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Navigating the apple aisle

The long apple aisle, stocked with many tasty varieties, is often confusing
The long apple aisle, stocked with many tasty varieties, is often confusing Special to The Star

The apple choices fill the grocery aisle. I look longingly and then stop in my tracks. Which ones do I want to buy?

Do you remember when buying an apple was simple? It was easy because the grocery stores sold just one or two kinds. There was one apple for eating and if you were lucky, one for baking. In Kansas City area grocery stores, it was probably Red Delicious for eating and Jonathan for baking. Even if we visited orchards in the area to pick apples, just one or two kinds were common.

There has been an explosion of apples. Walk into any area grocery store today and bins overflow with many varieties of apples. The familiar Red Delicious and Jonathan sit amid the Jazz, Pink Lady, Cortland, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Rome, McIntosh, Braeburn, Gala and Fuji, to name a few, and the color palette ranges from reds and yellows, to greens and pinks.

You just want to buy a few apples. Does it matter which ones you choose?

For eating, it really is your choice. However, when baking, the apples you choose will affect the flavor and texture of the baked item. If the recipe lists “tart baking apples,” it is a confusing choice. Which apples are tart?

If a recipe lists a specific variety, you think the task will be easy. Cross your fingers and hunt all you want, but you are often out of luck. Apple varieties vary with the region of the country and the season.

Do you just grab a few apples from the first bin, hoping they will work? Maybe you quickly sack up the same old favorites, never trying the new and wonderful varieties at your fingertips.

The young stocker in the produce section most certainly cannot guide you to the best apple for making applesauce, which holds its shape for a baked apple, or what kind to substitute for the mysterious Calville Blanc d’Hiver apple listed in the recipe you want to try.

If you are like most home cooks, you are stumped.

Amy Traverso, author of “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook” (W.W. Norton and Co., 2011) has published a wonderful guide. Traverso grouped popular apples into four categories.

It is a great tool, for if you mix, match and select within the same category, the apples will be somewhat similar. For example, if your recipe suggests using Rome apples, and you find your store does not stock Rome apples that day, select Granny Smith, which is an apple in the same category, instead of using the tender-tart McIntosh or tender-sweet Gala apple in that recipe.

Here are excerpts from that wonderful chart, one that she so aptly titled “Apple Varieties: The Cheat Sheet.”

▪ Firm-Tart Apples best for richer baked desserts. They hold their shape when cooked and make fabulous pies or cakes.

They include Arkansas Black, Goldrush, Granny Smith, Hidden Rose, Idared, Newtown Pippin, Northern Spry, Pink Pearl, Ribston Pippin, Rome, Roxbury Russet, Sierra Beauty Stayman Winesap and Suncrisp.

▪ Firm-Sweet Apples best for lighter baked desserts. These firm apples are more sweet than tart and are deal for baking, be it a sweet or savory dish.

They include Baldwin, Black Oxford, Braeburn, Cameo, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Golden Russet, Gravenstein, Grimes Golden, Honeycrisp, Jazz, Jonagold, Keepsake, Melrose, Pink Lady and Spigold.

▪ Tender-Tart Apples best for fresh preparations, sauces and eating out of hand. The apples cook down easily so they are ideal for soups or applesauce.

They include Black Twig, Cortland, Empire, Jonathan, Lady Apple, Macoun, McIntosh and Westfield See-No-Further.

▪ Tender-Sweet Apples good for fresh preparation, sauces and eating out of hand.

They include Ambrosia, Fuji, Gala, Pomme Gris and Spencer.

Other sources may also help you to navigate the apple aisles. You might find this listing from the University of Missouri Cooperative Extension Service insightful. It lists the primary uses for many apples common to the area.

The iconic Farmer’s Almanac also has a chart that lists great apples for baking.

Now, if we could just encourage the grocery stores to post one of these charts by the apples. I would be grateful, and I bet I would not be alone.

Kathy Moore is one of two cookbook authors and food consultants who make up The Electrified Cooks. Her most recent cookbook is “Triple Slow Cooker Entertaining.” She develops the recipes for the “Eating for Life” column for The Kansas City Star and is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier. She blogs at pluggedintocooking.com

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