No fruit says fall like apples. Baked into pies, pureed into sauces, sauteed with meats and stews both savory and sweet, apples are among the most comforting and versatile fruits.
But which apple to use for what? Not a simple question.
During the past decade, the number of apple varieties has exploded, with heirlooms and proprietary 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 pie. And though McIntosh make great applesauce, you might not want to use them in a salad. With Americans consuming roughly 2.4 million tons of apples a year -- or about 15 pounds per person, according to Agriculture Department figures -- a primer on which apples to use when and how seemed just right for the season.
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 tastes, 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, says Amy Traverso, author of "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" (Norton, 2011). "I think of them as the big California cabernets of the apple world," she says.
Flowery Galas and honey-sweet Fujis have a perfect medium firmness for cakes and muffins, Traverso says, allowing them to blend into softer baked goods better than denser apples, which are more suited to pies.
For sauces and other purees, 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 puree. The Cox's Orange Pippin, Traverso says, 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 purees.
Red Delicious, the classic apple-for-the-teacher, has a yielding texture and balanced sweetness that makes it a perfect salad apple, says Rebecca Lyons of the Washington State Apple Commission. For something that will stay bright white longer, says Traverso, go for an Empire or a Cortland, with its thin skin and mild taste.
"Any apple with a decent sweet-tart balance will be good in a salad," Traverso says, "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 says, but sweet, crisp Golden Delicious, tartier Jonagold, or the big, exuberant Pink Lady work particularly well. For beef, Traverso says, a very tart apple like a Granny Smith works best.
For a pairing, join strong cheeses such as Parmesan, Cheddar and even Roquefort, with big acid and big sweetness, such as Jazz or Honeycrisp. For softer, milder cheeses, such as Camembert or Brie, go with the more delicate Fuji or Gala.