Apples are one of my favorites treats, but come fall, when the two trees in my backyard start dropping their luscious fruits, it almost becomes too much. Watching the delicious pieces of fruit rot on the ground is simply not an option; but on the other hand, how many apples can a person deal with in so little time? I can only make apple crisps, applesauce, apple chips, and apple bread so many times before friends and relatives get tired of the recurring theme. Although I eat, on average, two to three apples a day, I still have two refrigerator drawers full at home.
Even for those not blessed (and cursed) with prolific apple trees, fall is still a perfect time to sample, purchase, bake, and cook with the bountiful harvest. Farmers’ markets and grocery stores are packed with numerous varieties, and in many parts of the country, you can go out to an orchard and pick for yourself. This means that, in addition to the old standards like Red Delicious and Granny Smith, we have many chances to try something new. In fact, apples are sort of like wines or cheeses—there are a multitude of varieties, flavors, and nuances. Branching out opens a world of new flavors and cooking possibilities.
But we want to get it right. We don’t want a soft apple in a recipe that requires a stand-up fruit, and too many high-acid apples could leave us with a tart result. So, with the proliferation of options, and without a degree in pomology (the science of growing fruit), how can we determine which is the best fruit for the job?
When choosing an apple at the market, look for those without obvious blemishes or bruises. Make sure the top, near the stem, doesn’t have any mold growing on it. Gently press down on the apple to ensure it’s firm; soft apples can mean a mealy or mushy interior.
If you’re picking your own apples at your home or at farms that don’t use pesticides, you may have to deal with a worm hole or two. This isn’t a big deal. Simply cut or eat around the worm hole. However, open blemishes like this will speed the rotting process, so it’s wise to use these apples first. The best way to store apples is in the refrigerator, where most will keep for four to six weeks.
To prevent sliced apples from turning brown, toss them in a mixture of one part lemon juice, three parts water. Many recipes call for peeling, but if you can get away with it, try to include the skins, which contain most of the fiber and a lot of flavor.
In general, apples are categorized as either tart or sweet, and their use in cooking depends on these two properties; sweet apples are usually best raw, while tart apples are best for baking.
The Numerous Varieties
Since there are almost eight thousand different types of apples grown worldwide, this is by no means an exhaustive list—merely a starting point.
This firm, late-season apple is a dark purplish red that almost looks black depending on how much sun the skin has received. It’s crisp and sweet, with a bit of tartness. A firm variety, it stores well in cold temperatures.
Uses: Good for eating plain, for cooking and baking, and for chutneys and jams. Try them in Apple Sausage Stuffing. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
Braeburns have a bold, sweet flavor with a good balance of tartness. They’re usually orange or red in color with hints of yellow, and are available starting in October.
Uses: Great plain and in salads. They can also be used for baking and they make a good applesauce; try them in Spiced Apple-Walnut Bread Pudding. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
Cameos are pretty apples, with white marks dotting the red skin. You’ll find these crispy apples in the market starting in August.
Uses: Great in salads, plain, sauces, baking, and cooking. A good choice for this Harvest Pie. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
These versatile apples are sweet, tart, crispy, and one of my favorites to snack on. Although they’re a sweet apple, they hold up well in baking and retain their shape in cooking. Usually they’re a yellowish green with pink and red hues; they store well.
Uses: Great raw and in salads; also tasty in pies and in German Red Cabbage. Photo source: Royalty-free image collection  (cc)
This sweet apple has a yellowish hue with orange and pink lines.
Uses: Snacking, sauces, salads. Great in applesauce because Galas break down easily and are naturally sweet; also good in Pumpkin-Apple Breakfast Bread. Photo source: The Marmot  (cc)
Golden Delicious is a sweet, yellowish green apple. It has a balanced, mild flavor and thin skin that often doesn’t require peeling—a good all-purpose apple.
Uses: Raw, baked, cooked, in sauces. A good choice for Apple Shortbread. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
Bright green with a mouth-puckering tartness; one of the most ubiquitous and versatile varieties. A firm apple, it stores well in cold.
Uses: Since Granny Smith retains its texture when sautéed and baked, it’s a favorite for cooking, as in this classic Sour Cream Apple Pie. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
Gravensteins are one of the varieties I have in my backyard, and I love their sweet-tart flavor and colorful red skin tinged with green. They’re an early ripener—usually ready around August—and have low acid, high sugar, and thin skins. They don’t tend to store well.
Uses: Because they break apart easily, they’re a great choice for applesauce. Eat them plain or turn them into apple butter. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
Jonagold is a mix between Jonathon and Golden Delicious apples and thus they have a sweet flavor with a hint of tart. They’re yellow-golden in color.
Uses: Snacking, salads. They hold up in sauces, so they could work well in the Sauerkraut and Pork Ribs. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons 
These classic apples always remind me of elementary school lunches, where their sweet, mild flavor was a hit. They have slightly bitter skins. Make sure they’re firm because a mealy Red Delicious is not delicious.
Uses: Snacking and in salads. They break apart easily, so they’re not a good choice for cooking or baking. Try them with fruit dips. Photo source: girl_named_fred  (cc)
A tart, greenish yellow apple that has a complex flavor.
Uses: Eat it plain and use it in cooking, such as in Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Apple and Bleu Cheese.
The winesap is a beautiful violet color with a spicy, rich flavor. It is a firm apple that stores well.
Uses: Good for snacking and cooking; try it in Braised Brisket with Apples.
Local varieties abound, so be sure to ask your farmer what fruit is best for what. And if you’re looking to incorporate apples into other parts of your life, check out these appealing ideas.
Updated October 8, 2010