Choosing the best apples for making dessert is more a matter of taste and texture than anything else and there are, no doubt, experts out there who would willingly argue that point, but here is one tip to make everything from pies, to tarts, to sauce more interesting and flavorful: you will get a tastier dessert if you use more than one variety at a time in just about any dessert made with apples.
Visiting your local farmers’ market during apple season is a great way to begin learning about apples and their varying qualities from the folks that grow them. Tart apples help to bring out the more subtle flavors of sweeter apples. Some apples hold their shape when cooking while others tend to “melt” easily when cooked. Still other apples don’t even begin to have their full flavor character until after they have “cured” for some time in storage, so even fresh picked doesn’t necessarily mean better in some cases. Fully ripe, unbruised fruit however is the best choice, though you can make excellent apple sauce or apple butter with less than perfect fruit since they will be cooked down and spiced up to produce the desired end result.
Most consumers are only familiar with a half dozen or so varieties of apples, but there are hundreds of varieties that we don’t ordinarily find at the grocery store. Getting to know your favorite apple varieties will take time and experimentation. Apple season starts in late summer and continues through until the first killing frost. Earlier summer apples tend to be short-lived and softer in texture, so you’ll want to do any dessert making or saucing with them in the season, as opposed to later apples which are crisper and have better storage qualities. Gravenstein is one of those summer apples from way back and they are great for making sauce or pie because they have nicely balanced sweet and tart flavors, so even though the recommendation for more than one variety stands, this is one apple that can stand alone early in the season. Many old-timers insist they are the only apple worth using for sauce, and some will even use the sauce made from Gravensteins with fresh slices from later apples to make pie, going for that mixed texture of melty and firm.
Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple is reported to be the Spitzenberg and if you get a chance to try it you may agree. Like the Gravenstein, Spitz has sweet and tart components, but it is a later apple with firmer texture so it will hold it’s shape when cooked better than say a Golden Delicious or a Cameo, both of which are sweeter and cook down more readily. Using all three together in a pie or sauce will make all of your taste buds happy at once, but this is just a beginning look at variety combining that could take a lifetime to come up with “the best”.
Rome Beauty is another old fashioned apple that you don’t see much anymore, but they are a great choice for making baked apples because their skin is firm enough to hold in all the saucey goodness the inside becomes once subjected to coring, spicing and baking.
If you live in Washington State it’s worth taking a drive during apple season to Wenatchee, the home of Feil Orchards. They have been growing apples on their farm since 1908 and have some varieties that you won’t find anywhere else. You may have to make two or three trips just to get a chance to try all of the varieties. In fact, you may have to go back for a couple of years in a row, because not all apples trees bear fruit every year, but the wait is definitely worth it. Who knows, you might just start a new family tradition of making that drive every year just to take in the beauty of fruit country in the fall, while stocking up on your favorite apples for eating, cooking and storing to enjoy for deep winter.
They even have a Red Delicious apple that is, well, actually delicious, unlike most grocery store Red Delicious. Even if you don’t live in Washington State, there are farmers across the country that know and value the wide variety of apples that have crossed American plates and palates for centuries, and a quick Google search for your area for “heirloom apples” should produce at least one farm to check out, plus numerous other sites with opinions and recipes enough to keep you cooking for decades.