In general, firm apples with mild acidity and moderate sweetness hold up best to cooking. Within the mild-and-moderate category, three qualities determine the best apple variety for a dish: taste, texture and tartness. There's an apple for every preparation, and you'll usually find more than one variety to take your dish from fine to sublime.
Few apples pass the "grandma test": basic taste and textural requirements that beg the question, "Does this apple belong in a classic apple pie like grandma used to make?" Unless the variety withstands heat without sacrificing structure and flavor, the answer is no. Despite their reputation, Granny Smiths aren't the best choice for apple pie -- their innate tartness concentrates during cooking and overpowers their marginal sweetness. The best varieties for pies -- Braeburn and Golden Delicious -- work equally well in tarts and flans.
- Braeburn apples have the density of Granny Smiths without any astringency to impede their sweetness. A high-pectin variety, Braeburns' honeyed quality and spicy notes bring the flavor of apple pie full circle, uniting crust and filling in a melange of texture and taste -- not too soft, not too sour.
- Golden Delicious' abundant juiciness doesn't affect its crunch -- neither does heat. Like Braeburns, the tartness and sweetness of Golden Delicious apples make a solid showing, but not so much that they concentrate to acerbic and cloying levels.
Cake and Quick Bread Varieties
Apples used in batter-based preparations must support the internal structure, or crumb, of the finished baked good -- if the apples break down during baking, so does the crumb. You can enjoy a tarter, more tannic apple variety in cakes, breads and muffins than you can in pies because the fat in the batter tempers their acidity.
Apples suited for cakes and quick breads don't "lose their tooth" during cooking -- they soften to a tender bite without sacrificing their al dente texture -- making them right at home in dishes like apple-cinnamon streusel muffins and apple bread.
- Mutsu apples, also referred to as Crispins, have a beguiling anise quality that lingers on the palate without overpowering complementary ingredients.
- Honeycrisps have large, juice-packed cells that make up their flesh, contributing to the moist crumb that muffins and cakes need.
- Pink Lady apples are all about mild -- they have a mild blush to their skin, a subdued nectarlike sweetness and a smooth, rolling tartness that fits almost any dish.
For Preserves and Applesauce
Apples are naturally high in pectin, the polysaccharide responsible for thickening preserves such as jelly and confiture. All apple varieties have enough pectin to produce full-bodied preserves and applesauce, so you can afford to place a bit more emphasis on taste than you do on texture. Combine a few apple varieties to give your preserves or applesauce a layered flavor and aroma.
- Combine equal parts Pippins, Mutsus and Cortlands for a fragrant jam that goes big on both aroma and texture. This jam pairs well with savory dishes, such as pork crown roast.
- Make the most of rich, flavorful apples too soft for baking, such as Gala, Fuji and Rome, by using them in old-fashioned apple jelly and applesauce.
Granny Smiths excel when fried. The tartness and minimal sweetness that makes them less than desirable in tarts and muffins works to their advantage when combined and caramelized with butter and brown sugar.. Old-fashioned fried apples require a variety that cuts the richness of the butter and sugar without falling apart, and Granny Smiths deliver.
- Slice apples according to the texture you want in the dish. For example, slice apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices for a densely layered apple-pie filling. For a chunkier, heartier filling, slice the apples in half and slice each half into thirds or quarters.
- Place sliced apples in water mixed with a touch of lemon juice or honey as soon as you cut them to prevent browning. Dry the apple slices before cooking.