“Having grown up eating nothing but Red Delicious apples from the supermarket, the variety of apples I see at the farmers market is overwhelming. I don’t even know where to start. Can you help me?”
The Red Delicious has been bred for beauty and immortality (well, at least the ability to weather long-distance shipping) since the 1880s by people who, for the most part, couldn’t stop tinkering. Consequently, quality of flavor, texture, and reputation suffered. Although Red Delicious is still a staple fruit at every grocery store (not to mention truck stop, airport food kiosk, and school cafeteria), consumers are increasingly discerning. Savvy produce managers are making room for other varieties such as Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp, and SweeTango, an alluring new hybrid that has its own Facebook page and, as of this writing, 552 followers on Twitter.
Still, you would never know from the types of apples at even high-end supermarkets that the United States has what is arguably the greatest apple diversity in the world. Renowned orchardist Tom Burford, whose family has grown apples in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia since 1715, writes in Apples of North America that, beginning in the early 1600s, apple cultivars were brought from Europe and mingled with ones in America. Fruit growers had known since the time of the ancient Greeks that apple seeds don’t produce the same apple when planted, he explains. (In other words, a seed from a McIntosh, for instance, will grow into an apple tree, but not another McIntosh.) The only way to reproduce a specific variety is by duplicating, or cloning, it by grafting a cutting onto another rootstock.
By 1820, with cider the national beverage (it was safer to drink than water) and a major commodity for barter, Burford notes, the tens of thousands of cider orchards became natural breeding laboratories for apple cultivars suitable for eating. “By 1850, uncounted named apple varieties for fresh eating, cooking, cider making, apple butter, applesauce, drying, pickling, vinegar, wine, and even livestock food were listed in nursery catalogs .... In 1905, W.H. Ragan’s Nomenclature of the Apple: Catalogue of Known Varieties Referred to in American publications from 1804–1904 listed 17,000 cultivars.” Jeez.
Circumstances that included the enactment of Prohibition (1919), the increasing popularity of soft drinks, and the overproduction of terrible cider (yep, blame Red Delicious) helped cause the decline of varietal diversity. What has saved us from complete apple impoverishment, however, are orchardists and nurserymen like Burford; John Bunker, who founded Fedco Trees in Maine 30 years ago; and Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., from the North Carolina Piedmont (and author of the brilliant, beautiful Old Southern Apples). The cuttings they’ve grafted have blossomed into an apple renaissance, so to speak, and you’ll find the evidence at a farmers market near you.
Shopping & Storing Tips
Because we are all aware that apples top the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, I reached out to David Karp, author of the “Farmers Watch” column at the Los Angeles Times and former contributing editor at Gourmet. “A lot of organic apples come from the West Coast, where the dry climate during the summer and early fall growing season makes it easier to raise them. And there is a large commercial organic apple industry in the Northwest.” he wrote in response to an email query. “Farmers market apples are less likely to be treated with MCP, which suppresses the action of natural ethylene and so enhances long-term crispness, while diluting aroma and flavor.”
Like any crop, an apple variety can have a bad year, be harvested too soon (therefore be starchy or lack flavor development), or be subjected to poor handling after being removed from cold storage. (A constant low temperature slows the respiration rate, thus ripening.) At home, keep apples refrigerated the Tom Burford way. “Relative humidity in modern frost-free refrigerators is low so it is important not to just dump them in the crisper drawer,” he notes in Apples of North America. “Good condition can be maintained by putting a small number of apples in a recycled plastic bag, tying the end, cradling the bag in the arm, and as it is rotated, punching a dozen or so holes with the thumb. This ensures a higher humidity is maintained .... This bag should be stored in the refrigerator away from the vegetables because escaping ethylene gas will speed their decay and rot.”
Types of Apples: Cheat Sheet
Full disclosure: The following information comes in large part from a 2011 entry on my blog at janelear.com. I did a good bit of research, and you may as well benefit, too. I’ve also added some new types of apples and made some tweaks based on what I’ve learned since.
Apples for Eating Out of Hand include Ashmead’s Kernel, Braeburn, Calville Blanc D’Hiver, Empire, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Macoun, Northern Spy, SweeTango, Winesap
Apples That Resist Browning (for salads) include Calville Blanc, Cameo, Cortland, Ginger Gold, Granny Smith
Firm Apples for Pies, Crisps, and Fry-Ups include Arkansas Black, Cortland, Ginger Gold, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Ida Red, Northern Spy
Apples for Baking Whole include Cortland, Fuji, Jonathan, Ida Red, Mutsu, Rome, Winesap
Apples for Sauce include Braeburn, Gala, Ida Red, Jonathan, Macoun, McIntosh, Mutsu, Winesap; mix two or three varieties for complexity of flavor
Types of Apples: 25 Varieties
Arkansas Black: Cold storage turns the flesh of this very hard apple, first produced in 1870 near Bentonville, Arkansas, a rich yellow and amplifies the flavor. Thought to be related to the Winesap, it’s excellent in pies and other baked desserts.
Ashmead’s Kernel: A classic example of the russet type, this 300-year-old variety is distinguished by its bronzed skin, rich sweetness, and juiciness.
Braeburn: This 1952 New Zealand apple has an intoxicating cidery aroma and great sweet-tart balance.
