How to pick the best apple for pies, doughnuts, muffins and more this fall baking season

It’s fall, y’all, which means all things apples!

Whether you prefer apple picking, pie baking, noshing on doughnuts, sipping on cider or crunching into a sweet and tart caramel apple, the realm of possibilities for the season’s favorite fruit are endless.

With a vast variety of apple breeds comes ample opportunities for cooking techniques and flavor combinations, which is why “Good Morning America” tapped apple expert Amy Traverso to peel back the secrets on the sometimes-sweet, sometimes-tart and always-delicious fruit.

The Boston-based award-winning author of “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook” and senior food editor at Yankee magazine shared her tips for picking the right apple for every recipe, easy hacks to peel your fruit a little faster, delicious dishes to recreate at home and the secret to finding a great late-season apple orchard.

How to Choose the Right Apple for Every Dish

Looking for the perfect tart or sweet apple to snack on or bake with? Traverso created a matrix to organize apples based on the most important variables — tartness, sweetness and texture — to pick the perfect apple for every occasion.

“For an apple pie that cooks for a long time — 45 minutes to an hour — you want a firm apple, definitely want some tartness because the crust is very rich and buttery, but you also want some sweetness. Those types of recipes call for a mix of firm tart and firm sweet apples.”

Her book’s “cheat sheet” looks at 70 varieties of apples that breaks them down into the following four categories:

Best for rich, baked desserts such as classic apple pie, tarts or other decadent pastries

Choose a firm-tart apple

Varietals include Granny Smith, Pink Pearl, Roxbury Russet — which is the oldest American apple — and Northern Spy, to name a few.

Best for lighter baked desserts such as crisps, pudding or less-buttery pies

Choose a firm-sweet apple

Varietals include Braeburn, Honeycrisp, Jazz, Jonagold, Opal, Pink Lady, Gravenstein, York and more.

“I call these the California Cabernet of apples,” Traverso said with a laugh. “It’s big flavor, lots of juice, crunchy. They’re just high performance, high-octane apples.”

Best for sauces and eating fresh

Choose a tender-tart apple

Varietals include Cortland, Jonathan, Lady Apple and McIntosh.

Best for preparations, cooked sauces and eating fresh

Choose a tender-sweet apple

Varietals include Fuji, Gala and Liberty, among others.

Top Technique for Speedy Apple Peeling

If you don’t have an old-school apple peeler and corer, Traverso has a hack that she said cuts down the peeling time for a full pie’s worth of apples in “about eight minutes, maybe 10 minutes at most.”

“You basically peel around the top, flip it over, and peel around the bottom and then peel down the sides,” she explained, adding that it “really cuts the peeling time down.”

Best Way to Store Fresh Apples

“You want the atmosphere of the apples to be a little more humid than the produce drawer, but not sealed, you want some air exchange,” she said.

“Put them in a paper bag and keep them in a produce drawer. If you don’t have a paper bag, you can use a plastic bag and punch some holes in it,” Traverso said.

This method, she said, “keeps apples going for months, well through the winter.”

Heirloom apples, a breed that dates back to the 1800s, “tend by nature to be good keepers because they wouldn’t have made it this far without refrigeration if they weren’t.”

“In order to make it to market, [they] have to be great keepers and generally don’t brown.”

More Apple Cooking Tips and Tricks

For muffins, pies, pancakes or other recipes that require the apples to be cut into smaller pieces with shorter cooking times, Traverso said home cooks can use a wider range of apples from tender to firm.

She also said that combining a mix of farmers’ market or orchard apples that have a range of flavors — from deep and concentrated to fresh and citrusy — is great for combining in a variety of dishes.

When it comes to pies, her rule of thumb is to peel and slice the apples in order to get the best texture.

“I like a nice half-inch wedge. That size allows the apples to soften in 45 minutes without getting mushy,” she said. “I tend to do it by hand. I core it, then cut vertically down in eight to 10 wedges, depending how big the apple is.”

When making a crisp, she said that using an apple peeler and corer tool creates 1/4-inch slices or rings works “just fine.”

