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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.