Calville Blanc D’Hiver: Cultivated in France since the 16th century, this extraordinary dessert apple has tender, spicy flesh (the flavor improves in storage). It also contains more vitamin C than an orange.
Cameo: This 1987 Washington State apple (thought to be perhaps a cross between Red and Golden Delicious) has achieved minor mainstream status—you’ll often find it at supermarkets. It’s a good choice for salads as its firm, crisp flesh doesn’t oxidize, or brown, quickly.
Cortland: This New York State McIntosh cross, introduced in 1898, is crisp, juicy, and more tart than sweet.
Empire: The year 1966 gave us the first episode of Star Trek, the Ford Mustang Fastback, and this sweet, slurpy, satisfyingly crunchy Red Delicious–McIntosh cross from New York State.
Fuji: Although the Fuji wasn’t introduced from Japan into the U.S. until the 1980s, its distinguished American pedigree includes the Ralls Janet (named in 1793 by Thomas Jefferson). It boasts great flavor and texture, and is an excellent keeper.
Gala: David O. Selznick would have loved this New Zealand apple for its Technicolor yellow skin dusted with red. Small, crisp, mild, and a good keeper, it’s ideal for lunch boxes and brown bags.
Ginger Gold: This seedling of unknown parentage was discovered in 1980 at an orchard in Virginia, and it’s since become an important commercial variety. It’s sweet, crisp, juicy, slow to oxidize when cut, and holds its shape when cooked, so what’s not to love? When ripe, the greenish gold skin turns yellow.
Golden Delicious: This West Virginia apple (dating from around 1914 and unrelated to Red Delicious) is aromatic and sweet. When shopping, look for apples that are pale yellow in color. If chartreuse, the fruit has been harvested too early; if deep yellow, you can bet the flesh will be overripe. Not a good keeper.
Granny Smith: An Australian apple dating from 1868, the Granny Smith is a fine, if not especially complex, tart (not sour) cooking and salad apple. Although it remains green when ripe, paler specimens usually have more sweetness than those that are bright-green.
Honeycrisp: Released in 1991, this wildly popular Macoun cross from Minnesota has a wonderful snap and a mellow, honeyed flavor.
Ida Red: This tart 1942 Jonathan cross from Idaho adds character to pies, but it’s never been known as an eating apple. Perhaps the thick skin, which is a femme-fatale deep red, is a bit of a turn-off. Unpeeled Idas cook down into a pretty applesauce or apple butter, though; just strain the peels out at the end.
Jonagold: The fact that this 1968 Jonathan cross from New York is a bigger seller in Europe than it is at home is a mystery. Juicy, crunchy, and flavorful, it’s a terrific all-around eating and cooking apple.
Jonathan: This New York apple, which dates from around 1826, has a complex flavor, but it doesn’t keep well. Buy it when you see it and don’t let it linger too long in the fridge.
Macoun: This 1923 New York variety, developed at the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station at Geneva, New York, was named for the Canadian horticulturalist W.T. Macoun. I’ve heard the word pronounced “mah-COW-an,” “mah-COWN,” and “mah-KOON.” The first pronunciation is correct as per Geneva, but the last is far more common. No matter—what’s important is that the apple is juicy and aromatic, with richer flavor than parent McIntosh.
McIntosh: From Ontario (1798), this apple is a proud parent of Cortland, Empire, and Macoun. Its flesh breaks down quickly, so it’s handy for applesauce. Because it’s not a good keeper, enjoy it while you can.
Mutsu (often labeled Crispin): This crisp, delicately spicy cultivar (pronounced “moot-tsoo”) is a Golden Delicious cross developed in Japan and introduced to the U.S. in the late 1940s. When shopping, look for specimens with a yellow background color. A greenish undertone is a sign of a too-early harvest, and you won’t get the best flavor.
Newtown Pippin: Tart and richly flavored, this Long Island cultivar, from the 1700s, is one of the world’s great keeping apples; its flavor gets fuller and sweeter after being stored. Compare it with Granny Smith in a tasting, and you’ll discover that the Newtown has more complexity. Unlike Granny Smith, though, it browns soon after being sliced.
Northern Spy: If you grew up in the East, this is the apple your grandmother used for pies. Originating in New York around 1800, it’s sweet-tart, juicy, and high in vitamin C.
Pink Lady: This cross of Golden Delicious and Lady Williams was developed in a Western Australia breeding program and introduced in 1985. It was one of the first apples to be marketed under a trademarked brand name than by its variety name, Cripps Pink. With crisp, firm flesh and sweet-tart flavor, it is the last apple harvested in Washington State in late October.
Rome Beauty (Rome): Named for Rome Township, Ohio, where the first large, thick-skinned fruit appeared back in the 1820s, this is the quintessential apple for baking whole. It’s big enough to handle being stuffed with butter and brown sugar and it keeps its shape.
SweeTango: This 2009 Minnesota-bred Honeycrisp cross is juicy and supercrisp; its high acid and high sugar results in big flavor that’s more consistent than Honeycrisp. New Yorker writer John Seabrook wrote about the development of SweeTango in his piece, “Crunch: Building a Better Apple,” in 2011.
Winesap: An all-around great kitchen apple, with a potent winey, spicy fragrance and flavor. First cultivated in New Jersey, it was important to the cidermaking industry by 1817. Today, it’s often eclipsed (and confused with) its sweeter offspring Stayman Winesap.