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.
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