Apples, from tree to table

While apples have piqued people's interest for centuries for their physical beauty, unusual horticultural habits, and intriguing names and pedigrees, the main reason we love them, of course, is that they are good to eat. No food is more flavorful, versatile, and adaptable. Apples make everything around them taste better.

Apple flavors range from strawberry sweet to lemony tart, with everything in between. Their flesh can be soft as a pear, crunchy as cauliflower, or as juicy as a ripe plum. Apples come small enough to fit in a child's hand, large enough to fill a lunchbox.

Equally good eaten fresh or cooked, apples can be baked, sautéed, sliced, or sauced, and served in any course from salad to entrée, or most famously, for dessert. Apples can be pressed into juice, fermented into liquor, or used in baking as a substitute for butter or oil. They can be the centerpiece at a gala event or play a supporting role at the humblest meal.

Apples are healthy, too. A medium-sized apple has only about 80 calories. Like many fruits, they are chock full of healthful antioxidants and have been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancer.

Wax on, wax off

Fresh off the tree or at the farm stand, apple skins have a natural bloom that dulls their appearance (and that is often mistaken for pesticide residue).

The dull, waxy coating on freshly harvested apples protects them from shriveling and weight loss. When the fruit is washed at the packinghouse, it removes about half of this natural wax.

A thin coating of natural, non-petroleum-based wax is applied to the apple at this stage at many packing lines to replace the lost wax and enhance its attractiveness to shoppers.

Wax or no wax, throw away the apple peel at your nutritional peril.

“The peels and seeds (for the few of us who eat them) are the most vitamin-rich parts of the apple,” says Ingrid Kohlstadt, editor of the medical textbook Food and Nutrients in Disease Management. “So I don't recommend peeling the apples.”

Like many fruits, apple seeds contain a trace amount of cyanide as a defense against herbivores, but your body can process it in small amounts. You would need to eat - and chew - half a cup or more to die from them; intact seeds pass through the body undigested.

Some people toss the peels for fear that they contain pesticides, but residue on an apple, according to Juliet Carroll, Cornell University's fruit integrated pest management coordinator, is “virtually nil.”

Keep them cold

The key to a crisp apple out of season is keeping it cold, from tree to table.

Apples look beautiful mounded in a wooden bowl on the dining room table, but unless they are eaten in a few days, at room temperature the ripening accelerates quickly beyond peak flavor and texture. Apples continue to respire after they are picked, taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide through lenticels, the tiny dots visible on the apple's skin. Cold storage retards this process.

Growers pick their apples when they are firm and at peak color and flavor. The freshly picked fruit is placed immediately in cold storage warehouses where the temperature is kept between 32 degrees and 34 degrees Fahrenheit. This slows but does not stop the ripening process, so these apples are sold first and are typically gone by January or February.


Apple growers spend their year trying to grow perfect fruit, and they succeed a remarkable amount of the time. The well-shaped, brilliantly colored, smooth-skinned apple is the norm at most orchards. But nature is as messy as it is abundant, and invariably some fruit gets nicked or marred along the way.

There are many causes of blemishes to apples, and some are only cosmetic. The affected apple is perfectly good to eat, as long as the consumer values flavor over appearance.

A summer hailstorm, for example, might leave small nicks or pockmarks in the apples. If the damage is severe, the apple can split or discolor, and end up in the juice bin.

Sun spots on an apple's skin are another mostly cosmetic concern, a result of intense summer heat. An apple with sun spots may store less well, but generally is fine for fresh eating.

Scab or russeting, which appears as rough or raised spots on the apple's skin, has no impact on healthfulness or flavor. The same goes for bruises, which can occur when apples are mishandled between tree and table: they do no harm if eaten and should not deter anyone from the luscious fruit beneath.

Putney pie tips

Green Mountain Orchards has been in the Darrow family for four generations. (Andrea's husband, Evan, is the third, and their son Casey works full-time at the orchard.) The farm offers a prime example of how orchards must continually evolve and adapt to meet changing market conditions.

At one time Green Mountain Orchards had 275 acres of apples and sold exclusively to the wholesale market. But a combination of poor weather and low prices led to a decision to discontinue their packing line and cut back to 125 acres in the late 1990s.

