More than delicious

Apples come in enough varieties to please any palate. It's just a matter of knowing your Galas from your Granny Smiths.

October 17, 2001|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

Ask Steve Weber of Weber's Cider Mill Farm for his favorite apple, and it's like a kid in a candy shop -- he can't say no.

"I don't think there's a whole lot around that beats a Jonathan," says Weber, a third-geneeration apple seller from Parkville.

But then he adds: "I like Cortlands as they come in. I like Jonagold. I like Golden Delicious, Stayman, Winesap and Fuji -- oh, the Fuji has incredible sugar."

After that, he's all over the place.

"Northern Spy for pies. Now, there's an apple that does incredibly well in the oven. Granny Smiths have their following," says Weber who also takes a shine to Gala and Idared., Ah, variety. It may be the spice of life, but in the apple business, it has become a source of both joy and confusion.

Never have there been more varieties of apples available to consumers; at least two dozen are commercially significant nationwide. When you count small, heirloom varieties, there are hundreds more.

As recently as a decade ago, the vast majority of U.S. apples sold in grocery stores were either Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. Today, those two apples represent less than half the $1.3 billion U.S. crop.

Thanks to competition created by imports from Australia, New Zealand and Japan as well as new varieties produced in this country, U.S. growers have diversified like never before. Take, for instance, Gala and Fuji - two kinds of apples that weren't even available here before 1994. Today, they rank third and fifth among varieties grown in the United States.

But while the effort to diversify has helped growers expand their markets, it can be confusing to the rest of us. Ever heard of the Honeycrisp, the Pink Lady or the Cameo? They are among the hottest up-and-comers in the apple business, but few outside your local apple orchard have heard of them.

Does the chef in your house know which apples are best for cooking? For salads? For pies? For eating raw? Which are tart or sweet? Store well?

"We have a tremendous educational job to do," says Julia Daley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Apple Association. "That's the flip side of diversity."

Mark Rosenstein, a chef and author of a cookbook, In Praise of Apples (Lark Books, 1996, $34.95), believes the only effective solution is to go out and try them all. Uncertain if it cooks well? Just put one in a pan and stick it in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. If it falls apart, it's good for sauce. If not, it's fine for baking.

"It's a wonderful thing that's happening in the orchards. We'd become too homogenized," says Rosenstein, owner of the Market Place restaurant in Asheville, N.C. "The fun part is to go out and try them."

Even Rosenstein's baking test may not be essential. Most back-of-the-cookbook tables assume people want to bake with apples that are tart and will hold their shape, but those aren't universal preferences.

In parts of New England, for instance, local cooks swear by McIntosh apples, which are relatively sweet and turn mushy when cooked. Similarly, classic English pies call for apple fillings with a consistency close to applesauce.

"Most people in this country want to pick an apple that will hold up to baking," says Frank Vollkommer, who runs the Apple Pie Bakery CafM-i at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

But even a culinary instructor can have mixed opinions. Vollkommer has students bake pies with Granny Smith or Mutsu apples, which are available year-round. At home, he prefers Cortlands. "They have a bit more flavor," he says.

And when he's making an apple tarte tatin with caramel and puff pastry, he likes Golden Delicious because they're sweet and hold their shape.

At Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont, owner Robert Black asks customers to sample all his apple varieties right in the store before they buy. The best apple, he insists, is the one that makes you want to eat another one just like it.

"People like the new varieties once they've tried them. I think Gala is definitely one of the best. I'm eating one right now," says Black, who owns a 30-acre orchard that supplies his store.

Olwen Woodier, author of Apple Cookbook (Storey Books, 2001, $9.95), included in her book a table of recommended apples for eating, baking, salads and sauces because so many people are looking for guidance.

How did she make the distinctions? Sauce apples soften easily. A good salad apple doesn't turn brown quickly. A baking apple holds its shape.

"But that doesn't mean people should be locked into any particular variety. Any tart or sweet apple works pretty well for everything," says Woodier, who lives in Leesburg, Va.

Meanwhile, apple farmers would just like to see consumers eat more apples. U.S. consumption of fresh apples has leveled off in recent years at about 18-20 pounds per person annually. Foreign competition, particularly in the juice market, has cut prices and caused a growing number of apple farmers to qualify for federal aid.

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