with lemon juice

2. You don’t need to cut them all crazy. I see recipes that call for halves (too big), quarters (too small), and some that call for thirds, which is about right but there’s no need to do exacting knife work to get every piece to be the same size, even if you have the patience to make finicky apple cuts. I’m using three sizes — a little less than half, a third, and about one-quarter in each that you see here — and cut them the way you would if you were snacking on an apple: imperfect and easy. A mix of sizes and shapes fits better.

3. Apples shrink a lot when they cook. If you’ve ever wondered why so many apples are called for in a 9- to 10-inch round tart, this is why. If you’ve ever made one and really thought you crammed the fruit in, only to have a tatin that looked like sparse apple cobble stones, ditto. It means that when you nestle the apples against each other before you bake it, you want each to lean onto the one behind it, overlapping it by one-third, so as it shrinks in the oven, they’re still tightly snugged together.

melt your sugarwhen halfway melted, whiskadd butteradd the apples

4. Three-quarters of the apple-cooking is done on the stove in the caramel; the rest happens in the oven. When the pastry is nicely browned and crisp, it’s done. This means that if the sautéed apples aren’t mostly cooked, that they’re still crunchy inside, it needs more time on the stove before it goes in the oven or the baked tatin won’t have perfectly tender apples.

it will loosen up in a minute or twonestle the 3/4 cooked apples inpour any leftover caramel overnestle the dough on top

5. Because of #3 and #4, you really want to use two pans make your tatin. Trust me — a person who will go to almost any length not to dirty two dishes when she could only dirty one — when I say that this is a place where it is unequivocally worth it. Almost every apple tarte tatin recipe makes life unnecessarily difficult by having you do the stovetop component (making the caramel and cooking the apples in it) in the same small pan as you’d might bake your final tart. Just look how many apples end up in the final tart, and that’s after they’ve shrunk. It’s very hard to cook the not-yet-shrunk apples evenly in caramel in a small pan. It’s much easier and will give you more consistent results if you use a big skillet. Then, arrange the apples exactly the way you want them in a smaller ovenproof skillet or standard pie pan. (And, it cools the apple mixture down a bit, essential because you don’t want to melt the butter in your pastry before it gets in the oven.)

6. Almost every apple tarte tatin recipe, including my previous ones, tells you to flip it out of the pan too soon. Give it time for the caramel and cooked apple juices to thicken up a bit. I found a minimum of 30 minutes and up to 60 worked well. It’s not ruined if you flip it sooner, but the caramel will be thinner and more likely to run off and puddle.

from the oven, give it time

perfect apple tarte tatin

Previously

Six months ago: Austrian Torn, Fluffy Pancake
One year ago: Roberta’s Roasted Garlic Caesar Salad
Two years ago: Endive Salad with Toasted Breadcrumbs
Three years ago: Roasted Cauliflower with Pumpkin Seeds and Brown Butter and Apple Strudel
Four years ago: Oven Fries and Chocolate Peanut and Pretzel Brittle
Five years ago: Squash Toasts with Ricotta and Cider Vinegar
Six years ago: Spinach and Egg Pizzettes
Seven years ago: Apple Cider Caramels
Eight years ago: Homesick Texan Carnitas
Nine years ago: Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese and Buckeyes
Ten years ago: Baked Chicken Meatballs and Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats
Eleven years ago: Cabbage and Mushroom Galette and Peanut Butter Crispy Bars
Twelve years ago: Cranberry Caramel and Almond Tart and Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic
Thirteen years ago: Not Your Mama’s Coleslaw

Perfect Apple Tarte Tatin

  • Servings: 8
  • Source: Adapted, just slightly, from Susan Spungen
  • Print

While the recipe calls for 7 and almost always only needs 7 apples, I always start with 8, just in case one is too banged up to use, or they shrink enough that I can fit an extra piece in. Caramel apple pieces that don’t fit — you’ll figure out what to do with them. Look for apples that are relatively even in size for even “cobblestones” on the tart.

An important note about checking the caramel’s temperature: It takes 1 to 2 minutes for the caramel to get to the dark amber color after you whisk it smooth — this is really fast. More than once, in just the 10 to 20 seconds I was fumbling with my thermometer (the temp reading won’t stay steady), it got too dark and smoky and I had to start over again. I highly recommend just eyeballing the color.

