I love apple season. There are few things better than a good apple eaten out of hand. Whether the flesh is mild and swweet or tart, and winey, when you bite into it, a fresh-picked apple will make a crisp cracking sound and you'll get a spurt of juice.
There's a season for everything, and the main season for American apples starts the last half of October. I've probably said this a thousand times, but our problem in the United States is that we try to buy produce out of season. Many varieties will keep well late into winter, but by summer most apples have been stored for seven or eight months. No wonder they are soft, mealy, and without juice. When peaches and melons come in, stay away from apples. Come back when there's a snap in the air, and you'll remember what makes apples so good.
Apples are one of the most esteemed fruits in the Northern Hemisphere, in part because they're so versatile. They're delicious raw, baked, dried, or made into applesauce. They make great pies, apple butter, apple jelly, chutney, cider, and cider vinegar, and they're a welcome addition to dozens of other dishes. A member of the rose family, Greeks, and Romans. Many places grow wonderful apples now, but overall, the United States produces the finest apple crops in the world. The Northwest, the East Coast, and parts of the Midwest-regions where the seasons change-grow the best apples. They're not a fruit for hot climates.
Only a few of the thousands of varieties of apples grown today are mass marketed, but there are many more out there than Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Macs. There are very old and very new varieties you may never have heard of. If you're north of the Mason-Dixon line, you're going to find the best apples at local farm markets and stands, where they're fresh-picked, and you're likely to find great varieties you'd never see at the supermarket.
The vast majority of apples are picked from September through November and either sold immediately or put into cold storage, where some keep well and some don't. the peak of the season for domestic varieties-when most stored apples still retain their snap-is generally over by December. A few will last through the early spring, but by March it's hard even to find a good Winesap.
In most cases look for very firm, bright-colored fruit with no bruises and with the stem still on-a good indication that you've got an apple that's not overripe. The apple should feel heavy in the hand for its size and have a good shine on it. A dull look usually means the fruit has been in storage too long, although some excellent varieties like Winesaps and eastern Golden Delicious have relatively rough skin with little or not sheen. As always, use your nose. An apple that smells great is going to taste great.
For the sake of comparison, I've listed the four most familiar apples first: Red and Golden Delicious, McIntosh, and Rome Beauty. Following these are some less familiar varieties you should know about.
Red Delicious First developed in Iowa at the end of the nineteenth century, Red Delicious apples are our most familiar and popular apples. It's not hard to see why: they have great color, a sweet taste, and they're very crisp. A thick-skinned apple that ranges in size from very small to very large, Red Delicious is one variety you'll always find in supermarkets. The bright color and distinctive shape-rounded at the top, with points around the bottom-make it an easy sell.
On the East Coast, Red Delicious are grown as far north as Maine and as far south as Virginia and even the Carolinas. But the northern states-regions where the nights are cool during the growing season-produce the best apples. Red Delicious from the Northeast are a little less shiny, a little smaller, and not as red as those grown in the Northwest, but they're hard, they're juicy, and they're usually a lot sweeter than the western apples.
When you're selecting Red Delicious, look for hard, unbruised, shiny fruit that's heavy in the hand. Except for those grown locally, a dull skin means the apple is getting old and has a little heat in it.
Red delicious from the Northwest are available year round, but by late spring, after they've been stored, they're going to be soft, mealy, and without juice. You'll get good Red Delicious from October through early May. Wherever they're from, these apples are better for eating than for cooking or baking.
Golden Delicious Despite their name and similar shape, Golden Delicious apples are an entirely different variety from Red Delicious. They tend to be a little smaller, have a much more tender skin, and are a little better for cooking than the red, although they're still best eaten out of hand. They also appear earlier in the season, stay in the stores longer, and keep a little longer than the red.
