During a recent visit to an orchard, I asked the owner which varieties were best for preparing old-fashioned baked apples. Admitting that he wasn't a cook (and perhaps wanting to duck the question), he answered that all apples taste good when they're baked with sugar and cinnamon. He's right -- to a point.

But aren't some apples -- like some potatoes -- better suited for baking whole than others? After conducting informal bake-offs over the past several autumns, I've concluded that the answer is yes.

Some baked apples come from the oven temptingly colored, nicely shaped and with full-bodied fruit flavor and aroma. Others emerge looking a bit slumped and faded, but tasting appetizing nonetheless. Unfortunately, still other kinds emerge bland, limp or mushy, or all three. While it's true that very crisp, tangy, intensely flavored apples are the best candidates for baking, not all the varieties in this category actually do perform well.

Many recipes simply call for "baking apples," "tart apples" or "large apples." Those that are more specific suggest Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, some mention Rome, and a few suggest McIntosh.

Having learned that it's better to test than just to take other folks' word for it, I purchased the four kinds mentioned and baked them all at once, following a recipe I'd used before. The baking times varied dramatically even though all the apples were the same size; in particular, the Granny Smiths were done 10 minutes before and the Golden Delicious five minutes after the others.

The different varieties also reacted to the baking process in different ways. The Rome apples held their shape, although the skins tended to split. Their skins also retained some color, but not as much as I expected. The flesh tasted pleasantly tart. The McIntosh apples, on the other hand, split apart and completely collapsed. Their interiors softened, bubbled up and heaved out of the center. Their texture and taste could only be described as "applesaucy," which, no doubt, is why they are often said to be excellent applesauce apples.

The Golden Delicious and the Granny Smith apples were satisfactory but not at their best. Baking seemed to bring out the Granny Smiths' tartness, but their skins split and turned olive drab. The Golden Delicious kept some shape, but their handsome yellow color faded. Baking muted the tantalizing fruity-sweet taste that usually characterizes these apples. Considering the results, I can only assume that baked apple recipes often call for these two varieties because they are readily available and because they are suitable for general cooking and baking purposes. But baking apples whole is a different enterprise than slicing them up and chopping them for dishes like crisps and pies.

Eventually in my testing I tried more than 30 different kinds of apples. I baked them all in the same kind of dishes, with the same recipe, in the same oven. I always tested two of each type at once, to be sure the results were characteristic of that variety and not a fluke. Every apple was sampled and informally rated by two or three tasters.

The details are in. There is not one all-out winner, but several "best bakers" available in the markets this time of year (see box below).

Old-Fashioned Baked Apples

6 servings

These apples perfume the kitchen during baking and the juices result in a sweetly spiced sauce. Add a scoop of ice cream for dessert or serve the apples plain for breakfast.

6 large (7 to 10 ounces each) baking apples, such as Braeburn, Empire, Honeycrisp, Jonathan or Rome

1/2 cup apple juice, apple cider or cranberry juice cocktail

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup raisins (optional)

6 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon honey, maple syrup or dark corn syrup

11/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position.

Using an apple corer or a small, sharp paring knife, core the apples. (The center cavity should be no more than 1 inch in diameter.) If necessary, trim a thin slice from the bottom of each apple so it stands upright.

Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, peel away a 1-inch ring of skin from around the top of each apple. Using the tip of a paring knife, make four small slashes about 1/2 inch deep around the equator of each apple. (These steps aid the release of steam, which helps the apples remain intact rather than collapsing.)

Place the apples in a baking dish just large enough to contain the apples, such as a 9-by-9- or 7-by-11-inch baking dish.

In a bowl, combine the juice or cider, lemon juice and vanilla and pour the mixture around the apples. If desired, divide the raisins evenly among the apples, sprinkling them in the cavity. In the same bowl as you used for the juice mixture, combine the sugar, honey or syrup, butter and cinnamon. Divide the mixture evenly among the apples, spooning it into the cavity.

Bake the apples, basting occasionally with the pan juices, until they are tender when pricked with the tines of a fork, 45 to 65 minutes, depending on the size and variety of apple. Set the apples aside to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. (May cover and refrigerate for up to several days and reheat until warm, but not hot, before serving.)

To serve, spoon the apples into individual bowls and spoon the warm juices over and around the apples.

Per serving: 120 calories, 0 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Hurry-Up Microwave "Baked" Apples

4 servings

Apples "baked" in the microwave come out tender and flavorful but quite different in character from those baked in the oven. If anything, they're more attractive. The apples retain their original color and shape rather than cooking down and taking on a tawny appearance, and the juices don't evaporate from the dish.

To ensure that all of the apples are done at the same time, choose apples that are the same size.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice or cinnamon

Four medium (6 to 9 ounces each) baking apples, such as Braeburn, Empire, Honeycrisp, Jonathan or Rome

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice combined with 1 tablespoon water

In a small bowl, combine the butter, sugar and allspice or cinnamon.

Using an apple corer or a small, sharp paring knife, core the apples. (The center cavity should be no more than 1 inch in diameter.) If necessary, trim a thin slice from the bottom of each apple so it stands upright.

Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, peel away a 1-inch ring of skin from around the top of each apple. Using the tip of a paring knife, make four small slashes about 1/2 inch deep around the equator of each apple. (These steps aid the release of steam, which helps the apples remain intact rather than collapsing.)

Arrange the apples upright in a deep microwave-safe casserole dish. Pour the lemon water over the apples and divide the sugar mixture evenly among the apple cavities. Cover the apples loosely with wax paper and microwave on 100 percent power for 6 to 11 minutes, until tender. (If the oven has no turntable, rotate the apples one-quarter turn every 11/2 minutes.) After 6 minutes, begin checking to see if apples are tender by piercing with a fork. The microwaving time will depend not only on apple size and variety but on the wattage of your oven.

Set the apples aside to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

To serve, spoon the apples into individual bowls and spoon the sauce over and around the apples.

Per serving: 119 calories, 0 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 7 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Nancy Baggett's latest cookbook is "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). The author can be reached through her Web site at www.kitchenlane.com.

Your favorite eating apple might not stand up to the rigors of the oven. For the author's top five baking apples, see Page 6.