8 Apple Varieties You Should Be Baking with This Holiday Season

by Katherine Sacks

11/24/21

In the age-old battle of Granny Smith versus Honeycrisp, what if the answer is neither? The world of apples is so much more complex than the few varieties generally found in grocery stores: apples are the third most commonly grown fruit in the world, after bananas and grapes, grown commercially in 35 states in the US and found in orchards from Alaska to Florida.

With more than 7,500 known varieties, the range of flavors, textures and aromas of apples are infinitely varied, and you’ll have a greater chance of finding that wider variety if you leave the grocery store. While the apples you find at your local market or farmstand might be smaller, duller in color, or misshapen, they’ll also be truly in-season fruit (especially in the fall months) with nuanced flavors and a connection to the geography around you. As Richard Powell, executive director of the New England Association and author of “’America’s Apple” and “Apples of New England,” writes: “The benefit of locally grown apples is that, because they do not have to be built for long-distance travel, growers can cultivate a wide range of varieties that greatly expand our experience of this remarkable fruit.”

In “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook,” Amy Traverso writes “Apple varieties are as individual as people, with their own quirky flavors and textures and strengths and behavioral issues.” She identifies 70 great varieties for eating and cooking with. Tom Burford’s “Apples of North America” offers suggestions for nearly 200 heirloom and modern varieties. Using the advice of these experts, among others, we have recommendations for some of the most flavorful apples to look out for at farmers’ markets, farmstands and well-stocked grocers this fall.

How to Tell If an Apple Is Fresh and Other Apple Shopping Advice

How can you tell if an apple is still fresh if you don’t cut into it? Traverso suggests shopping at a farmers’ market or farmstand in order to ask when the apples were picked and taste samples. Shopping for apples marked local at the grocery store should also reasonably guarantee freshness.

Ripe apples should feel firm and have a mild aroma; any strong, banana-like aroma, or softness when touched, indicates the fruit is overripe. Many apples can be stored at home for several months under the right conditions: place them in a paper bag or plastic bag with a few holes, in a cool, dark place.

Unless you are purchasing apples at the height of the season (generally September to November), apples will likely be cold stored in cellars, barns or other dark, cool places. However, apples that are stored long-term by industrial producers and sold in grocery stores — and are often exposed to a synthetic gas that stops their ripening — may not develop the nuanced flavor and vibrancy of apples stored without gas.

Which Apple Varieties Are Best For Pie And Other Uses

It seems like no matter how many apple pies one bakes, it’s impossible to remember which kind is best for baking versus eating out of hand. But for every fond apple memory you have — a pie baking, apple sauce simmering on the stovetop, or even cider being pressed — there’s an apple variety that goes best with that preparation.

Luckily, there are many varieties of apples that make a good pie. A general rule of thumb is to bake with a mixture of firm-sweet and firm-tart apples. Among others, Burford recommends Arkansas Black, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Goldrush, Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet and Winesap for making pie. Traverso likes using Northern Spy, Sierra Beauty, and Esopus Spitzenburg for tartness, and Baldwin, Golden Delicious, Jazz, and Jonagold for sweetness. (See her blue ribbon deep-dish apple pie recipe below.)

Apples with a distinctive flavor, ideal for highlighting on cheese or fruit plates, include the cardamom-like spice of Granite Beauty, Mother apple (with a distinctive balsamic flavor), and pineapple-scented Hawaii apple. And for sauce making, look for Cameo, Idared and Jonathan, among others.

8 Apple Varieties to Look For

The list of which apple varieties to look for could go on and on. Traverso’s favorites include Pink Pearl and Calville Blanc d’Hiver, which aren’t commonly found throughout the US. What you find will greatly depend on what’s in season near you, and where you shop. These varieties are among those seen more regularly at farmers’ markets, broadening the spectrum of apples available beyond the traditional flavors. Check this chart for more of the commonly available apples, along with seasonality and cooking tips.

Arkansas Black

An heirloom variety first grown in Benton, Arkansas, this apple thrives in warmer climates, which means you’ll find it in orchards throughout the Southeastern and western states and California. It has deep red skin, which turns purple-black and sweeter the longer it is stored. Traverso describes the apple as “aromatic like a Gala, but with enough acidity to keep it lively, and a cherry-spice finish.” When picked in season, between October and November, Arkansas Black apples are firm, crisp and moderately juicy. Use this apple for desserts (especially pies), frying, apple butter and cider.

Cox’s Orange Pippin

This tender-sweet apple is delicious when used fresh, but is also beloved in apple crisps or other baked preparations. A British variety, it is a medium-sized apple with yellow skin that is streaked with orange and red patches. Traverso describes its flavor as “citrusy and almost tropical-tasting, with pear aromas.” It is grown throughout the East Coast, Midwest and Northern California. This apple is good for desserts, especially in baked goods, frying and cider.

