Real Food Encyclopedia | Apples

Humans have been fascinated with the apple for millennia. It has inspired Biblical myth, widely assumed to be the notorious forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. It has inspired scientific theories, as falling-apple-from-the-tree witness Sir Isaac Newton told the world in 1666. And the apple has inspired practical advice, including the old Wales proverb “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” that later morphed into “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” From art to science, politics to religion, the apple has figured into countless aspects of the human experience since antiquity. Could the ubiquitous fruit be rightfully described as the apple of our collective eyes?

Worldwide, there are more than 7,500 known varieties in circulation, 100 of which are grown commercially in the United States. However, this is a just a fraction of the thousands of varieties that were on record just a little over a hundred years ago.

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Fun Facts about Apples:

  • The apple (or its wild ancestor, the crab apple) figured into the diet of Neolithic era and Bronze Age settlers along lakes in Switzerland. Based on carbonized remains that were discovered in the 1800s, we have determined that apples were presumably dried for winter consumption.
  • The apple got its first mention in the western canon around 800 BCE, in “The Odyssey,” the epic poem written by Homer.
  • When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought seeds of several apple varieties from France, which set the stage for a long love affair with the fruit, as well as its fermented byproduct, “hard” alcoholic cider. For hundreds of years, hard cider was the default beverage and used as currency.
  • Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, is credited for spreading the gospel about apples in the late 18th century. Portrayed as a folk hero, Appleseed did not sprinkle apple seeds like fairy dust, but he did set up apple seedling nurseries from Pennsylvania to Indiana by the time of his death in 1845.

What to Look for When Buying Apples

Apples all differ in shape, size, color, texture, aroma and flavor.  In general, when shopping for apples, look for firm, unblemished or unbruised fruit that has full color. If you’ve never ventured beyond the Red Delicious of your childhood school lunchbox, here’re are a few of the possibilities:

  • Empire: A cross between the Macintosh and the Red Delicious. She’s sweet-tart, this one. Her white flesh, set against a thin green-scarlet skin, is not too soft, not too hard on the tooth. The Empire is a great candidate for applesauce or pie, but with that plump flying-saucer shape, she’s also good for snacking.
  • Fuji: A perfectly nice apple with a pretty pinkish blush, a medium crunch and a delicate sweetness. Not boring but not the most exciting variety, either. Sometimes described as “less assertive” and “laid-back,” the Fuji is a favorite among kids.
  • Gala: Another winner for the kids; in fact, it’s so sweet, it’s likened to pink bubble gum. Fruit forward, with a soft/medium bite and lunch-bag-friendly size, it’s a good cooking apple.
  • Jonagold: A cross between the Golden Delicious and the Jonathan, she’s a modern girl who doesn’t want to be characterized. She offers a crisp bite but not too hard. Her perfume is a bit like honey, and in the mouth she feels like a pear. Her skin, aglow with red and golden yellow, evokes a special, complicated experience.
  • Jonathan: A tomboy apple. On the outside she’s a beautiful scarlet red, and her skin is delicate and easily bruised. On the inside, her flesh is firm and strong. Take a bite, and you’ll get citrus at the tip of your tongue. Pick her as a palate cleanser.
  • Mutsu (aka Crispin): A cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo. The most distinctive characteristic is its size; the Mutsu can be large enough for a meal for a family of four. Light green in color, with yellow to off-white flesh, it’ll make you think you’re on your way to eating a Granny Smith, but one bite will bring you back to reality. It’s far from tart, but not really sweet, either. The watery, savory, meaty chunks are reminiscent of jicama, a vegetable popular in Central America. Although the Mutsu could hold up well in pies, it needs to be mixed with a more assertively flavored apple for balance.
  • Winesap: She’s the mean girl at school who also happens to be the cheerleading captain. You love to look at her beautiful mahogany skin, complemented by her almost snow-white flesh. You take a bite, and you can’t believe you’ve bitten into a lemon. Her flesh is so tart, it almost makes you want to pucker. Her firm bite and acidic nature could make her a feisty date for fatty fondue.

Sustainability of Apples

Pesticides and Apples

The conventional apple found itself at the center of a huge environmental controversy in 1989, when “60 Minutes” aired a segment about the health risks of Alar (daminozide), a growth regulator sprayed on apples. The late reporter Ed Bradley called Alar “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.” The broadcast prompted a nationwide scare that resulted in consumer boycotts, congressional testimony by Meryl Streep and ultimately an EPA ban of Alar later that year. Lawsuits ensued, all of which were subsequently dismissed. (Here’s the sequence of events, as told by the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

Twenty-nine years later, the conventional apple remains encumbered by chemical conundrums. In the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the conventional apple ranked number four, and the group found the 90 percent of conventional apples have detectable pesticide residue.