  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 4 tablespoons (55 grams or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed, very cold
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 sheet of defrosted puffed pastry or a half recipe of extra-flaky pie crust
  • 7 to 8 medium-large Pink Lady, Gala, or Fuji apples (3 to 3 1/2 pounds; 1.3 to 1.5kg)
  • Crème fraîche or softly whipped cream, unsweetened, for serving (optional)

Heat oven to 400°F (205°C).

Peel your apples. Cut apples in thirds off of the core as best you can (no need for perfectly even thirds) and cut or scoop any remaining seeds out. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over them and toss to coat.

Have the butter very cold and ready by the stove. Trust me.

Pour sugar into a large (11- to 12-inch) skillet and place over medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until sugar is partially liquefied, about 4 minutes. Whisk until all unmelted sugar disappears into the caramel and nudge the heat down to medium low. We are going to cook it a little darker, but it will go quickly from here. Cook until the sugar is dark amber, 1 to 2 minutes (you can test this on an instant read thermometer, it’s about 350 to 370 degrees F but read the Note up top first; a drop of caramel poured on a white plate will look dark amber). Remove from heat, immediately add butter and whisk to melt and combine. This will hold the color where it is.

Return to the heat and add the apples and cook over medium high heat. The caramel will seize up a bit and will seem too thick to coat the apples, but it will loosen up in a minute. Cook, gently stirring and turning to ensure even cooking, until apples soften and begin to turn translucent at the edges and are about 3/4 of the way cooked through, about 10 minutes. This is not an exact science; larger or more dense apples may take longer. On the flipside, if your apples are falling into mush here, they’re the wrong apples, it will not get better in the oven. Don’t worry about overcooking the caramel once the apples are in; this has never happened to me.

Using tongs, transfer apples, rounded side down, one at a time to a smaller (10-inch) skillet with an oven-proof handle or a 10-inch (standard) pie dish. Arrange them in a concentric circle around the outside, overlapping each apple by about 1/3 and purposely crowding them. Arrange remaining apples in the center of the ring; it’s far less noticeable if the center is more messily arranged. If you began with 8 apples, you’ll probably find that you don’t need all the pieces. Pour any extra caramel in the skillet over the apples. Let this cool for 10 minutes, and use this time to roll out the pastry.

Roll the dough out to a rough circle about one inch larger than the pan. If you’re not ready to use it yet, chill until needed on a lightly floured plate or tray.

Top sautéed apples with the pastry round, tucking the edges in all around. Cut a vent or two in the center, and place dish or skillet on a baking sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes minutes, or until pastry is nicely browned and apples are bubbling around the edges.

Run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Let cool in the pan at least 30 minutes and up to 60 minutes. Peek under the crust if you can, or tilt the pan slightly, looking for evidence that the caramel and juices have thickened slightly. To invert, top with a serving plate and grasp the pan and plate tightly together as a unit (wearing oven mitts if it is still warm;) and flip quickly. Remove the pan. If any apples stick to the pan, just replace them where they should go on the tart. Serve warm, with crème fraîche or whipped cream, if desired.

If it has cooled completely before you serve, either return to the oven (if in a pie dish) or the stove (if in a skillet) to warm up and loosen the caramel for a few minutes. Leftovers keep well in the fridge, rewarm gently before serving.

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59 comments on perfect apple tarte tatin

    1. Wow!!! I looked for an apple tarte tatin to surprise my husband that loves apples dessert, but I thought I didn’t like this kind of cake… well, I was so wrong! It finished in the space of a day, thank you to let me discover something I didn’t know!

  1. Carol Hickman

    Thank you for your service – seriously! I’ve made about a zillion tarte tatin recipes searching for The One that will yield consistent and crazy-good results, and can’t wait to make this one!

    Also, and off-topic, your miso/sweet potato/and broccoli bowl is a life-changer.

