Not every apple makes a good pie, becomes a memorable cider, mixes well in salads or is crisp and juicy when picked fresh from the tree.
Each variety brings something special to the table - texture, color, sweetness, acidity, aroma, shelf life or size, among other things. Few have all or even several of those desirable qualities. But that hasn't stopped consumers from crowning their champions over the years from the thousands of named varieties grown.
"Different people have greatly different preferences in apples," said Richard Marini, department head and professor of horticulture at Penn State University, University Park, Pa. "As you go around the country, regional tastes vary, too.
"Some people like varieties that melt down and become like a sauce in a pie. The Granny Smith is a good one. But if you had to choose just one variety to use in many applications, look to the Golden Delicious," he said. "It's good to eat out of your hand and it makes a good sauce and a good cider. It's good because of its special combination of sugar and firmness."
Grocers often rank looks above flavor in the apples they display, Marini said. "If there's a choice between a super tasting apple and an attractive one on the supermarket shelves, the buyers usually will be steered toward the attractive one."
The five most popular apples in the United States are the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith, according to the University of Illinois Extension Service. Here are some other easy-to-find varieties if you're seeking an apple with special culinary attributes:
- Baking: Some people prefer baking apples that hold their shape, while others like them mushy. Blending is a good compromise. "I mix hard apples with sweet apples when I make sauces at home," Marini said. Longtime baking favorites include the Winesap, Golden Russet, McIntosh, Haralson, Rhode Island Greening, Cortland, Wealthy and Prairie Spy.
- Salads: Cortland and Granny Smith are firm apples with a pleasant, tangy taste. Neither browns quickly when sliced. Sure, you always can add lemon juice to slow the browning, but why not choose an apple variety that's higher in acids? Other salad favorites include the Cameo, Fuji, Cripps Pink and Gala. The Red Delicious also is a popular choice but more for its color than its flavor.
- Ciders: Apple juice and apple cider are technically the same drink although ciders generally are unprocessed, contain more pulp and are darker, often cloudy, in appearance. Think of hard cider as apple juice for grown-ups, a naturally fermented drink with an alcohol content ranging from 3 to 9 percent.
Cider apples usually are more tart and juicy than the eating kind and that serves to enrich the historic brew. The Golden Delicious adds an attractive aroma to ciders while the Golden Russet is naturally sweet. The McIntosh and Rome are longtime cider favorites while the spicy taste of the Baldwin brings a signature flavor to the drink. The Grimes Golden, Ribston Pippin, and Roxbury Russet are among the cider classics, if you can find them.
- Drying: Firm, tart apples fresh from the tree are said to be best for drying. Try Jonathans, Gravenstein and Rome Beauties.
- Multi-purpose: For eating in the hand, cooking or cider making, it's hard to beat the McIntosh, one of the flagship apples from Eastern Canada and New England. The Idared cooks down well, making a nice sauce and apple butter. The Cortland is good for everything from apple crisp to kabobs. Honey Crisp, a relatively new introduction, is notable for its watermelon-like crispness and honey-like flavor and drips with juices. Stored properly, it can keep from seven months to a year.
Recommended reading: "The Best Apples to Buy and Grow " (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, $9.95).
More information about apple varieties and their use is available on this Ohio State University Extension Web site: