What's In Season: Apples
One of the first signs of fall is the arrival of apples at our farmers markets. For those of us who live in a northern climate, especially a place like New York with its orchard-filled fruit farms, apples and autumn are a happy pairing.
And what's not to love? Apples are crisp yet juicy and have a sweet-tart flavor that satisfies when eaten raw or when cooked. The flavor works when paired with something savory, as when baked alongside a pork roast or duck breast. It's the taste of our favorite pies, tarts and galettes and it surfaces in cuisines around the world, from Scandinavia to Sicily to Schenectady. For many children it's the first fruit they'll eat and yet a childhood applesauce can be made to please the most sophisticated palate (see our recipe for Applesauce for Grownups). Apple cider vinegar can add zing to cole slaw, a sip of apple Calvados can finish a hearty meal, and a smear of creamy blue cheese like a Fourme d'Ambert on a slice of just-cut Braeburn could be breakfast, lunch, or a dinner dessert.
How to Buy and Store Apples
- While apples grown year-round, they are in peak season in the fall and early winter. Local varieties will vary depending on where you live but among the most popular are McIntosh, Gala, Braeburn, Rome, Cortland, Delicious, Gravenstein, Northern Spy, and the ubiquitous and reliable Granny Smith.
- Apples vary in two key ways -- how they taste and how they cook. Tart or sweet, to cook apart or stay in slices -- you choose an apple based upon how it will be eaten. For example, a Rome apple's flavor is not particularly complex or interesting and its texture is grainy. But it's a best choice for baking as the oven transforms this big apple into a juicy, soft, and flavorful treat.
- On the other hand, a McIntosh and those like it (Macoun, Cortland, Empire, others) are sweet and crisp when eaten raw but bake it in a pie and it becomes soft and saucy. Some home cooks, including me, like a soft apple pie filling but many bakers prefer a fruit pie with some body, and so for them better choices are Granny Smith, Jonathan, Winesap, or Golden Delicious, all of which hold their shape when cooked.
- Eating by hand? Search out locally grown and in-season apples and try different ones until you find what you like best. A favorite eating apple that comes early in the harvest is the Macoun; another with a longer season are Braeburns.
- Choose apples that are smooth, shiny, and with no blemishes that break the skin. Avoid ones that are shriveled, soft, or have brownish bruises that are usually the result of having been dropped, hit, or badly stored. Choosing by color will depend upon the type of apple you're buying
- Store apples refrigerated for up to two weeks. If you keep them in a plastic bag, cut some holes in the plastic because the apples will oxidize and this will hasten ripening. If you love the look and fragrance of a bowl of apples on the kitchen counter, be aware that you can leave them unrefrigerated for about two days before they'll begin to turn mealy.
- Before eating or cooking with apples, wash them with cool water. If you have any concerns about spraying or pesticides, peel the apples completely. But if you know your orchard and it's organic, consider cooking with the peels which can add flavor, texture, and beautiful color.
- Apples can be easily cored with a knife created just for this purpose; it has a circular blade that cuts into the flesh around the core and pulls the whole core out. Or you can use a paring knife to cut out the core and seeds. It's a little messier, but it works.
- Once you cut an apple it will begin to turn brown from being exposed to the air. If your slices sit a while, as when you're preparing a pie, just toss with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice to slow any discoloration.
How to Cook With Apples
Apples are loved as snacks and desserts but they're also tasty when combined with savory dishes like butternut squash, added to stuffing, salads and rice dishes, and served alongside meats, especially pork and game. Visit any of the popular cooking web sites and do a search on "apples" and you'll be amazed at the variety of ways you can cook with fruit. Here's a start:
- Apple Pies, Tarts and Galettes: There are dozens of ways to make apple pies. There are classic two-crust pies, ones with crumb toppings, the upside-down Tart Tatin, rustic galettes, and single-pastry apple tarts like Julia Child's Tarte aux Pommes that has thin slices of apples baked on a bed of sweetened applesauce. Some pies are mixed with raisins, nuts, or dried cranberries; sweet glaze-like icings can add vanilla or spicy flavors; shards of Cheddar cheese can be melted on top.
- Apple Squares: Essentially a sheet pan-sized apple pie, this is a great dessert for a crowd. Make enough pie dough for two double-crust pies (the equivalent of four crusts) and slice enough apples for two full-sized pies. Using a half-sheet pan (about 12 x 18 x 1-inch) in place of a pie plate, line the pan with dough, fill with sliced apples that have been tossed with sugar and cinnamon, and use the remaining dough to cover. Crimp the edges and bake as you would a pie but for slightly less time to compensate for the thinner pan. Let cool and cut into squares
- Savory Cooking: Apples match well with savory cooking, especially meats like pork and duck, and dishes seasoned with curry, clove, ginger, allspice, and onions. You can also add sliced or diced apples to stuffing, salads, or soups.
- Packing Your Lunch: A fresh apple is a perfect portable food for taking your lunch to work or to school. It doesn't need refrigeration and you can eat it without peeling. But add a wedge of cheese or dip apple pieces in peanut butter and it becomes a satisfying snack.
- Baked Apples: Rome is among the best for baking. Remove an inch of skin around the top and 90% of the core, leaving the bottom intact and filling the space with brown sugar and chopped pecans or walnuts or else a tablespoon of maple syrup and a small cinnamon stick. If you like, top each with a teaspoon of unsalted butter. Place the apples in an ovenproof baking dish, pour a half-inch of boiling water or warm apple juice around the apples, and bake in a 350º F oven for about 45 minutes or until tender. Serve with a drizzle of cream.
- Applesauce: A simple combination of peeled apples, sugar (white or brown), cinnamon, and a bit of vanilla will produce a wonderful result. Cook either on top of the stove -- stir occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn't burn -- or else bake the peeled apples for about an hour at 400º F and then combine with the sugar and cinnamon after they're tender and completely soft. You can use a mix of apples, such as some Delicious for their sweetness, Newtown Pippin for their tart firmness, and Gravenstein for their complex flavor.
- Apple Cake: Look for a coffeecake-type recipe that uses chunks of peeled apples. Serve with a Brandy or Calvados butter sauce. Winesnap apples have a slightly tart, spicy flavor and are firm enough to hold their shape when cooked in a cake.
- Apple Chips: Instead of buying a vacuum bag of dried apple slices or chips at the supermarket, make your own. Cook paper-thin apple slices in a low, 175º F oven for two to three hours until dried, shriveled and concentrated in flavor. Granny Smiths are crisp and full flavored enough to be good choices.
An Apple Harvest
Frank Browning is a writer and NPR contributor who was raised on a Kentucky apple orchard and food writer Sharon Silva grew up on a farm in Sonoma Valley. Together they wrote An Apple Harvest (Ten Speed Press, $16.99, paperback with color photography). This appealing volume combines 60 apple-centric and cider recipes - both sweet and savory -- with tips for buying, storing, cooking with, and generally appreciating our most popular and tempting fruit. The photography will make you love our apple-tinged autumns even more, and it offers what was to me a new culinary word, Pomarium, which is a beautifully displayed guide to 26 of our most popular apples.
Authors Browning and Silva have generously shared their recipe for Pork Loin Stuffed With Fresh and Dried Apples. See our link.
I'll end with a little New England apple trivia: although he ended up as a Disney character with a pot for a hat, Johnny Appleseed was in fact a real person, born John Chapman in Massachusetts in 1774, a time when cider was a daily beverage. We have him to thank for his 18th century habit of visiting cider mills to collect apple seeds that he'd then plant in nurseries on his travels across America.