    1. AH

      Your description of the apples drinking a cup of caramel and napping in the rest is literally the most beautiful and magical food writing I have ever read!!! ❤️

    1. deb

      Definitely two would work. A 9×13 might too. I’m not sure if you’d need to fully double it and it might be tricky to find a skillet big enough that it’s not overcrowded when you’re sauteeing the apples. But I think it could be pulled off.

      1. KateP

        Great advice about how to prepare the apples. Can’t wait to try your recipe, Deb. It looks fabulous.
        I have used Golden Delicious apples in the past. I don’t think Granny Smiths would ever work as they go mushy. Good for stewed apples and apple sauce, though.

      2. deb

        Depends on the pastry and depends on how soon you flipped it. Puffed pastry does not hold up terribly well to a very liquid caramel once flipped. Pie dough holds up better.

  2. Deanna

    My mom is going to be so happy when I make this for her in 2 weeks…with her required shot of bourbon mixed into the caramel. And cinnamon because the only thing she likes more than an apple dessert is an apple cinnamon dessert.

  3. Anna

    Can you make the apple portion in advance (potentially refrigerating overnight), and do the last bit (baking with the pastry) right before serving?

  4. Sharon

    So excited to try this! What kind of rimmed plate did you transfer the cooked Tarte onto? And can you re-warm it once it’s flipped?

  5. Annie

    David Lebovitz made a video several years ago in which he made an Tarte Tatin san recette and I’ve followed his no-recipe ever since. This looks wonderful too. I love Autumn :)

    1. Elemjay

      Really yellow Golden Delicious is the traditional option in France I understand.

      Most Tatin recipes are rubbish because they don’t have you pre cook the apples enough. This approach sounds just right.

      Other ideas: a bit of Calvados in the caramel is delightful.

  6. Suzanne

    Not to sound snobby but on the subject of the”right” apple for a Tarte Tatin I found – at our farmers market- the Caville Blanc D’Hiver. It is THE Apple. This time of year I make as many tartes as I can in this short season. It’s also a wonderful eating apple. Going to try this recipe tonight! (Ps we live in upstate ny, aka apple country).

  7. Brittany

    If you can find Jazz or Envy, get them every time. Exacting quality standards, a fresh crop every 6 months (one from each hemispere per year) and perfect density make them my baking apples of choice and I work at a farm that grows 12 varieties commercially so I can have my pick!

    1. Brittany, thank you for the information that Jazz and Envy apples are great for baking. They are actually my favorites (along with Ambrosia) although I always eat them fresh. Even though I don’t do much baking it’s good to know they will work well in Deb’s tarte tatin which is now filed with my carefully organized aspirational recipes. Keep your eyes out for Cosmic Crisp which has a lot of buzz and starts selling next month. I grew up in WA state apple country so I’m anxious to try it.

  8. Cy

    I’m anxious to try this. Iv’e made Nigella’s recipe many times with good success ( using her quick puff pastry) but they weren’t as perfect as this one. Yours looks perfect!

  9. Marcia

    Right now I have several bags of Wickhams apples: Mutsus which Are my favorites for pies,
    Winesaps which are tart and crunchy and our favorite eating apple, and Cameos which are a little sweeter. Any opinions on which to use?

    1. Susan

      Can I just say here that substituting butter for margarine means using butter INSTEAD OF margarine. Probably not what was meant, and I know people are starting to use it this way, but it can be very confusing. You can replace butter with margarine it appears

    2. Miriam G

      I have successfully used Earth Balance vegan margarine for Tarte Tatin (Molly Wizenberg AKA Orangette’s recipe from her book A Homemade Life). Country Crock recently came out with some vegan margarines; I’ve used the olive oil one in baking, and perhaps the almond oil one would work well in this dish. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a great quality non-dairy puff pastry. Pepperidge Farms is ok, not wonderful. I’ve tried a middle eastern brand that was a little better (it was a little thicker and not dusted to death with flour), but I’ve only seen it in specialty markets in Southern California. I like Molly’s recipe a lot, so I’m looking forward to trying this one.

