Home » The Cookbook » How to Choose the Best Apple

How to Choose the Best Apple

Apples are an amazing ingredient with a diverse and wide ranging set of uses. From snacking to baking and even adding to savory dish, apples have an extensive reach within the kitchen. It’s important to choose the right apple, so keep reading for three easy steps to choose the best one!

As someone with a passion for cooking, I have an increasing interest in the stories of common kitchen ingredients.  I want to dive into apples: how to choose the best apple, why are there so many kinds, what are their different uses.

If you’re new here, check out my About page and get familiar with The Perfect Ingredients through my Cookbook and other entries in my Journal!

How to Choose the Best Apple

When you’re at the store, choosing the best apple can be done in three steps.

The first step is to decide what kind of apple to purchase. Often recipes that call for apples with call out what variety pairs the best with the other ingredients. Sometimes the tartness of a Granny Smith apple with pair the best with the sweetness of a pie, or the sweetness of a Gala with pair best with spices like thyme in an acorn squash and sausage dish. If you are looking for more criteria on apple choices, stay tuned for the results of the blind apple tasting that my husband and I did!

The second step to picking the perfect apple is looking at its appearance. You want to avoid apples with blemishes or signs that it might rot. Similarly, avoid apples with soft spots as this is a sign that the apple is past its prime. Overall, American grocery stores do a really good job vetting the apples that they put on their shelves, but it is still really important to check each apple you pick up. Bruises makes parts of the apple softer in texture. This isn’t really important if you are baking with the apple like in a pie, turnover, or muffin. Sometimes the bruises draw out the sugars and end up giving a sweeter flavor. But its not so fun to bite into a bruised apple when you’re expecting that crunch but all you get is mush. Choose plump, firm, heavy apples because these will likely be the most flavorful.

The third step to choosing an apple is knowing what is in season. This step is especially important if you’re interested in locally grown produce. Buying local really helps to fund your local community, and it’s a pretty powerful way of investing in the quality of your area. In California, the apple season begins in late July and goes to October or November. I love this time of year because the store shelves are stocked with so many apples, it really puts me in the fall baking mood.

Following the three steps of picking a variety, checking the fruit for blemishes, and knowing what’s in season will help you pick the perfect apple every time.

Why are there so many kinds of apples?

Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Honey Crisp apples are a few of the best known apples today. You may also be familiar with others like Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Jazz, and Sugar Bee. There are so many different apple varieties on grocery store shelves today that it’s hard to know how to choose the best apple!

It’s believed that the apple’s ancestors came from the mountains of Kazakhstan and were brought to Europe by 1500 BC and to North America in the 1600s AD.. The fruit has changed quite a lot from that original apples, but not through the way we typically genetically improve plants today. Farmers typically improve plants through selective breeding, taking the seeds from the best and most desirable plant and planting them to raise more desirable fruit. However, apple seeds are extreme heterozygotes, meaning that they carry unpredictable characteristics that are only distantly related to their parent’s genetic characteristics. Therefore, you can’t plant an apple seed and expect it to grow the same type of apple it came from.

Farmers and scientists reproduce apples through grafting the desirable fruit’s branches onto other sturdy apple tree trunks. Effectively, all trees that produce the same kind of apple are clones of one another. These orchards of clones are called cultivars.

For most of the last century there was not much of a variety of apples, the Red Delicious monopolized grocery store shelves. However, with its decline, many other varieties have been cultivated to fill the void left by the unpopular Red Delicious. Today there can be as many as 25 apples filling the shelves at stores at a time.

Red Delicious

Red Delicious apples were America’s favorite apple for 70 years, but now they are so unpopular that they aren’t even stocked at some grocery stores. What happened?

The Red Delicious apple originated in 1872 in Iowa. Unlike its modern day self, it was first described as “a round, blushed yellow fruit of surpassing sweetness.” I don’t want to be overcritical, but the modern Red Delicious is the blandest apple on the shelves with one of the worst textures, toughest skin, and a slightly mushy grainy interior. Clearly something changed.

