US Apples 101: choosing, picking, storing and cooking fall's favorite fruit
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Orange pumpkins might be more popular this month, but there's no better time than now to take advantage of tasting a truly fresh apple. October is peak apple season for many regions of the United States, so why not head out to an orchard near you for a pick-your-own adventure?
Even if you can't make it to the great outdoors for old-fashioned apple picking, you can still make the most of apple season with the following recommendations. Here's all you need to know about apples, from the best varieties to choose for pies, sauce and snacking to how many apples you'll want to haul home and how to store them.
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What are the best apple varieties?
Whether you want to crunch into a fresh apple straight off the tree, simmer a big pot of applesauce or bake an all-American pie, there's an apple varietal to meet your needs.
Softer, thin-skinned apples will cook down more smoothly for applesauce and apple butter than firmer, hardier varieties. York apples yield more sauce per pound than any other variety, according to Daniel Ward, director of the Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Other apple varieties that are great for sauce include Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Cortland and Lodi.
For snacking and slicing into salad or slaw, more modern varietals have been bred for "good eating experiences across the board," Ward said. These newer apples, such as Honeycrisp, Cosmic Crisp, Braeburn, Jazz and SnapDragon, were developed for present-day consumer preferences: not too tart, not too sweet, with a lot of juicy crunch.
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For baked desserts, "older, well-established varieties have properties that make them very desirable for making pies," Ward said. Those include Granny Smith, Rome, Northern Spy and Jonathan (or the more modern Jonagold apples) because they are firm and slightly tart and won't fall apart when cooked. They'll work just as well foras for , or Ina Garten's .
There's an easy answer if you can't decide which apple to choose for baking or cooking. Use more than one variety! Blending sweeter, softer apples with crisp, more acidic apples is the way to get a blend of texture and taste in every bite.
How do I pick the ripest apples?
These days, most orchards post information on their websites and social media to let you know what's ripe for the picking on any given week. If you're looking for a specific type of apple, check the calendar before you go, but rest assured that you won't come home with unripe apples.
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"Most farmers have planted varieties that are going to ripen over time, so folks can come back and pick throughout the season," said Tannwen Mount, co-owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey.
The staff at the orchard will direct you to the trees that are prime for picking that day and answer any questions about the varieties on offer. Stick to the section that's open for picking, even if you think you see riper apples in another part of the orchard.
"Don't get distracted by the redness of the apple," Mount said, pointing out that "even a Golden Delicious can have a blush on it." It's more useful to look for outward signs of rot, and avoid any apples that are already bruised, nicked or starting to soften in spots.
To pick like a pro, "treat an apple like an egg," Mount said. "If you really grip it hard and drop it into your container, you'll have a bruise when you get home." Don't yank it off the branch, which might damage the tree and knock other apples to the ground. Instead, twist the apple to separate the stem from the branch and set it gently into the bucket.
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How many apples should I pick?
This might sound obvious, but small apples weigh less than large apples. Rather than trying to estimate by the number of apples you've picked, it's more efficient to aim for a total number of pounds. Pro tip: Bring a luggage scale to the orchard to accurately gauge how many pounds of apples are in your basket.
If you are in the mood for pie, crumble or crisp, you'll need about two to three pounds per dessert, depending on whether your baking dish is shallow or deep. If applesauce is on the menu, three pounds will make about one quart of sauce. Three pounds of apples will also yield about two pints (half a quart) of, since apple butter is nothing more than applesauce cooked down longer to become more concentrated.
For recipes that call for apples by volume instead of by weight, one pound of apples will yield about three cups sliced or diced.
If your orchard sells apples by the bushel, here's a bit of math to help you decide if you want to haul it home. One bushel is approximately 42 pounds of apples. One peck of apples is a quarter of a bushel, which gives you a more manageable 10.5 pounds of apples.
How do I store apples all winter long?
There's no need to dig a root cellar just to store your apples "Little House on the Prairie"-style -- the modern refrigerator works just fine. Ward recommends loosely piling apples in an open, unsealed zip-top bag and storing in the crisper drawer.
The air in many home refrigerators can be on the dry side, he notes, which can cause apples to shrivel and soften. By protecting them with a plastic bag, the apples can still have some air circulating around them while maintaining a slightly humid environment.
Later-season apples, like those on the trees right now, tend to have firmer flesh and thicker skin than those that hit their peak in summer. Lucky for those of us who want to enjoy our apples into the holiday season, these are both characteristics that will help the apples stay fresh in the fridge longer.
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