Labor Issues and Apples

In 2012, Washington state had its second largest apple harvest in more than 100 years, but due to a labor shortage (driven by both a crackdown on illegal immigration and better job opportunities due to a slight economic upturn), up to a quarter of the harvest went unpicked.

Apple Seasonality

Apple harvest time runs from August until November, when the fruit is at its peak flavor and texture.  Because it can keep for weeks and even months, and owing to a big import market, the apple is a year-round fixture in supermarkets and many farmers’ markets.

Apple Geography

China leads the world in apple production, followed by the US; among European countries, Poland and Italy take the lead, followed by Turkey. Here at home, the apple is grown in all 50 states, with commercial orchards in 36 states. Washington State has been the apple leader since the 1920s; it represents more than half of US apple production, to the tune of $1.5 billion. According to the Washington State Apple Commission, the Evergreen State grows more than 80 percent of all US-grown organic apples. Other top apple-growing states include New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Organic represents about six percent of total apple acreage, but that demand has grown quickly, as with other foods. Red Delicious is the top-selling variety, followed by Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith, although consumer demand for Red Delicious has fallen since the 1990s.

Eating Apples

Storing Apples

Think cool, not cold, storage. Historically, apples were stored in apple cellars, but these days, most contemporary folk must make do with the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. Whatever you do, avoid storing on the counter or at room temperature, or you’re inviting a rapid decline in apple goodness. Stored away from light and heat, apples can keep for a minimum of a few weeks.

Cooking with Less Waste

Cooking Apples

Pro tips:

  • Apples oxidize quickly when sliced, which can be minimized with a spritz of fresh lemon juice.
  • Applesauce takes about 20 minutes, start to finish: Just you, a few quartered apples, a smidge of water and cinnamon. If you keep cooking that applesauce and add some apple cider and go heavier on the spices, you’ll eventually get apple butter, a thick, “buttery” spread brought to you by the Pennsylvania Dutch and other German immigrant communities.

We may not have 17,000 varieties anymore, but there are thousands of ways to prepare apples. Try hunks of apple with hummus or your favorite nut butter; as a pizza topping; tossed with arugula or watercress and a lemon-y vinaigrette or sliced and tucked into a grilled cheese. Speaking of cheese, apples pair well with just about anything, from brie to sharp cheddar.

Try them grated and sautéed with shredded Brussels sprouts, a little bit of garlic and squeeze of lemon or sliced oh-so-thinly and mixed with fennel and walnuts for a refreshing side salad.

Apples also pair well with twiggy herbs like rosemary or thyme. The chopped herbs are grounding yet stimulate the senses; the apple, altogether sweet, tangy and crunchy, get to have fun with an unconventional mate. The combination is great for savory preparations, such as marinades or roasted meats, but can also work well for sweet desserts. Try roasting apples with herbs, then using them as a topping for a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Preserving Apples

Applesauce, apple jam, jelly and butter can also be preserved by freezing or canning. Another way to save apples is dehydrating, fermenting, or juicing them (turn the juice into hard cider, or freeze it). You can also slice apples, toss with some lemon water to reduce discoloration, and freeze (or mix-up the apple pie filling and freeze).

Apple Nutrition

For about 95 calories, a medium apple provides about four grams of fiber, and about 14 percent of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C. But the apple really shines in the phytonutrient department.  It is loaded with a variety of polyphenols and anthocyanins that are found not just in the pigmented skin but in the flesh and the seeds. The potential benefits include blood sugar regulation and lung support; a 2004 study links apples to a lowered risk of lung cancer and asthma.

Apples are naturally rich in pectin, a fat-soluble fiber that makes you feel full and satiated, a good reason to choose one for your next mid-afternoon snack. A Chinese study shows a potential link between apple pectin and the slowing of colon cancer.

Together with the phytonutrients, the apple delivers mega anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular support. Instead of Cheerios, consider an apple at breakfast to help lower cholesterol. And a word to the health-wise: a fourth of the fiber is found in the peel, so reconsider trimming that peel.

In traditional medicine, the apple is considered a cooling food and good for reducing fevers and detoxifying.