Esopus Spitzenburg

This apple’s fantastic name is reason enough to recommend it, but Traverso’s rave review is an even better one: “This apple has so many layers of flavor that it really is extraordinary when eaten fresh or when used to make hard or sweet cider,” she writes. “However, it holds up well enough in baking to qualify as a firm apple, and I’d use it in desserts like the Crêpes Filled with Caramelized Apples, the Dutch Baby, or the Swedish Apple Pie.”

Famous for being one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apples, the Spitzenburg, also called Spitz, is popular among heirloom apple aficionados. It’s a juicy medium-sized apple that varies in color from orange-red to bright red with dark red stripes to purplish-red and has a hard and crisp bite with floral, citrusy and tropical aromas. This variety ripens from September to mid-October, but stores well through the winter (Traverso suggests using it for holiday desserts), and can be found at farmers’ markets in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and Northern California.

Goldrush

If you like Golden Delicious apples, try Goldrush. “The Goldrush takes all the great cooking qualities of its Golden Delicious parent and adds loads of bright, citrusy flavor,” writes Traverso. “I especially like it in spiced, baked desserts like apple crisps.”

Developed by the Perdue University Horticulture Research Farm, the Goldrush cultivar combines the traits of Golden Delicious, Melrose and Rome Beauty apples, among others. You’ll find it at farmers’ markets and u-pick orchards throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. It ripens in October/November and keeps its firm texture, crisp bite and sweet-tart, slightly spicy flavor in storage for six to seven months.

And if you are looking to make cider, Goldrush, along with Winesap, Golden Russet and Baldwin, are ideal varieties. “Late-season or ‘winter’ apples [like these] with the highest sugars and acidity make the most long-lasting, robust, and flavorful ciders,” write Carr Ciderhouse owners Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum in “Ciderhouse Cookbook.”

Hidden Rose

Despite the dull-yellow to brownish skin of Hidden Rose, give this apple another look. Also called Airlie Red Flesh, it gets its name from its pretty, bright pink flesh, which offers berry flavors and candy apple aromas. This variety is often eaten fresh to appreciate its inner coloring, but the firm-tart apple also works well in baked goods; Traverso suggests substituting it for Gravenstein apples in tarts. Native to Oregon, the Hidden Rose is most often found in the Pacific Northwest but can be found in the Midwest, Massachusetts and England.

Other pink- or red-fleshed apples include Pink Pearl, native to Northern California, and Redfield, a popular cider apple that can be found in farmers’ markets in the Northeast.

Jonagold

If you’re a fan of the grocery store regulars Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp, try out Jonagold. Traverso says it makes a better pie apple than Golden Delicious and is a great, less expensive alternative to Honeycrisp. A sweet apple, Jonagold has honey and melon aromas with tender, juicy flesh. New England Association’s Powell describes the apple as “explosively crisp and juicy, similar to Honeycrisp but with more apple flavor.”

The variety is sensitive to sunburn — the skin is orange when grown in warmer climates and red in cooler ones — but is grown throughout the country and is sold at supermarkets and farmers’ markets accordingly. This is a good apple for pie making, frying and cider.

Northern Spy

Often called the best pie apple, this firm-tart variety is much loved, especially in cooler climates, including New England, the Upper Midwest and Ontario, where it thrives especially well. For a blackberry-apple slab pie, for instance, “Ciderhouse Cookbook” suggests a combination of McIntosh, Golden Russets and Northern Spy apples: “Pick some of your favorite tart apples and firm apples for a pleasing mix of textures, sweetness, and flavor.”

Northern Spy apples can be found at supermarkets, but you’ll have your best luck at farmers’ markets and u-pick orchards. The cream-colored flesh has hints of strawberry and pear flavors and will stay firm when sliced after being baked, making it ideal for cooking.

RubyFrost

The RubyFrost is a new variety bred at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and released to the market in 2013. It’s an ultra-juicy, ultra-crisp apple with a winey, somewhat vegetal, cidery aroma. RubyFrost doesn’t brown when left out, making it perfect for salads or other sliced preparations, but this variety also works well in baked recipes.

4 Cookbooks for Apple Lovers

“The Apple Lover’s Cookbook” by Amy Traverso

Amy Traverso’s IACP-award-winning “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook,” celebrates 70 popular and sometimes rare apple varieties, giving seasonality, availability, tasting notes and cooking information for each. She also includes more than 100 recipes, including which are the best varieties for each (and options for swaps). Originally published in 2011, the book was revised and updated in 2020.

“The Apple Cookbook, 3rd Edition: 125 Freshly Picked Recipes” by Olwen Woodier

The redesigned and revised 3rd edition of Olwen Woodier’s “The Apple Cookbook,” adds 30 additional recipes to her original book. Including vegan, gluten-free, sweet and savory recipes, Olwen shows the true versatility of the fruit. She also includes some history, profiles of orchard owners and information on apple varieties.

“Apples of North America: A Celebration of Exceptional Varieties” by Tom Burford

Written by apple expert Tom Burford, whose family has grown apples in the Blue Ridge Mountains since 1715, the newly updated 2021 version of “Apples of North America” is an excellent resource that should be on the shelf of any apple lover. Burford offers historical anecdotes, growing information, tasting notes, interior and exterior descriptions, and cooking and storage tips for nearly 200 varieties, along with recommendations for which varieties to use for specific cooking techniques and advice for tree planting and home orchard care.