  10. I can tell I’m a true novice when it comes to being a ‘foodie’ when I read your blog and the comments, lol. I’ve never even heard of this desert before, let alone tried to make it. We grow our own apples though, and I think our golden delicious might hold up…
    thanks for letting me know who cooked all that wonderful food in Julie and Julia – truly amazing that you know her!!! Tell her she’s awesome next time you see her. Well… you’re amazing too, Deb. I am always amazed by your creativity and drive. THANKS for another thing to add to my list of tries… lol

  11. Amy

    Thank you! I can’t wait to make this for Thanksgiving. My question is: The tart tatin will need to be finished at least 6 hours before serving, possibly more than that. I cook all the desserts for the family, then transport them by bus or Lyft to a nearby suburb. Then dinner…then dessert. The problem is, should I flip and plate after 30-60 min, just before leaving (which could be hours later), or wait until ready to serve? The most convenient, and safest for transport would be to leave it in the pan until I get to their house–but will the caramel harden too much by then?
    P.s. I’m making several desserts, most of them from your recipes. ❤️ Lots of fabulous cooks in the family, but I’m the only enthusiastic baker.

  12. Marisa

    I made this last night with pink lady apples and it worked out perfectly. I used a pyrex pie dish and made the apple/caramel mixture a few hours in advance, then put the pastry on and put it in the oven to cook while we had dinner. It looked amazingly similar to the one in the photo and was enjoyed by all – even the cat managed a lick when he thought no one was looking! Thanks for a great recipe :)

  13. Sara

    Made this with grocery store Galas, turned out great! Thanks for inspiring me to try something totally new! Also appreciated your note about how long to cool it for – 30 minutes was perfect, the caramel stayed nicely in place.

  14. Kathleen

    We just watched a MasterChef where one of the challenges was tarte tartin, and then a week later watched Queer Eye where they made this, and now it’s here on your blog. I feel like the universe is telling me something!

  15. Tatyana

    Thank you for this gorgeous recipe! Made it last night for a dinner party and guests loved it! I used Pink Lady and Granny Smith and found that I preferred the tanginess of the Grannys in this tart. Mine were fresh and stood up better than the Pink Ladies after cooking. Thanks again, Deb! Wish I could attach a pic to show you how it turned out.

  16. Janet

    First time I ever made anything like this. The sugar did caramelize so fast! My burners aren’t the best because they get too hot, so I moved the skillet to my marble counter to calm everything down. The dog even scampered out of the kitchen. ;) The caramel syrup worked!

  17. Susan Y

    I made this with Goldrush apples from my local farmers market and they worked very well, but then this a wonderful apple that is great for both eating out of hand and baking. I made a half recipe and baked it in a small frying pan. Many years ago, after having my first tarte tatin in a small restaurant in Normandy, I tried repeatedly to make a halfway respectable version and failed miserably. The apples were always too pale, too thin, and didn’t taste like much. I followed this recipe pretty closely and the result looked just like Deb’s photo. The apples were perfectly tender and deliciously flavored with caramel. Thanks, Deb.

  18. LitProf

    Deb, I conquered a lifetime of tarte tatin anxiety with this recipe. I bake all the time, but caramel makes me panic. I took a deep breath, read the whole post twice, and followed your instructions to the letter. My family devoured it the minute I flipped it over and revealed the beautiful cobbled top. Thank you as always for an amazing recipe that brightened the whole day!

  19. sweetmeggiejs

    Wow! This is incredible! Thanks for doing so much research on this, Deb!
    I used store-bought pink lady apples, and they worked beautifully. Nice and tart and apple-y. Came out perfectly in my deep dish pyrex pie plate. A few quick shakes when inverted over the plate, and all the apples fell into place. Stellar. I loooove sautéed apples, so this is pretty perfect for me. And because Trader Joe’s has all-butter puff pastry right now (so much cheaper than DuFour and so delicious), I think I’ll be making a lot more tarte tatin in the near future.

  20. Susan Leigh

    This is a delicious Tarte Tatin, I made it last night and it looked every bit as good as the picture and tasted as good as it looked.
    For those of us in the UK I used Braeburn apples.

    Susan

  21. css

    Like many others, after reading that an apple might taste like it’s been napping in caramel my daughter and I couldn’t resist. We were happy how it looked (not as dark as yours pictured), but a little disappointed that it wasn’t caramel-y-er. We pictured little apples nesting in a caramel bath. Alas. Perhaps we should double the sugar /butter part if that’s our goal? Thoughts?

