You might think I’m crazy, but apples are my favorite fruit. Don’t get me wrong, I love peaches, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, plums, oranges, and, well, almost all fruit (it’s a very long list.) But I love apples the most for a few reasons. For starters, apples signify the beginning of autumn, the time of year when the crisp air riles my inspiration and motivation after the long, hot days of summer. Apples taste like relief and new adventures on the hiking trails.
The other reason I love apples so much is their variety of flavors, variability of sweet/tart balance, and array of textures. They are incredibly versatile because of this. There are nearly endless uses for apples, including, but not limited to: sauce, butter, pie, crisp, cider, salads, and just plain snacking. Some of these uses require specific qualities, while others do not and are simply more about preference. In this piece I’ll discuss the characteristics of popular Pennsylvania apples relative to their best uses, and when the best time to snag them is. This will guide you when it comes to choosing apples for recipes.
I should start by addressing regionality. Apples grow very well in Pennsylvania (and New York). There are some varieties that PA farmers don’t grow, for one reason or another, like climate or lack of popularity due to local tradition. There are nationally popular apples that we don’t really see “in season” in the Northeast. I want to specifically talk about local apples because they are just flat-out better than apples that come from other parts of the country or world. This is not because apples don’t taste as good in other regions, it’s because apples grown to ship around the world are primarily bred, picked, packed, and stored to hold up well, rather than for taste. A Pennsylvania apple, fresh-picked from a tree, and in your hand within a day or two, is far superior in texture and flavor to a shiny, waxed apple that comes from Washington state.
I can recall from memory at least 50 local apple varieties that we have carried over the last 22 years, which is how long I’ve been working at the market. And I’m sure that my mother, aunts, uncles, and grandparents could add several more to the list, since my family has been growing apples for over 110 years. The first summer varieties start as early as July, and some of the later ones come on as late as early November. Apple season really peaks from mid-September to early November, though local apples can be outstanding outside of that time frame.
Choosing Apples for Apple Pie and Crisp
Let’s talk apple-baking. If you are going to bake a pie or crisp with apples, this is the one use where you are most limited to specific characteristics when choosing apples– but don’t let that scare you! There are still TONS of options and there is plenty of room for preference. The two main rules when choosing pie apples are:
1) Pick an apple with a firm texture, and
2) Choose an apple with a lot of flavor and tartness.
Choosing a firm-textured apple is important because in the baking process apples break down and soften quite a bit. If you were to choose tender, soft apples, you might end up with applesauce. McIntosh and Cortland, for instance, would not make the best apple pie. You want a flavorful, tart apple because apples mellow quite a bit in the baking process. If you start with a sweet, mild apple, the flavor will not stand up to, or offset, the sweet cinnamon-sugar flavor. This means that apples like Fuji and Gala, though firm, are not great pie choices. A good pie is sweet and a bit sharp. And I promise you that no apple is too sour for pie. Once you add the other sweet ingredients the balance will be sublime.
So what are some great apples for pie and crisp? The traditional Granny Smith is always a good choice. But Granny Smith is not available until later in the season (late October). Summer Rambo and Smokehouse are much earlier varieties, often available starting in August, but by mid-September, these crops start to soften. In September, Jonagold, Crimson Crisp, Shizuka, Crispin (aka Mutsu), and Rome Beauty are great baking apples. Through October some great pie varieties are Stayman Winesap, Pink Lady and Braeburn. (Honeycrisp is controversial. I’ve seen it recommended for making pies, and it would probably be good, but I think that there are many better options, with less moisture and more tartness.) When I make a pie I will feel the apples. If they feel very firm that’s great. If my fingers can depress the flesh, then they are not ideal for baking. Additionally, when I make pies, I will often choose 2-3 varieties to increase the flavor complexity. You can also try adding some quince! Quince are very aromatic. You only need ONE per pie!