“Ciderhouse Cookbook: 127 Recipes That Celebrate the Sweet, Tart, Tangy Flavors of Apple Cider” by Jonathan Carr, Nicole Blum and Andrea Blum

Owners of New England’s Carr Ciderhouse and their chef, Andrea Blum, came together to produce the “Ciderhouse Cookbook,” a collection of recipes for cider, molasses, vinegars, shrubs, switchels and preserves. You’ll find instructions for making your own cider, turning sweet cider into hard cider, and tips for picking crab apples, as well as the history of cider making, resources for buying cider and cider products, and more.

Recipe: Blue Ribbon Deep-Dish Apple Pie

Amy Traverso, “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook”

MAKES: 8 servings

ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour, 15 minutes

TOTAL TIME: 2 hours, 45 minutes

When it comes to apple pie, the more fruit the merrier. Only, the more apples you pile into the dish, the more likely you are to end up with a big gap between the crust, which sets early in the baking, and the filling, which softens and shrinks by the time the pie is done. The answer, in a technique I adapted from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, is to pre-cook the apples just a bit to “set” their shape. The result is a pie that’s good enough for a bake-off: tall, beautifully domed, and filled to the very top with juicy apples.

FOR THE CRUST
2½ cups (350 g) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
18 tablespoons (2¼ sticks; 255 g) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
6 to 8 tablespoons (90 to 120 ml) ice water
Milk for brushing over crust

FOR THE FILLING
2½ pounds (1.13 kg, or about 5 large) firm-tart apples (see Apple Notes), peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges
2½ pounds (1.13 kg, or about 5 large) firm-sweet apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges
⅓ cup (66 g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1½ tablespoons (22 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ tablespoons cornstarch

  1. First, make the crust: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and salt until well combined (for instructions on making crust in a food processor, see page 75). Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and use your fingers to work them in (you want to rub your thumb against your fingertips, smearing the butter as you do). Stop when the mixture looks like cornmeal with some pea-sized bits of butter remaining. Sprinkle 6 tablespoons ice water on top and stir with a fork until the dough begins to come together. If needed, add 1 or 2 tablespoons more of ice water. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead three times, or just enough to make a cohesive dough—do not overmix! Gather the dough into a ball, then divide into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Press each piece into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 50 minutes and up to 2 days.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425ºF and set a rack to the lowest position. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a Dutch oven over medium heat, stir the apples with the sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, and salt. Cook, stirring gently, until the apples just begin to turn tender, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat if apples begin to sizzle vigorously.
  3. Remove the apples from the heat, stir in the cornstarch, and spread the apples out on a large baking sheet. Put in the freezer to cool to room temperature, 12 to 15 minutes.
  4. Prepare the crust: Dust your counter and rolling pin with flour. Unwrap the larger disk of dough and put it on the counter; flip over to coat with flour. Working from the center, roll the dough out to a 13-inch circle ⅛ inch thick. As you roll, turn the dough periodically and flip it over to prevent sticking; dust with additional flour as needed. Roll the dough up around the rolling pin and transfer to a pie plate. Press the dough into the sides of the plate, draping any excess over the edge.
  5. Remove the apples from the freezer, and use a spatula to transfer them, with any juices, into the pie plate. Unwrap the smaller disk of dough and roll out as before to a 10-inch circle about ⅛ inch thick. Transfer the dough to the pie and lay it over the filling. Using a sharp knife, make three 3-inch slashes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Fold the top crust over the bottom crust and crimp to seal. If you don’t have a favorite decorative crimping technique, you can always simply pinch the crust between your thumb and forefinger at regular intervals around the crust, but I like to make a scalloped edge by holding my right thumb and forefinger in a “U” shape, then poking the crust between them using my left forefinger. (For the photo of this dish on page 212, food stylist Michael Pederson used the handle of his offset spatula to make diagonal indentations around the edge.) Brush the crust all over with milk and sprinkle with the remaining sugar.
  6. Put the pie on a baking sheet and bake on the lowest rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350ºF and bake until the pie is golden brown, another 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes before serving.

APPLE NOTES: Again, any combination of firm-tart and firm-sweet apples is fine. But, I particularly like Northern Spy, Sierra Beauty, and Esopus Spitzenburg for tartness, and Baldwin, Golden Delicious, Jazz, and Jonagold for sweetness.

MAKE-AHEAD TIP: You can prepare the crust through step 1 and refrigerate for up to five days. You can also freeze the dough for up to three months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before using.

EQUIPMENT: 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot; rolling pin; 9-inch deep-dish pie plate (preferably glass); baking sheet (any size); cooling rack

Traverso, Amy. The Apple Lover’s Cookbook: Revised and Updated (p. 214). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Top photo by Terrance Emerson/Adobe Stock.

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