  22. Gerley

    I made this and it was too thin and too pale and the apples were wrong. All my fault probably but I wanted to troubleshoot.
    1. I am in Germany and I can’t find any of the mentioned apples here. (Pink Lady is available but I couldn’t find them)
    I saw Braeburn and Golden Delicious for other European success apples. Anyone have more experience with another one? I will try to get those next – who knew apples could be so complicated:)
    2. The apples tasted like apple but nothing like caramel and the whole pie tasted nothing like caramel. I realize my apples were wrong but maybe the flavor should have been different? I let it get quite dark so I felt good about the color any ideas?
    It definitely looked like it was a teensy but of caramel for so many apples. Or maybe with a better apple it’s not as diluted?
    3 I don’t own a heavy skillet like that, only a non stick. It’s also a little too small to hold all the apples. Do I have to buy a new skillet or can I work in batches?
    I don’t mean to sound like one of those nagging people who substitute everything and then complain about a recipe…I am fully aware that I did things wrong I just wanted to have some input of what to try next.

    1. deb

      Definitely no harm in making a 1-cup level of caramel next time just to see. Did the caramel run off or did it stay on top at all? How did the apples bake up? Sounds like you got the color right!

      1. Gerley

        There was a foto on Susan’s Instagram where I saw the amount of caramel she had on the apples up close. It looked nothing like mine, lol.
        I am starting to think that the caramel would have been enough had my apples not watered it down.But I will try two batches next time and then use 1/2 cup of sugar with each. It’s not like there can ever be too much caramel!! I will report if I make it successfully

  23. KJill

    I am so glad I am not the only one who gets frustrated with which apples are good for what. Good for cooking or baking they say – for flavor perhaps – but what I really want to know is how quickly something goes to mush or how much liquid the apples tend to release even if they do stand up. I scaled this back a little as I am cooking for two and use 2 pounds of Gala apples. I stood mine for 45 minutes and It came out just like the picture!! and tasted amazing!!! Next time I will take the time to make my own pastry, it is the only thing I can imagine doing to make it even better (although someones mention of a little bourbon intrigues)

  24. Chelsea

    We have a very prolific Granny Smith apple tree in our backyard, so all apple recipes use those apples. They didn’t turn to mush in the caramel, so I was encouraged. However, despite holding their shape in the finished product, they were the texture of apple sauce. Heed Deb’s advice: don’t use Granny Smith.

    My caramel didn’t come together well; I was nervous about overcooking it, so it wasn’t as dark as it could have been, and then the butter didn’t fully incorporate. Once the apples went in, it seemed to work itself out.

    After all of this, it came out of the pan beautifully, after TWO hours (my schedule demanded the delay). My family devoured it (thanks, whipped cream!) and I will try again one day with the right apples.

  25. Sarah Maloney

    Possible to make in advance and freeze, and defrost and warm up on day it’s needed?
    Yes, trying to plan ahead for thanksgiving!

  26. Stacey

    I insisted on making this on a school night and had to cut a few corners. Alice Waters says don’t worry about the apples getting brown (they are getting plenty brown in the caramel!), so I cut the lemon juice. Didn’t peel the apples and cut them into small chunks – cooked faster, no fancy nestling. I added a little salt to the caramel, like that contrast. I think the small apple pieces released more liquid into the caramel, it was quite watery there for a while but reduced down by the time the whole pile went into the skillet. The advice to leave it in the pan before flipping is key – I have been doing that part wrong for ten years. Outcome was fantastic – thanks for all your efforts to perfect and share the technique! My family inhaled it with a little sour cream and the kids only went to bed about 20 minutes late.

  27. Tasted lovely but was way too watery! I halved the recipe and used a smaller baking pan, so maybe that was the problem? I used regular galas, and the texture of the apples was lovely- no complaints there. I also waited an hour to flip. Maybe my caramel wasn’t thick enough, although it got quite dark and thick before adding the butter and apples. I think that if I make it again, I just won’t flip it at all! Then the pastry will stay crisp, and I won’t have to worry about the liquid. I’ll also stick to the smitten kitchen apple pies for “presentation” occasions, as those have never gone wrong.