Cook pies on a pre-heated pizza stone in the oven to ensure a crisp, fully cooked crust.

4 Apple Recipes to Try This Fall

Especially in quarantine amid the pandemic, Traverso said that she has taken notice of more home cooks looking for “artisanal comfort food” that is more project-oriented, similar to the sourdough-making craze.

“Caramel or pie crusts are definitely some of those things, if you haven’t learned how to make it yet, what better time than when you’re stuck at home,” she suggested before offering an array of delicious recipes.

Apple Cider ‘Donut’ Muffins

These muffins include all the concentrated apple cider flavor of the beloved seasonal doughnuts with the same cinnamon sugar crust and none of the fuss of frying. Plus, Traverso said this is a great recipe to make with kids so they can get their hands in the kitchen and help with the batter, brushing on the butter and rolling them in the cinnamon sugar.

Get the full recipe here.

Classic Deep-Dish Apple Pie

“I’m definitely a believer in mixing pie crust by hand versus using a food processor,” she said. “I get an incredibly flaky crust by sort of rubbing the cold butter into the flour with my fingers. I recommend people learn to do it that way because it’s less clean-up afterward, and you get something that’s almost like a hybrid of puff pastry and pie crust.”

Traverso uses a combination of firm-tart and firm-sweet apples, such as Northern Spy and Sierra Beauty for tartness, and Baldwin, Golden Delicious, Jazz and Jonagold for sweetness.

Ingredients
2½ cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
18 tablespoons (2¼ sticks; 255 g) chilled unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
6 to 8 tablespoons (90 to 120 ml) ice water
Milk for brushing over crust

For the filling
2½ pounds firm-tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges
2½ pounds firm-sweet apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges
⅓ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1½ tablespoons cornstarch

Directions
First, make the crust: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and salt until well combined. Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and use your fingers to work them in (you want to rub your thumb against your fingertips, smearing the butter as you do). Stop when the mixture looks like cornmeal with some pea-sized bits of butter remaining.
Sprinkle 6 tablespoons ice water on top and stir with a fork until the dough begins to come together. If needed, add 1 or 2 tablespoons more of ice water. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead three times or just enough to make a cohesive dough — do not overmix!
Gather the dough into a ball, then divide into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Press each piece into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 50 minutes and up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and set a rack to the lowest position.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a Dutch oven over medium heat, stir the apples with the sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and salt. Cook, stirring gently until the apples just begin to turn tender, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat if apples begin to sizzle vigorously.
Remove the apples from the heat, stir in the cornstarch and spread the apples out on a large baking sheet. Put in the freezer to cool to room temperature, 12 to 15 minutes.

Prepare the crust: Dust your counter and rolling pin with flour. Unwrap the larger disk of dough and put it on the counter; flip over to coat with flour. Working from the center, roll the dough out to a 13-inch circle one-eighth-inch thick. As you roll, turn the dough periodically and flip it over to prevent sticking; dust with additional flour as needed. Roll the dough up around the rolling pin and transfer to a pie plate. Press the dough into the sides of the plate, draping any excess over the edge.

Remove the apples from the freezer, and use a spatula to transfer them, with any juices, into the pie plate. Unwrap the smaller disk of dough and roll out as before to a 10-inch circle about one-eighth-inch thick. Transfer the dough to the pie and lay it over the filling.
Using a sharp knife, make three 3-inch slashes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Fold the top crust over the bottom crust and crimp to seal. Brush the crust all over with milk and sprinkle with the remaining sugar.

Put the pie on a baking sheet and bake on the lowest rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350ºF and bake until the pie is golden brown, another 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes before serving.

Salted Caramel Apples with Cinnamon Graham Cracker Crumbs

“I like to leave the peel on a caramel apple,” she said. “I would use a tart apple. Granny Smith is great — that’s one of the best uses cause the contrast of the really tart apple and the very sweet coating, and a little bit of salt in the caramel is so nice!”

Many supermarket apples are coated in a food-safe wax, so Traverso recommended trying to use a farm-fresh apple so that the caramel can stick to the apple without sliding off.

