No fruit says autumn like apples. Baked into pies, puréed into sauces, sautéed with meats and stews both savory and sweet, it is one of our most comforting and versatile fruits.
But which apple to use for what? Not a simple question.
During the past decade, the number of available apple varieties has exploded, with heirlooms and "club" varieties apples essentially licensed to only a specific group of growers and marketers tumbling into the bins at farm stands and supermarkets.
And apple taste, texture, acidity, sweetness and response to being cooked can vary dramatically from one variety to another.
Just because you like to bite into a big, juicy Fuji doesn't mean it's the best apple for your mom's famous pie.
Here's a primer on which apples to use when and how.
A good baking apple holds its shape when cooked in a pie, tart, cake or other high-heat dish.
But even among those sturdy breeds, a wide variety of flavors, textures and tartness will influence your final product.
The classic choice is the puckery Granny Smith. But for big, bold flavors in your apple pie, go for a sweet-tart Jazz or a pear-scented Pink Lady, also known as a Cripps Pink, said Amy Traverso, author of "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" (Norton, $29.95, 303 pages).
"I think of them as the big California cabernets of the apple world," she said.
Flowery Galas and honey-sweet Fujis have a perfect medium firmness for cakes and muffins, Traverso said, allowing them to blend into softer baked goods better than denser apples, which are more suited to pies.
And while the price tag might make one think twice about using heirlooms for cooking, Traverso said that's why many of these varieties were created. "I would specifically cook with a lot of the heirlooms," she said. "Their flavor blooms when they're heated."
Of those, Ashmead's Kernel is a tart, juicy apple that gets sweeter with heat. The rough-skinned Roxbury Russet is way too sour to eat raw, she said, but shines when cooked. And the Calville Blanc d'Hiver, a very firm, citrusy French apple, is the classic apple for making tarte tatin.
Applesauce and purée
For sauces and other purées, go to the opposite end of the spectrum. The spicy, supple McIntosh will melt like ice cream when baked but creates a smooth, flavorful applesauce. The soft, tangy Jonathan and the sweet, crisp Empire will also deliver a flavorful purée. The Cox's Orange Pippin, Traverso said, is a wonderful juicy heirloom for sauce.
Apples also pair beautifully with vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, cauliflower and sweet potatoes, adding complexity and acid to delicate purées that make an inventive alternative to mashed potatoes.
Red Delicious, the classic apple for the teacher, has a yielding texture and balanced sweetness that makes it a perfect salad apple, said Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington State Apple Commission.
For something that will stay bright-white longer, said Traverso, go for an Empire or a Courtland, with its thin skin and mild taste.
"Any apple with a decent sweet-tart balance will be good in a salad," Traverso said, "but they look beautiful when they don't brown."
Back to the idea of heat-tolerant fruit. But here the apple you choose will depend on the characteristics of the meat you're cooking.
Pork and duck both do well with slightly sweet apples that also have good acid.
"You could go with any of the cooking apples," Lyons said, but sweet, crisp Golden Delicious, tarter Jonagold or the big, exuberant Pink Lady work well.
For beef, Traverso said, a very tart apple like a Granny Smith works best.
Red Delicious and its yellow namesake, Golden Delicious, are the classic snacking apples with a mild flavor and thin skin.
But when you want a great big apply apple, Traverso said, sink your teeth into Honey Crisp, one of the juiciest, crunchiest apples around. Tangy sweet Jonagolds which mix the tartness of Jonathan and the gentle flavor of the Golden Delicious offer layers of flavor, too.
Braeburns and Galas give good crunch with delicate aromas, Lyons said, and a nice balance of sweetness and acid. For nature's equivalent of a candy bar, grab a Fuji.
The Golden Delicious may be the original all-purpose apple. With a firm texture that holds up to baking and a mild flavor and sweetness, it does well in pies and tarts, as well as alongside your peanut butter. Ashmead's Kernel, a great baking apple, also has a juiciness that earns its popularity with cider makers and a mild acidity that makes it wonderful to bite into.