But which to use when? That depends on what you’re making, not to mention the flavor and texture of the apple.
First things first, though. To be fair to all apples, “Every one off the tree is good,” says Mark Toigo, the owner of Pennsylvania’s Toigo Orchards, which grows more than 20 varieties of the fruit. It’s after they’ve been picked that some hold up better than others, especially for eating fresh out of hand.
According to the U.S. Apple Association, more than 100 varieties are grown commercially in the country, but only 15 popular varieties account for 90 percent of production. Chances are that when you go to the farmers market, you’re going to run into a mix of those popular varieties and perhaps some more-regional or obscure varieties. At the grocery store, your options may be more limited.
While Toigo says he believes a good cook can find a way to use almost any apple in any dish, there are varieties that are better for some purposes. Here are a few broad categories to think about, although even these descriptions can vary, depending on whom you ask.
Crunchy and sweet
Examples: Gala, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Red Delicious, Braeburn, Pink Lady, Crispin/Mutsu
These are the types of apples “driving the market right now,” Toigo says. “Americans have gotten into ‘dessert’ apples,” which tend to be sweet and thin-skinned. Naturally, then, one of the best uses for these varieties is snacking. Similarly, they can work well raw in salads or sandwiches. They’re also great for applesauce.
Some of these are better for baking than others, based on how dense the flesh is. Galas and Red Delicious, for example, can break down when cooked, Toigo says.
He wouldn’t make Honeycrisp his first choice of baking apple, mostly because of price — it’s more expensive because the variety is tricky to grow and the market yield is lower. The flavor can be hard to beat, though, and Honeycrisp actually holds up pretty well in baking (it was Cooking Light’s top pick for cooking whole). Alex Levin, executive pastry chef of Schlow Restaurant Group, recommends it in pies.
Golden Delicious is a great all-around apple: Sweet, buttery, eager to please and versatile. Eat it raw or bake it in a pie. In an insanely comprehensive taste test that involved baking an apple pie with each of 10 varieties (twice), Serious Eats chief culinary adviser J. Kenji López-Alt gave the easy-to-find Golden Delicious his highest ranking for flavor. Levin also recommends it, along with Crispin, for pie.
Crunchy and sweet-tart
Examples: Jonagold, Ginger Gold, Empire
If you like the idea of a tart apple but aren’t interested in a full-on lip-puckering, look no further than these. Like the crunchy and sweet apples, they’re typically suitable as all-purpose apples. Toigo says using a sweet apple that still has some acid can be good in baking, because you might not have to use quite as much sugar as you would with say, an apple that is predominantly tart. Levin recommends a balance of sweet and tart in pies (and for eating out of hand), which can be accomplished with a variety like the Jonagold or even by using a mix of varieties in a single pie.
Crunchy and tart
Examples: Granny Smith, Goldrush, Paula Red, Northern Spy
These are great for eating if you don’t have a sweet tooth. They’re also the quintessential pie apples, managing to both soften but hold their shape when baked. They’ll also keep a pie, or other richer desserts, from getting too cloyingly sweet.
Tender and sweet
Examples: Cortland, Jonamac
If you don’t like as crisp an apple for snacking, try one of these. Their more tender texture, though, means they’re not the best in situations where you want an apple to hold its shape. “Nobody really wants their fruit to break down when they’re cooking,” Toigo says.
Levin says he finds Cortlands get too mushy and lose texture when baked. For sauce, though, that’s not a bad thing.
Tender and tart
Examples: McIntosh, Macoun, Jonathan, Mollie’s Delicious
Like the tender-sweet types, these shouldn’t be your first pick for baking. So eat them out of hand (or in raw preparations), or use them for sauce. Toigo likes using Jonathan for applesauce, because the red skin can impart a color that “makes a pink sauce that’s just gorgeous.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story had the Jonathan apple in more than one category. This version has been updated to reflect that it is a tender and tart variety.
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