Do you love apples as much as I do? Is there ANYTHING (well, ok, perhaps pumpkin) that says Fall to you more than the arrival of all those different varieties of apples? One of my favorite Fall things is to try new varieties of apples. Several years ago I even went through the store and picked up 1-2 of a bunch of different kinds of apples. Now these were snacking apples - ones you can eat just as they are. But as you may or may not know, baking with apples can be a whole other thing.
What Makes a Great Baking Apple?
There are really two primary things that make an apple awesome for baking. First, it should have a nice balance of sweetness and tartness. For eating, we often pick the sweeter varieties (red delicious, gala, etc.). But that sweetness can be overpowering (and often gets too mushy - see below). Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to baking apples is that some of them really don’t taste great raw. Some of the ones we might use for baking can pull double-duty - but several just can’t.
The second thing is that their flesh has to hold up in the heat of the oven. And not every apple can live up to this standard. Texture is huge! Some apples just can’t stand up to the heat and start to turn to mush in the oven. For baking you need varieties that will keep their shape.
So, Which Ones Fit the Bill?
In general, these apples are thought of as best for baking. (Or at least they are MY favorites!)
When it comes to baking, most people think the green, speckled Granny Smith apples are the king (or queen, I guess). They are readily accessible. They definitely have a nice tartness (higher acidity level) that works well in baking (especially in recipes that could benefit from a little spice). Personally the Granny Smiths are a little too tart for my taste. And I know others have said they can be a little too tart also - especially in a very sweet dessert like an apple pie. You can decide for yourself. If they are too tart you might consider mixing them with some sweeter varieties.
Granny Smith apples have a distinctive bright green (somewhat speckled) skin. Their flesh is very firm.
These are my personal favorites - both for eating and baking. They are continuing to grow in popularity. They have a wonderful sweet-tart balance and a texture that holds up extremely well during cooking. It’s juicy, leans toward the sweet side, and has a firm flesh. It's sweetness is almost honey-like. They have a mottled red-and-gold skin.
On thing to keep in mind is that they do have a relatively short life-span in the Fall, so they may be harder to get as you reach year-end.
Mutsu (also known as Crispin)
In my opinion, this apple variety is less well-known than some of the others. It is a sweeter (but still super-crisp) apple. Some people compare it to a Golden Delicious apple taste-wise. They have a hint of (almost anise-like) spice.
These apples were first grown in Japan - and were developed as a cross between Golden Delicious and Japanese Indo apple varieties. They are a smooth bright green to yellow in color. They tend to be larger apples.
Pink Lady (also known as Cripps Pink)
Of the apples listed here, these are the least available as far as I can see. This apple variety is well-balanced between sweet and tart. And, yes, it holds up very well in the oven. Keep in mind they tend to be available a little later in the year (start looking for them around November).
As a small aside. In a way these are perhaps the most persnickety of apple varieties. Only apples grown under specific conditions can be called "Pink Lady”. And these conditions are pretty darn specific - the “right” coloring and sugar-to-acid ratio. And more than half of the season’s crop does not meet those standards and is sold instead as “Cripps Pink”.
There are a number of other nice baking apples for you to consider of course - Cortland, Empire, Rome, Jazz, Braeburn, etc. After all, there are over 100 apple varieties readily available in stores here in the US! The ones here are the ones I like the most.
To Mix or Not to Mix
Another thing you might consider is using a variety of apples in your dish. A blend of tart and sweet apples adds some complexity of flavor to whatever you are making. Also, since apples vary in texture, the different textures can keep thing interesting in what you are cooking as well. Try a little mixing and matching if you want.
Or better yet, test different varieties and find that one perfect apple for your recipe - and go with it. It’s simpler and each piece of apple has ALL the qualities you want. It's really up to you.
Be Seasonal About It
Another thing to consider is seasonality. Apples mature and are harvested in the Fall. So, the apples you pick up in summer were most likely picked the Fall before! Yes, depending on the variety, can hold up in cold storage. But, that storage can also mess with the apple’s cell structure and its taste. Those things can really mess up your recipe. You don;t have to save your special apple pie only for Fall, but you might consider it.
A few great recipes
While you're in an apple-y Fall baking frame of mind, how about a few recipes to get you started? Here are just a few that I've featured here:
Also, I saw this chart recently and thought you might find it helpful to you as you consider sweet-tart balance.
I'd love to know your thoughts. Do you agree with my list? Would you include others on it - or drop some from my list? Let me know what you think!
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