Ingredients
8 medium firm-tart apples (about 6 ounces each, or 3 pounds total), unpeeled, stems removed and chilled in refrigerator for at least an hour before using
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup sweetened condensed milk
½ cup light corn syrup
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ teaspoon sea salt or table salt
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
4 whole cinnamon graham crackers, crushed

Directions

Insert a popsicle stick into each apple, then set aside. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or wax paper. Put the crushed graham crackers in a bowl and keep near the stove.
In a large pot over medium heat, combine the butter, sugar, condensed milk, corn syrup, milk, cream, and salt. Cook, stirring gently, until the mixture begins to bubble. It will foam up quite a bit as it cooks, which is why a large pot is essential. Begin using your instant-read thermometer at this stage to track the caramel’s temperature. You want to bring it up to between 238 degrees and 240 degrees, which can take up to 20 minutes.
Note: Don’t be tempted to raise the temperature — too high and the mixture will scald. Patience is essential! Gently stir and check the temperature every minute or so.
The caramel will thicken and turn a toffee color as it reaches 238 degrees. When this happens, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Working quickly, wipe the apples with a paper towel to remove any condensation, then dip, one at a time, into the caramel, swirling to coat evenly. Turn the apple up, scrape off any excess caramel, and dunk the apple in graham crackers about halfway so the pieces stick to the caramel.
Set the apple on a baking sheet, then repeat with the remaining apples. Refrigerate all until the caramel is firm.

Cranberry Apple Slab Pie

This easy, cozy recipe is reminiscent of a giant, homemade toaster strudel with more flavor and better texture. This simple and small dessert comes together in no time, makes your house smell like a fall bakery and assembles on a quarter sheet tray, best served as a simple dessert or with coffee for breakfast.

Ingredients
3 3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling over crust
1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1⁄2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, plus more for greasing pan
10-13 tablespoons ice water
Milk for brushing crust
For the filling
Butter for greasing pan
2 pounds (about 4 large) firm-tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices
1 1⁄2 pounds (about 3 large) firm-sweet apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices
1 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
21⁄2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 to 11⁄2 tablespoons sweetened cranberry juice

Directions

First, make the crust: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt until well combined. Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and use your fingers to smear them in. Stop when the mixture looks like cornmeal with some pea-sized bits of butter remaining. Sprinkle 10 tablespoons ice water on top and stir with a fork until the dough begins to come together. If needed, up to 3 tablespoons more ice water.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead three times or just enough to make it cohesive. Don’t overmix! Gather the dough into a ball, then divide it into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Use the bench scraper to shape each piece into a rough rectangle shape and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes and up to 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and set a rack to the lowest position. Grease the jelly-roll pan with butter.

In a large bowl, toss the apple slices and cranberries with the sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

Unwrap the larger piece of dough and place it on a well-floured surface. Roll it out, working from the center, into a 13-by-18-inch rectangle. Turn the dough periodically and flip it over to prevent sticking; dust the counter with additional flour as needed.

Roll the dough up around the rolling pin and transfer to the prepared jelly-roll pan. Press the dough gently into the corners, letting the excess hang over the sides, then transfer to the refrigerator to chill.

Unwrap the smaller piece of dough and place it on a well-floured surface. Roll it out, working from the center, into a 12-by-17-inch rectangle. Take the pan from the refrigerator and pour the apple filling, with any juices, over the bottom crust and spread into an even layer. Drape the top crust over the filling and gently press down over the fruit and around the edges. Using a sharp knife, make three slashes in the crust to let steam escape. Fold the bottom crust up over the top crust and crimp to seal. Brush the crust all over with milk and sprinkle with additional sugar.

Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake until the pie is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, another 30 to 40 minutes. Let the pie cool on a rack for at least one hour.

When the pie has cooled to room temperature, make the cranberry drizzle: In a small bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and cranberry juice until smooth. Drizzle over the pie in a pretty pattern. Let set for 15 minutes.

Serve the pie warmed or at room temperature.

Recipes & photographs reprinted from “The Apple Lover’s Cookbook: Revised and Updated.” Copyright (c) 2020 by Amy Traverso. Photographs copyright 2011 by Squire Fox. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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