On the East Coast, local Golden Delicious apples start out a little greener than those from the Northwest, but by November they are a deep gold color with russet specks. Late in the season, after the frost, they're a real treat. Look for local Golden Delicious apples at produce and farm stands-you're not likely to find them at the supermarket. And don't be afraid to buy them after a frost; they're actually a lot sweeter and much crisper then. And you haven't lived if you've never had a pie made from local Golden Delicious apples. Locals are harder and crisper than the northwestern Goldens; they store better, and after they've turned deep gold, they develop an incredible fragrance. We keep a bin of local Golden Delicious outside the store even into Christmas. Leaving them outside to get a touch of frost-not a hard freeze-turns them sweet as sugar. Don't be afraid of a little scarring or flecks of brown, and when you find a bin of them with that deep yellow, freckled skin, don't pass them up. They're unbelievably good.
McIntosh McIntosh is America's most famous apple. New York State produce the largest number of Macs in the Unite States. One of the earliest apples of the season, McIntoshes start to appear in the middle of September if the temperature drops below 60ºF. But wait until the end of September or early October to buy and eat Macs: then you'll get an apple that has matured on the tree and has a wonderful flavor-any earlier and it will taste green.
Early Macs are excellent eaten out of hand and very good for pies; they're slightly tart and crisp. As the season goes on, they get redder and sweeter. By late winter Macs are mostly red; they're sweet, but the crunch and juice have left them. A fresh McIntosh is very juicy and has a tender flesh. The best Macs are produced in the Midwest and Northeast. They're not very good bakers because they turn to mush in the oven, but mix them with other apples in pie, make applesauce from them, or eat them raw.
When choosing a Mac, don't worry if its color is more green than red, so long as it has a little red blush on it. As with any apple, make sure the stem is still attached-a reliable indication that it's not overripe. Macs keep very well-up to three or four weeks-in a cool place (like a root cellar or a porch that is protected from freezing). If your only option is to keep them in a heated house, refrigerate them.
Rome Beauty A late fall apple, the Rome Beauty is medium to large, oval shaped, and usually has a flat bottom, which makes it especially suitable for baking. Rome hold their shape and texture in cooking and are good for pies when they're mixed with other varieties. They're one of the best, if not the best, for baking because they have a thick skin that helps the apple keep its shape. I don't recommend a Rome for eating out of hand; even at the beginning of the season, it tends to be dry.
The trick to baking Rome apples is to turn off the heat when they're about done but leave them in the oven another ten minutes so that the apples keep from falling apart.
Old and New Varieties Worth Looking For
Cortland A Cortland's skin is dark red over green and flecked all over with rust; it has a very white, juicy flesh and a medium-tart to sweet flavor. A lot of people think Cortlands make the best apple pies. Their flavor sweetens when they're cooked. Cortlands are a lot harder than Macs, although their thin skin bruises easily. Primarily grown in Maine, New York, Massachusetts, and other parts of New England, Cortlands are found at farm stands and produce markets but rarely in the supermarket. They're especially great in salads because they are less apt to discolor after being cut.
Empire A cross between the Red Delicious and the McIntosh, the Empire is one of the best apples I've ever eaten; it is firm and crisp like a Delicious, but juicy like a Mac.
This hybrid keeps a lot better and comes out of storage better than McIntoshes. When choosing Empires, make sure the apples are nice and shiny, heavy in the hand, free of bruises, and still have their stems. Empires are perfect for pies and baking. But the best way to eat them is to just take a bite.
Greening Greenings ripen early, usually right at end of summer, during the last week or two of August. Many people feel that small, tart Greenings are the best pie apple in the world. People used them years ago when there were fewer hybrids available and the methods of cold storage hadn't been perfected; because of their tough, thick skin, they kept better than other varieties. Today most greenings are bought by canners, so you don't see them very frequently in the markets. Those that do make it to market don't have much flavor, and even for pie making they're best when mixed with other varieties.