Choosing Apples for Applesauce
Applesauce is super easy to make and it’s very forgiving! I make it all the time— a batch each week, in fact, from late August through December (or until my family and I get sick of it!) With applesauce, the trick is to choose as many varieties as you can! I use about 8-10 apples when I make sauce, and I will often use 3-5 varieties.
Texture is a non-issue when choosing sauce apples. Soft, firm, doesn’t matter…they all cook down to mush anyway!
It is important, however, that you choose apples with bold flavor because apples will mellow quite a bit when you cook them. Gala, Golden Delicious, and Red Delicious are examples of mild apples that might not make the best sauce. Applesauce doesn’t have to be tart if you don’t want it to be, but I think we can all agree that we want it to be flavorful. I tend to like tart flavors, so I always choose tart apples. I like Crispin, Shizuka, Pink Lady, Braeburn, and Granny Smith when making sauce. I might also add McIntosh, Cortland, or Macoun, all of which have tender flesh but bold, complex flavor. But you can choose whatever you like, as long as they are not too mild.
When I make sauce I always peel and cube my apples, and start with about a cup of fresh cider to get a simmer going, until the apples start to release their own liquid. Once a nice simmer is going I add a bit of sugar and cinnamon, the amounts of which are totally up to you. (If I had a food mill at home I would definitely just cut the apples into chunks, leaving the skin and seeds, and pass the cooked mixture through the mill later. The skins release extra flavor and a nice color. I just don’t like having too many kitchen gadgets, so I keep things simple.)
Once the apples have all softened, it’s done! Some will break down more quickly than others. If some of the firmer apples have held their shape, I will mash the sauce with a potato masher, though this step is entirely optional. Applesauce keeps for a week in the fridge and it also freezes well!
Many people like to add fresh apples to their salads. They add a sweet, or tart, flavor and a nice crunch. Really, you can choose any apples you like, as long as they are not too soft. You should probably choose a sweet apple if you are using a tangy dressing, like a savory vinaigrette. Gala, Fuji, and Golden Delicious would be some sweet and crisp options. And a tart apple is a good choice if you are using a sweet dressing. In this case I might choose Crispin, Jonagold, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, or Braeburn. Many cheeses also accompany apples very well in a salad!
Apples are the classic, take-anywhere, healthy snack. Throw them in your bag on your way to work, when going for a hike, or pack them in a school lunch. There is an apple for every taste preference. I prefer really crisp, snappy apples that have at least a moderate, if not strong, tart flavor. Pink Lady, Crimson Crisp, Jonagold, Braeburn, and Gold Rush are among my favorites. I do enjoy tender apples too, like McIntosh, Macoun, and Cortland. In fact, these are some of the most delicious apples, with subtle nuances of flavor that walk the sweet/tart line very well, but…and this is important…they must be freshly picked! These tender apples turn to mush within a week to 10 days! But if you get them right away, they are spectacular. I don’t have a single a favorite apple because that depends on the week! Even in late July and August there are great eating apples! My early favorites are Ginger Gold, Blondee, Pristine, and Sansa. New apples are almost always very good, and there are new varieties ripening for harvest continually throughout the fall. That being said, some apples hold up exceptionally well. Varieties like Granny Smith, Pink Lady and Cameo are three of the best for storing, though there are many others that keep well into the winter too. You can enjoy delicious Pennsylvania apples for well over half of the year!
As you can see, apples are very versatile and there is something for everyone when it comes to choosing apples. When you go to your local farmer’s market you’ll find a lot of options and new varieties each week. Ask the staff about their favorites and even request a sample (we will always let you taste the apples at Wolff’s!). Don’t be afraid to try something new. Could you imagine if Red Delicious was, and stayed, your favorite apple because of an aggressive marketing campaign by one farm in the early 1900’s? (True story.) So that’s what I have to offer on my favorite fruit, the locally grown apple. Unless…you want to discuss the fact that tomatoes are technically, just not practically, a fruit. But that might have to be another blog article.