With 7,000 varieties, how to select the right apple for the recipe

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In my world, October is apple season. I can't get enough of them. But I haven't always been a fan of the apple. As a kid, the only variety we ever had in the house were those red, mushy ones. You know, the ones with the name that implied they were delicious, but they really weren't. I learned to avoid them at all costs.

Now I've grown up and fortunately, I've discovered there's an entire world of apples out there -- approximately 7,000 named varieties. With so many options, how does one select the best variety for baking and cooking? Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook, explains.

Jennifer Russell: You literally wrote the book on apples. There is so much information in it -- it's the perfect apple primer. What general advice can you offer to those of us who may not be terribly experienced at baking and cooking with apples?

Amy Traverso
Amy Traverso (Photo: Charan Devereaux)

Amy Traverso: Every supermarket has at least five varieties. They all taste different, respond differently to heat and they don't come with labels. That's why I wrote the book -- to help people better understand and appreciate this common, wonderful fruit.

There are two things to consider when cooking with apples: How firm is the fruit and how tart? For dishes that will bake a while -- more than 35 or 40 minutes -- you want a firm apple because it won't dissolve into sauce before it comes out of the oven. Meanwhile, quick-cooking dishes like pancakes or muffins are a great place to use tender apples because you want the soft texture they'll achieve in just a short time.

Then there's the question of acidity versus sweetness. An acidic apple is nice in rich desserts like pies and pastries because it can stand up to all the butter. Tart apples can also be good in savory dishes where you want fruit flavors, but not a lot of sweetness. Meanwhile, sweeter apples can work well in more delicate cakes or can really stand out against salty cheese in a salad.

Then sometimes you'll want to combine sweet and tart apples. Take apple pie: Granny Smith is a classic, firm-tart apple, so are Northern Spy and SunCrisp. You can cut these fruits into wedges and they'll stay firm, and their acidity balances the richness of the crust. But then you also want a firm-sweet apple to round out the flavors: That could be Jonagold, Pink Lady, Gravenstein or Honeycrisp.

There are so many great options. Since each apple has a unique flavor, your pie can only benefit by including as many firm varieties as possible.

JR: There are so many apple varieties out there, people must get confused and overwhelmed -- I know I do. You cover 59 varieties in pretty great depth. I love "Apple Varieties: The Cheat Sheet" that organizes the varieties into categories. How do you break them down?

AT: My list of 59 varieties is just a fraction of the estimated 7,000 named apple varieties in cultivation all over the world. I tried to get a nice mix of old and new varieties, as well as some geographic diversity -- regional apples from the South, the West, the Northeast and the Midwest.

The cheat sheet organizes all the varieties into four categories: firm-tart, firm-sweet, tender-tart and tender-sweet. I organized them this way because I noticed that many apple recipes will either call for a specific variety, as in "4 gala apples, peeled." Or they might just call for "4 apples." That's not always helpful.

I wanted to give readers the maximum number of variety options for any recipe while still offering guidelines. When you're looking at a recipe in the book, it'll call for "4 large firm-tart apples." You can then look at the cheat sheet and choose a variety that's available to you at the supermarket or farmstand.

Apple Varieties: The Cheat Sheet

JR: Given the geographic diversity, we obviously don't all have access to the same varieties of apples. But what about the same variety grown in different places? Is apple terroir a thing?

AT: Terroir is a slippery concept, but it has certainly been my experience that the same variety can taste very different when grown in one orchard versus another. Even within the same orchard, one tree might get a bit more sun or might be higher up on a hill. Those growing conditions will influence a fruit's sweetness or its aromatics. Even within the same tree, genetic mutations can create variation. That's why it's so hard to say, "Yes, this is clearly terroir."

On the other hand, Gravenstein apples grown on the West Coast tend to develop richer honey flavors than Northeast Gravensteins because the climate is so much warmer there. Some northern apple growers argue that the light frosts of early fall make their apples sweeter and crisper. I think it's a testament to the apple's adaptability that everyone thinks his or her region is the best.

JR: To peel or not to peel?

AT: In general, I peel apples for pastries, pies, crisps and cakes -- any preparation where I want uniform texture. But I always make applesauce with the skin -- it adds color and flavor -- and then run the fruit through a food mill. Many of the savory dishes in the book are skin-on since those foods tend to have more varied textures already.

JR: When I think about baking and cooking with apples, the usual suspects in the spice cabinet come to mind: cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Are there any unusual or unexpected spice or flavor combinations you would encourage people to play with?

AT: I added star anise to my apple butter and loved it. I love the trio of apples, pears and lemon. Corn and cornmeal play really well with apples, tarragon can be delicious, and just last week I had a green apple-wasabi sorbet at Zebra's Bistro in Medfield, Mass., that was wonderful.

In the book I have a green apple and sauvignon blanc sorbet that's terrific. Green apples have that vegetal quality that can play really well with peppers, chile and cucumbers.

Looking across varieties, apples flavors run the gamut from lemon to spice to berry to wine to nutty, so there are far more options than most people realize.

Kentucky Apple Stack Cake
Traverso's recipe: Kentucky Apple Stack Cake (Photo: Squire Fox)

JR: Your chapter "Dumplings, Bakes, Cakes and Puddings" is driving me into the kitchen this weekend. I've set my mind on the Kentucky Apple Stack Cake, which is beautiful. It's a sort of heirloom dessert, isn't it?

AT: Yes, in Appalachia there's a tradition where different members of the community would each make one thin layer of a cake in a skillet. Then someone would sandwich them all together with apple butter or dried apple filling to produce a wedding cake.

The cake layers are dry at first -- more like a cross between a cookie and a cake. But they soften overnight thanks to the apple butter. The result is incredible. The hardest thing about that recipe is having the patience to wait a full day to eat it.

"Apple Varieties: The Cheat Sheet" was reprinted from The Apple Lover’s Cookbook by Amy Traverso. Copyright © 2011 by Amy Traverso. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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