Lady Apple Lady Apples are the oldest variety known, first cultivated by the Romans. The French loved them and thought they were a royal apple; early American colonists thought of them as a symbol of wealth. Lady Apples are not available everywhere, but where they are, they make their appearance just before Thanksgiving and stay until Christmas. Very small, with bright red and yellow coloring, they are a cheerful holiday fruit that's fun to eat (two bites is all it takes). Don't peel Lady Apples because the peel adds to the winey, semisweet taste of the flesh. You can cook them with lamb, pork, or ham, use them as a garnish, or add them to roasted vegetables such as potatoes. My mother used to drop them into our Christmas stockings and use them as ornaments on the tree. They also look especially pretty on a wreath. Left out, they dry nicely; refrigerated, they last up to four weeks.
Macoun A cross between the McIntosh and the Jersey Black (an old apple variety), Macouns first appeared in the 1920's. They range from very small to medium in size and have a flecked, maroon-red skin. The flesh is crisp, very white, and very juicy, making Macouns one of the most popular if not the most popular apple in the Northeast. They don't hold up in storage very well, so they should be eaten in season only-and the season is very short. You should start looking for Macouns at the beginning of October, and sometime between the end of October and mid-November they will pass their prime in storage and will start breaking down. Look for firm, bright apples free of bruises. Their small size makes them great for lunch boxes and snacks. The supply is short and the demand is high, so the price is high, but they're worth it. When you see fresh Macouns, grab them.
Winesap One of the oldest American varieties, the Winesap is a terrific all-round eating apple. It is hard and juicy, with a very crisp texture and a tart, winey taste. I think of Winesaps as real country apples with a rusty-red, speckled skin and pure white flesh. Usually picked after the first frost, they are still fresh from November through mid-December, and they also come out of storage better than any other apple: nice and hard and very, very juicy. That's unusual for an apple: cold storage makes most of them steadily lose their juice, but a Winesap will sometimes last until April in cold storage and still retain its snap.
Winesaps are excellent for cider or juice and are also great in pies. They're not found in many supermarkets, so look for them at local farm and produce markets. The skin of a Winesap is going to be a little rough, usually with some green on it, but don't worry about that.
Jonathan A Jonathan is a very round, deep yellow apple with bright red stripes and creamy white, semisweet flesh. Although not very hard it is good for just about anything-cooking or eating out of hand. In days gone by, Jonathans were one of our most popular varieties, but they're hard to find now except in the Midwest. They don't store well, which is strange because they have a tough skin.
Opalescent When I hear the word Opalescent, I think of my childhood. When my mom and dad first opened their farm stand, Opalescent was one of the most popular sellers. In old family photos you'll see bushel baskets full of them at the stand. Now, unless you're talking to an old-timer, most people have never heard of Opalescents. They are large apples, mostly green, with a red blush and large white specks. They're very hard, tart, and juicy, they don't bruise easily, they store well, and they're one of the few early apples that are hard and juicy when fully ripe. Opalescents are great for baking and their aroma is wonderful; I can still remember the scent wafting through the house when Mom was baking them. Opalescents come out in early September; if you find them in your area, buy them-then send me a postcard and let me know where you found them. They're a real treat.
Other Older Varieties
Baldwin, Northern Spy, Winter Banana, York, and other older varieties of apples have all but disappeared except from farm stands in the North. If you do find these varieties in your area, look for firm, medium-sized, bright fruit that are free of bruises. Avoid large, dark apples, which are likely to be soft, dry, and mealy.
New Zealand Apples
If you're craving apples in summer, look for the New Zealand varieties. Early New Zealand settlers brought apple seeds with them, and they've been cultivating, improving, and developing new varieties ever since. They're responsible for four excellent apples: the Gala, the Royal Gala, the Braeburn, and the Granny Smith. New Zealand introduced the Granny Smith apple to North America about thirty years ago. In recent years Washington State and British Columbia have begun cultivating the Gala, which is becoming more popular here too.