The Darrows have diversified with other crops over the past few years, planting blueberries and Christmas trees. While most of their crop continues to be sold wholesale, they have a pick-your-own orchard, and their retail store has expanded. Solar panels now dot a slope behind the barns, an investment of nearly $200,000 that should eventually supply about one-third of the orchard's electricity.

The store's small bakery, nestled in a corner of a large barn about 100 yards from their house, is where Andrea does her baking. The rear of the barn is devoted to a collection of antique cars, and the area by the front entrance has fresh apples for sale, plus Green Mountain's fresh cider and a variety of apple-related and Vermont-made agricultural products. Plus Andrea's pies.

By commercial bakery standards, her output of apple pies is small, numbering in the hundreds, rather than thousands. (She also makes blueberry pies earlier in the summer). Even so, Andrea is rare in that she peels all of her apples by hand, with the help of her daughters, Lara and Robin. She has never yet encountered a peeling machine that meets her satisfaction.

Peeling and cutting the apples by hand allows her to use thicker slices than a machine. “I find it kind of meditative,” she says about peeling, “and with a hand-cut pie you still see the apple and it is intact.”

She piles her apples high (“I do not skimp,” she says), using “three big handfuls” of slices (or about nine medium-sized apples) for a 10-inch pie, of more than one variety. She especially likes to mix McIntosh for flavor with Cortland for flavor and texture.

The tall pies are harder to cover with dough, but Darrow does not worry about imperfections like tears. “I care more about texture and taste than how it looks,” she says. She includes pastry flour in her dough. (“It feels more dense, but makes a lighter crust.”)

Tips for cooking with apples

Most contemporary apple recipes undermine the fruit's healthful qualities and subvert apples' complex flavors by burying them beneath sugar, butter, and white flour. Cookbooks that emphasize healthier ingredients, though, often do so at the expense of flavor, consistency, or texture.

But you do not have to sacrifice taste in order to eat a healthy diet. Here are some basic guidelines for getting the most flavor and nutritional value from cooked apples.

• Reduce the sugar and fat listed in most dessert recipes. Apples are naturally sweet, and varieties that tend toward tart should be appreciated, not obliterated. Those subtle hints of nuttiness, lemon, strawberry, or pineapple are easily lost with too much sugar.

I recommend cutting the sugar by one-third in most traditional recipes, and substituting applesauce or canola oil for half the butter in the filling. The reduced sugar and oil make the cake or crisp lighter in texture and richer in flavor as well as healthier.

• A good way to enrich the baked item's flavor and add to its nutritional value is to substitute some whole-wheat flour for all-purpose white flour. Try using one-third to one-half whole wheat flour in a recipe; it will alter the texture only minimally and add a complexity equal to the apple flavor. An exception is pie dough, which becomes more difficult to roll out with too much whole-wheat flour; use one-quarter the amount or a couple of tablespoons.

• Mix and match. Unless you are absolutely in love with one variety's taste and texture, use a blend of apples when cooking. It makes for a more interesting result, whether you are making pie or applesauce.

McIntosh is famous for its flavor and aroma, but its soft flesh breaks down more quickly than most varieties when cooked. Many cooks combine Macs with a harder-fleshed variety like Northern Spy or Mutsu to keep the McIntosh flavor in a pie with a firmer filling.

• When making applesauce, the more varieties, the merrier. By including both sweet and tart varieties, you never need to add sugar to your applesauce. Let the apple flavor shine through, unadulterated.

• Take advantage of the apple's versatility. Throw a handful of raisins or cranberries into your next apple pie, slice a pear into your apple crisp, add some apple chunks to your tossed salad, right next to the black olives and onions. You will be pleasantly surprised.

• Emphasize flavor. If a recipe lists water with fresh cider as an option, choose fresh cider. If you are making the effort to prepare an apple dish, maximize its apple flavors. That is another reason to substitute applesauce for some or all of the butter: it enriches the apple flavor.

• Pies take practice. Making pie crust is a true art, and takes years to perfect. There are no shortcuts for developing the feel of properly handled dough; it requires hands-on experience.

• Do not worry about your failures - no one else will. The apple pie filling can overcome the poorest crust, and the filling is as easy to excel at as the crust is challenging. You will always find willing takers for your efforts along the long road to mastery.

• Taste before cooking. It is always best to start your recipes with apples that are firm and crisp. Take a bite from each apple before cooking to gauge its texture and flavor.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates