Real Food Encyclopedia | Apples
Humans have been fascinated by the apple for millennia. It’s a popular candidate for the notorious forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, and features in Greek mythology. A falling apple inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity in 1666. The fruit has inspired practical advice, including the old Welsh 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.
Worldwide, there are more than 7,500 known varieties in circulation, 100 of which are grown commercially in the United States. However, this is just a fraction of the thousands of varieties that were on record just a little over a hundred years ago.
- The apple (or its wild ancestor, the crab apple) figured into the diet of the Neolithic era and Bronze Age settlers along lakes in Switzerland. Based on carbonized remains that were discovered in the 1800s, we have determined that they were presumably dried for winter consumption.
- The fruit 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 varieties from France along with a love of “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. If you’ve never ventured beyond the Red Delicious of your childhood school lunchbox, here are a few of the possibilities:
- Empire: A cross between the Macintosh and the Red Delicious. A sweet-tart fruit, the Empire is known for its bright white flesh and creamy texture. The Empire is a great candidate for applesauce or pie, but also makes a good choice for eating fresh.
- Fuji: Another Red Delicious cross, the Fuji has a pinkish blush, a medium crunch and a delicate sweetness. Because of its sweetness and low acidity, the Fuji is a popular variety for eating fresh, especially with kids.
- Gala: The Royal Gala is named for Queen Elizabeth, who called it her favorite when she tried it on a trip to New Zealand. Galas are incredibly crisp and sweet, so they’re another variety that’s best for fresh eating. Because the Gala apple maintains its sweetness and texture well in storage, it’s common to find it well into the spring months.
- Honeycrisp: Developed by breeders at the University of Minnesota, the Honeycrisp has become one of the most popular apple varieties in the country because of its sweet-tart balance and “explosive” crunch. The Honeycrisp is a very versatile variety, great for eating fresh, in salads, with a cheese plate, or in baked goods.
- Jonagold: With its yellow and red skin, the Jonagold can be a very large apple. Its crisp, white flesh is a good balance between sweet and tart, and has a fragrance that is sometimes compared to a pear when eaten fresh.
- Mutsu (aka Crispin): Another very large apple, the Mutsu is light green in color, with yellow to off-white flesh. Mildly sweet with hints of spice, the Mutsu has an almost savory taste that’s reminiscent of jicama, a vegetable popular in Central America. Although the Mutsu holds up well in pies, it needs to be mixed with a more assertively flavored variety for balance.
- Winesap: With its origins in the American colonies, the Winesap is an old variety that’s still popular today. As the name suggests, the Winesap has deep red skin. The Winesap is well-known for its aromatic, spiced flavor and pronounced tartness, which makes it a great choice for pairing with other foods like cheese.
Sustainability of Apples
Apples are vulnerable to a number of insect pests, fungal infections and bacterial diseases. Because of this, growers often apply large quantities of pesticides and other chemicals to maintain a productive crop. This came to national attention in 1989, when “60 Minutes” aired a segment about the health risks of Alar (daminozide), a growth regulator sprayed on crops. The broadcast prompted a nationwide scare that resulted in consumer boycotts and ultimately an EPA ban of Alar later that year. Twenty-nine years later, the conventional variety remains encumbered by high chemical use. In the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the conventional apple ranked number five, and the group found the 90 percent of conventional apples have detectable pesticide residue.
Organic apples make up about eight percent of total production, but that number is rapidly increasing as younger shoppers are more concerned with health and sustainability. Most of these are grown in Washington, where drier conditions make it easy to grow chemical-free apples without fungal diseases. In wetter parts of the country where organic production is difficult, you can often find “low spray” varieties that were produced with fewer pesticides. If you’re concerned about pesticides but want to buy locally, ask the farmers at your local market about their chemical use.
Like many other fruits and vegetables, apples take a lot of labor to grow and pick. Many producers rely on migrant laborers who may be pressured into working long hours in unsafe conditions. This reliance on migrant labor also becomes a food waste concern — when immigration is restricted and labor is scarce, a large portion of the apple crop in states like Washington goes unpicked.
Apple harvest time runs from August until November when the fruit is at its peak flavor and texture. Because the fruit keeps well in cold storage, locally grown apples are often available through the spring. In the summer, imported apples from the Southern Hemisphere help supply supermarkets with apples.
China leads the world in apple production, followed by the US; among European countries, Poland and Italy take the lead, followed by Turkey. In the US, apples are grown in all 50 states, with commercial orchards in 36 states. Eastern Washington has been the apple leader since the 1920s; it represents more than $2 billion of the country’s $3 billion apple market. 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.
Historically, apples were stored in cellars, but these days, the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator. Avoid storing them on the counter or at room temperature unless you plan on eating them quickly, as they rapidly lose flavor and crispness. Stored in a cool place away from light and heat, they can keep for at least a few weeks and often longer.
Apples oxidize (turn brown) quickly when sliced, but can be minimized with a spritz of fresh lemon juice.
We may not have 17,000 varieties anymore, but there are thousands of ways to prepare them. Try slices of apple with hummus or your favorite nut butter; as a topping on white pizzas or sliced and tucked into a grilled cheese. They pair well with almost all cheeses, from brie to Gouda. In parts of the United States, apple pie is usually served with a sharp cheddar.
They are great in salads, where they bring sweetness and crunch. Try them tossed with arugula or watercress and a lemony vinaigrette, or mixed with shredded Brussels sprouts or shaved fennel. They also pair well with woody herbs like
rosemary and thyme. 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.
Apples are traditionally preserved by cooking them down into applesauce, apple jam, jelly and butter. Another way to save apples is dehydrating, fermenting, or juicing them (turn the juice into hard cider or freeze it). You can also slice them, toss with some lemon water to reduce discoloration, and freeze (or mix-up the apple pie filling and freeze).
A medium apple provides about four grams of fiber, and about 14 percent of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C. They are especially high in phytonutrients like polyphenols and anthocyanins that act as antioxidants. The potential benefits include blood sugar regulation and lung support; a 2004 study linked apple consumption to a lowered risk of lung cancer and asthma.
Apples are naturally rich in pectin, a fiber that makes you feel full and satiated. Pectin has digestive benefits too: there’s evidence to suggest apple pectin consumption can slow down colon cancer. Many of the fruit’s nutrients are found in the peel, so it’s best to enjoy the entire fruit.
Top photo by Janelle/Adobe Stock.