Fresh apple cider is really no more than liquefied apples, made by crushing apples-peels, cores, and all-then straining the juice from the pulp. Years ago farmers and producers used a hand-cranked press, almost like a vise, to pulverize the apples. Fresh unpasteurized apple juice with no preservatives has to be refrigerated immediately and will keep no more than two or three days before it starts turning to vinegar. Pasteurized apple juice, with preservatives added, will keep two or three weeks in the refrigerator.
At Napolitano's, as the holidays approach and the weather starts getting colder, we heat apple cider with cinnamon sticks and serve it to our customers. The aroma alone almost makes it worth doing, but it's a festive, no-caffeine, nonalcoholic, relatively low-calorie drink that warms you up and tastes great.
Depending on the size of the pan and how high you like to stack the apples, remember that it takes three to five pounds of apples to make a good pie. A really great apple pie is determined by the mixture of apples. Use four or more varieties for the best taste-Macs because they're juicy; Granny Smiths for their crisp tartness; Winesaps for their spicy wine taste. Cortlands Macouns, local Golden Delicious, and Greenings are all good in pies, and Rome Beauties work well in the mix because they hold their shape. You'll get a great combination of flavors and an excellent pie. The same rule applies to applesauce or any dish with an apple filling.
New Zealand apples are shipped fresh from harvesting, while many U.S. apples are put in cold storage, then shipped. The Galas and Braeburns are packaged with great care, so they're usually in prime condition at the market, with smooth, unblemished skin and firm flesh. Like all apples, the New Zealands keep well for several weeks in a paper or plastic bag in your refrigerator. Even though they're not waxed, you should wash them before eating. They're outstanding eaten fresh and are equally good cooked.
Gala and Royal Gala The Gala and the more fragrant Royal Gala varieties are the result of crossing a superb British apple called Cox's Orange Pippin with Red and Golden Delicious apples. They both have a thin, creamy yellow skin. The Gala is striped with pink, while the Royal Gala has a crimson red blush. They both have relatively tender flesh and a mild taste, but they're crisp, sweet, and juicy. Imported Gala and Royal Gala apples are available April through June. Galas from Washington and British Columbia are available from September to December.
Braeburn Available here only since the mid-1980's, the Braeburn is the newest variety developed in New Zealand. It is medium to large in size and has a greenish gold skin striped with red. Very firm, juicy, and sweet, the Braeburn is a terrific apple and holds up well. It is in season from May through August, when domestic apples are out of the picture.
Granny Smith The Granny Smith is a hard, crunchy, green-skinned apple with a tart taste. A hybrid of the Green Pippin originally grown in England, it has a high juice content and keeps very well. Granny Smiths originated in Australia and are imported mostly from Australia and New Zealand, although we get a few from South Africa, and producers are starting to grow them in Chile and Argentina, which also have opposite growing seasons from ours. France and the U.X. (California and Washington State) are starting to grow them as well, but I think the imports are still tops in taste. Granny Smiths are shipped around the world and start arriving in the U.S. around the middle of April. The season lasts into July and sometimes even through August. Like the other New Zealand apples, they're excellent when you want a good apple out of season.
The Granny Smith is a medium to large apple with a very juicy, white, tart, superhard flesh. As the season progresses, Granny Smiths get sweeter. I suggest peeling them because the green skin tends to be tough and is coated with oil for shipping. Although they're not particularly good for baking, Granny Smiths are great for pies. They're more expensive than domestic apples, so you should expect near perfection in them. Avoid bruised apples, and never buy a yellow Granny Smith, which will be juiceless and tasteless.
Americans buy with their eyes, and alar is used to make red apples turn really red and shiny and to be uniform in size and shape. Growers have been using alar for one hundred years as a growth retardant and insect repellent. It also produces perfect-looking fruit.
If you assembled two different panels of doctors and agriculturalists, one would say alar is harmful, and the other would say it is absolutely safe. You're not going to get agreement on this, and so it's a choice you as a consumer have to make. I've been eating apples all my life-they're practically my favorite fruit-and I don't worry about alar.
Bette's Apple Crumb Pie
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