Back in the 1800’s, the red delicious was called the Hawkeye. In 1892, the apple’s name was changed to Stark Delicious by its owner, Stark Nurseries. And it became the Red Delicious in 1914. It’s worth noting that at this time, the apple really was still delicious.

The apple’s taste declined as American urbanization increased. The Red Delicious was adjusted to fit the supermarket standards and with the hope of raising popularity. Firstly, with the increasing shipping of apples to grocery stores (instead of buying them straight from the farmer) came the increased importance of a bruise-resistant outer skin. This tough skin might have been good for transportation and shelf-life, but the texture as a whole really declined as a consequence. Secondly, the “blushed yellow” of the original fruit was discarded to create the aesthetic purely red color of the apple. However, it turned out that the same gene that produced the sweet flavor to the apple was the same one that brought about its sweetness. It seems that with the “red” came the decline of the “delicious.”

This brings us to the Red Delicious apple of today. The apple carries the legacy that the importance of aesthetic appeal and longer shelf life outweigh taste and texture. One might go as far to say that the Red Delicious is a symbol of what our modern culture is creating; sacrificing quality for consumerism and fast trends.

The history of the Red Delicious doesn’t end there. In the 1990’s, this apple had crimpled Washington state’s apple industry as they had focused too much of their resources on a variety that was dramatically declining in popularity. In fact, in 2000, the government had to step in and bail out Washington’s apple industry. It’s wild to me how the US government has had their hand in the stories of all kinds of ingredients, if you are interested in how they have their hand in the dairy industry, read my story on Modern Milk.

During the 2000’s, the Gala, Fuji, and Honeycrisp apples began to rise in popularity. In fact, in 2018 the Gala apple’s sales passed that of the Red Delicious for the first time. The past 20 years have been reformational within apple varieties as farmers and scientists work to reverse many of the negative traits that many Americans had gotten used to. This was when the Honeycrisp apple began to make its way to center stage.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has also played a role of the declining production of Red Delicious apples. Think about it, where do you often find Red Delicious apples? I remember seeing them at my high school and college cafeterias and at hotel breakfast bars. Food distributers like these have had to close or severely limit their business for almost two years at this point. As the demand for Red Delicious continues to decline, it will be interesting to see where this variety goes in the decades to come.

Honeycrisp Apple and SweeTango

The Honeycrisp apple rose from the ashes of the Red Delicious apple. During a dark time for apples with a lack of genetic diversity, a man named David Bedford stepped in to search for the perfect apple, one that would bring back the sweetness that had been lost in the Red Delicious. His team from the University of Minnesota dedicated 30 years to the development of this sweet and crunchy variety. They brute-forced the operation by growing apple seeds and tasting the resulting fruit over and over again until they found the best one, the Honeycrisp.

Soon the Honeycrisp apple was being grown all over the country. However, sometimes it it’s hard to learn from mistakes because soon the Honeycrisp was being selected for its aesthetic appeal just as the Red Delicious had been.

David Bedford rose to the challenge again by creating the SweeTango apple. This apple’s key feature is its sweet taste. This time, the apple variety was patented with a trademark placed on the name Sweetango. A high level of quality control is continued to ensure that this apple remains true to its characteristics. With these checks in place, we can feel safe that this will remain the same sweet apple for the foreseeable future.

Further Reading

Check out some of these pages to dive deeper into this ingredient story.

Apple Facts – Cute collections of apple fun facts and some general info on nutritional information.

Origins of Apples – This page from the North Caroliina Historic Sites website has a nice early timeline of the apple beginning “approximately 750,000 years ago.”

Apples in America: a Very Brief History – This article dives a little more into apples through different eras in America. It specifically talks about early settlement, the prohibition era, and Johnny Appleseed.

Red Delicious Apples – Just a lot of info on this variety presented by the Minnetonka Apple Orchard. It’s a pretty wholesome page.

The Red Delicious Apple is an Apple Atrocity – This sassy article elaborates on the shortcomings of the Red Delicious. Kind of a fun read.

Per Capita Consumption of Apples in America – Who doesn’t love a good statistic? According to Statistica, the average American consumed 16.18 lbs of fresh apples this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.