No fruit says fall like apples. Baked into pies, pureed into sauces, sauteed with meats and stews both savory and sweet, it is one of our most comforting and versatile fruits. But which apple to use for what?
Not a simple question. During the last decade, the number of apple varieties has exploded, with heirlooms and "club" varieties — apples essentially licensed to only a specific group of growers and marketers — tumbling into the bins at farm stands and supermarkets. And apple taste, texture, acidity, sweetness and response to being cooked can vary dramatically from one variety to another.
Just because you like to bite into a big juicy Fuji doesn't mean it's the best apple for your mom's famous pie. And though McIntosh make great applesauce, you might not want to use them in a salad. With Americans consuming roughly 2.4 million tons of apples a year — or about 15 pounds per person, according to Agriculture Department figures — a primer on which apples to use when and how seemed just right for the season.
A good baking apple holds its shape when cooked in a pie, tart, cake or other high-heat dish. But even among those sturdy breeds, a wide variety of tastes, textures and tartness will influence your final product.
The classic choice is the puckery Granny Smith. But for big, bold flavors in your apple pie, go for a sweet-tart Jazz or a pear-scented Pink Lady, also known as a Cripps Pink, says Amy Traverso, author of "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" (Norton, 2011). "I think of them as the big California cabernets of the apple world," she says.
Flowery Galas and honey-sweet Fujis have a perfect medium firmness for cakes and muffins, Traverso says, allowing them to blend into softer baked goods better than denser apples, which are more suited to pies.
And while the price tag might make you think twice about using heirlooms for cooking, Traverso says that's what many of these varieties were actually made for. "I would specifically cook with a lot of the heirlooms," she says. "Their flavor blooms when they're heated."
Of those, Ashmead's Kernel is a tart, juicy apple that gets sweeter with heat. The rough-skinned Roxbury Russet is way too sour to eat raw, she says, but shines when cooked. And the Calville Blanc d'Hiver, a very firm, citrusy French apple that dates back to the late 16th century, is the classic apple for making tarte tatin.
"In British and French cooking and even American, there are a lot of recipes based on these old varieties," Traverso says. "So there's something really special about making those recipes with those apples."
Applesauce and puree
For sauces and other purees, go to the opposite end of the spectrum. The spicy, supple McIntosh will melt like ice cream when baked but creates a smooth, flavorful applesauce. The soft, tangy Jonathan and the sweet, crisp Empire will also deliver a flavorful puree. The Cox's Orange Pippin, Traverso says, is a wonderful juicy heirloom for sauce.
Apples also pair beautifully with vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, cauliflower and sweet potatoes, adding complexity and acid to delicate purees that make an inventive alternative to mashed potatoes.
Back to the idea of heat-tolerant fruit. But here the apple you choose will depend on the characteristics of the meat you're cooking. Pork and duck both do well with slightly sweet apples that also have good acid. "You could go with any of the cooking apples," Lyons says, but sweet, crisp Golden Delicious, tarter Jonagold, or the big, exuberant Pink Lady work particularly well.
For beef, Traverso says, a very tart apple like a Granny Smith works best.
Red Delicious, the classic apple-for-the-teacher, has a yielding texture and balanced sweetness that makes it a perfect salad apple, says Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington State Apple Commission. For something that will stay bright white longer, says Traverso, go for an Empire or a Courtland, with its thin skin and mild taste.
"Any apple with a decent sweet-tart balance will be good in a salad," Traverso says, "but they look beautiful when they don't brown."
Red Delicious and its yellow namesake, Golden Delicious, are the classic snacking apples with a mild flavor and thin skin. But when you want a great big apply apple, Traverso says, sink your teeth into Honey Crisp, one of the juiciest, crunchiest apples around. Tangy sweet Jonagolds — which mix the tartness of Jonathan and the gentle flavor of the Golden Delicious — offer layers of flavor.
Braeburns and Galas give good crunch with delicate aromas, Lyons says, and a nice balance of sweetness and acid. For nature's equivalent of a candy bar, grab a Fuji. "If you like sweets, the Fuji is the best," says Lyons.
The Golden Delicious may be the original all-purpose apple. With a firm texture that holds up to baking and a mild flavor and sweetness, it does well in pies and tarts, as well as alongside your peanut butter. Ashmead's Kernel, a great baking apple, also has a juiciness that earns its popularity with cider makers and a mild acidity that makes it wonderful to bite into.
"When it's ripe and fresh to me it tastes like Champagne with honey stirred in," Traverso says.
Honey Crisp, with its big, juicy bite, makes a great snack and a fabulous cider. Its firm texture also gives it integrity in a pie. Though they're great for cooking, they can also be expensive, making them best for enjoying raw.
With all pairings, acidity is the element to keep in mind. For richer desserts — pies, tarts, buttery cakes — Traverso says go with more acidic apples. For more delicate sweets, go with a sweeter apple.
With cheese — a classic apple pairing — join strong cheeses, such as Parmesan, cheddar and even Roquefort, with big acid and big sweetness, such as Jazz or Honey Crisp. For softer, milder cheeses, such as Camembert or brie, go with the more delicate Fuji or Gala.
"As long as you get the acidity right, you'll have a successful sweet or savory item," Traverso says.
If you like sugar and spice, try pairing a Granny Smith with chili powder, salt and a squeeze of lime. Ten years ago the Washington State Apple Commission began marketing this combination in Mexico — a take on a traditional preparation of jicama, Lyons says — and sales of Granny Smiths tripled.