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An Apple a Day for Baking, Cooking, and Snacking

Fine Cooking Issue 23
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When I was a kid, my idea of an apple was the Red Delicious I found in my lunch bag every day. That bright, shiny, juicy apple was a daily staple, but I didn’t know then what I was missing. Red Delicious is only one of nearly 100 commercial varieties of apples grown in the U.S. These days, I enjoy all sorts of apples, but the type I choose depends on how I plan to use it. If I’m making a pie, I look for a hard, fullflavored apple like a Northern Spy. For applesauce, I pick a softer variety like McIntosh. Cortlands, which are slow to brown, are the apples I slice onto a salad. And for a snack, nothing beats a crisp Gala.

Apples for snacking, baking & cider-making

Apples can be loosely grouped into three categories: fresh apples for eating out of hand, cooking apples, and cider apples. But just about any apple can be enjoyed fresh: you only need to know what you like. McIntosh and Red Delicious are two of the most popular snacking apples. Some folks like an apple that bites back: Jonagold, Granny Smith, and Northern Spy are tart varieties.

Jonagold, a cross of Jonathan and Golden Delicious, is crisp, juicy, and sweet, with enough tartness to make it good for cooking. Best just picked, it’s harvested in late September.
Granny Smith is harvested in October. It stores well, and imports make it available year-round. It’s a little tart for some, but it’s a good cooking and baking apple. Paler green fruit is usually riper and sweeter.

Cooking apples should be flavorful and firm. Heat breaks down an apple’s structure quickly and reduces its flavor. Hard, full-flavored varieties— Gala, Braeburn, Northern Spy, Rome, and Granny Smith—can take the heat and still retain their taste and shape. Use one of these varieties when you bake a pie or cobbler or when you roast apple slices alongside a pork loin.

Rome has a soft, round shape that makes it a popular choice for baked apples. It’s good for cooking and baking.
Gala, a New Zealand native now grown in the U.S., is a medium-size apple with a unique yellow-, orange-, and red-striped skin. It’s outstanding for eating fresh, in salads, or cooked for desserts and applesauce.

For applesauce, a soft apple like McIntosh is a natural. Softer apples make smooth, creamy applesauce, while harder types give you a chunkier sauce. I like to mix a few varieties together for a more complex-tasting sauce. Leaving the skin on gives the applesauce a reddish-pink tint.

McIntosh is a favorite variety in the Northeast, where it’s eaten fresh and used for applesauce. It isn’t a good keeper, so enjoy it around harvest time in September.

Cider is often made from apples that have fallen from the tree. Known as windfalls, these apples take a beating when they hit the ground, and they can’t compete with the prettier apples in the produce bin, but they’re still full of flavor and make excellent cider. The best cider is made by combining sweeter apples such as Baldwin, Empire, and Delicious with more tart varieties, perhaps Jonagold or Winesap.

Golden Delicious ranges from pale green to warm yellow. The more yellow the fruit, the sweeter and softer it is. Use it in tarts and salads.
Cortland is a good choice for a fresh fruit salad. Its very white flesh is slow to turn brown. A good allpurpose apple, it’s harvested in September and October.

Enjoy apples in season

During the harvest in North America, from late August through November, many apple varieties are available for just a short time—even just a few weeks. Many varieties must be sold and eaten soon after they’re harvested.

Some varieties, such as Winesap and Northern Spy, can be stored and are either refrigerated or held for longer periods in facilities where ripening is slowed. Unfortunately, after months of storage, apples may look great but can be mealy and mushy. If you’re buying apples in the dead of winter, choose carefully.

Once the domestic apple harvest is over, keep an eye out for imports from Chile, New Zealand, and Australia, which start shipping in February, the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere. Look for varieties like Braeburn, Fuji, and Granny Smith.

Braeburn (left) can be eaten out of hand or used in cooking. Firm and juicy, it has a pleasant, sweet-tart flavor. It’s harvested in late October and, if handled properly, will store well. Empire (right) is a super-crisp eating apple that tastes similar to a McIntosh. Picked starting in September, it’s best eaten raw or in salads.
Fuji is a relative newcomer to the apple scene but is skyrocketing in popularity. Sweet and juicy, it’s excellent eaten fresh. It’s available October through December but stores extremely well if refrigerated.

Choose firm, smooth-skinned apples for the best flavor

Whenever you’re shopping for apples, look for hard, freshsmelling fruit with a full aroma and a smooth, tight skin. Good-tasting apples aren’t necessarily pretty—some of the best varieties aren’t—but they should be free of bruises and blemishes. Remember that when an apple ripens, flesh softens, sweetness intensifies, acidity drops, and color and aroma increase.

Once you get them home, refrigerate apples and keep them away from strongsmelling foods, as apples easily absorb odors. Discard any rotting apples; they emit gases that are damaging to other apples, fruits, and vegetables.

Macoun is a relative of the McIntosh but has a deeper carmine skin and is more versatile in the kitchen. It’s harvested in late September and October.

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