When most people think of apples, the image that most often comes to mind is the Red Delicious, that shiny, crimson star of the school lunch bag. If that’s the only apple you’ve ever sampled, though, you’ve been missing out on a bushel of delicious eating.
There are nearly 100 commercial varieties of apples grown in the United States. North Carolina is the seventh-largest apple producer in the nation, churning out up to 8 billion bushels a year.
Like many other kinds of produce, the type of apple you select depends on how you want to use it.
For pies, a hard, full-flavored apple like a Northern Spy or Granny Smith is a good choice. For applesauce, a softer variety like McIntosh will give you the best flavor, although mixing in a few Red Delicious will naturally sweeten things up a bit. Cortlands, which are slow to brown, are great for slicing on fruit trays or salads.
Apples can be divided into three groups: apples for eating, cooking apples, and cider apples. But just about any apple can be enjoyed fresh. McIntosh, Red Delicious and Gala are the most popular snacking apples. If you like your apples a little more tart, try Jonagold, Granny Smith and Northern Spy.
If you plan on cooking your apples, you’ll want to use flavorful and firm varieties. Heat breaks down an apple’s structure quickly and reduces its flavor. Gala, Braeburn, Northern Spy, Rome and Granny Smith can withstand baking and still keep their taste and shape. These varieties are the best choice for pies or cobbler or for baked apples.
For making homemade applesauce, McIntosh is a great choice. Softer apples like the MacIntosh make smooth, creamy applesauce, while harder types like Granny Smith will give you a chunkier sauce. Mixing several varieties together will give you a more complex flavor and texture. I use a food processor to make applesauce, but you can use a blender – just don’t go crazy or you’ll have apple juice instead of apple sauce!
Apples that fall from the tree are called windfall by orchards, and they get pretty bruised up when they hit the ground. That means they aren’t suitable for sale as eating or cooking apples, but they still have a lot of flavor to offer, and are perfect for cider. The best cider is made by combining sweeter apples such as Baldwin, Empire and Delicious with more tart varieties, perhaps Jonagold or Winesap.
During the harvest, 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.
No matter which variety you choose, it’s important to select good quality apples and store them properly. Here are a few tips:
Selection: A ripe red apple has a soft, light green undercast of background color. Immature apples have a bright dark green undercast; overripe fruit has a dull, yellowish green background and soft, often bruised, skin.
Buying tips: Look for apples that are free of bruises and firm to the touch. Larger apples should be very firm, since they mature faster than small apples and become soft sooner. Color should be judged relative to the variety. Brownish, russetted areas on the skin, usually caused by weather, may mar appearance somewhat but don’t affect the flavor.
Storage: Keep small quantities of apples in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, away from strong-smelling foods. The plastic bag helps the apples retain moisture and prevents shriveling. Refrigerator storage life is one to two weeks, depending upon the variety and the maturity of the apple. Larger quantities may be stored in a cool, dark, airy place such as a garage or cellar. Line the box or container with plastic and cover the apples with a damp towel. Apples stored at room temperature will soften about 10 times faster than if refrigerated.
If you’d like to learn more about apples, check out this excellent book by my friend Mark Rosenstein: