Although apple pie is one of the most popular and simplest desserts, it is surprising that most apple recipes do not specify the variety of apples to be used, seeming to imply that one apple is the same as another. In fact different apples respond to the cooking process in different ways and by being aware of the characteristics of different apples you can greatly enhance your apple cookery. There is also a lot to be said for using two different varieties in the same recipe, particularly if you can get varieties with contrasting flavors and textures.
The key characteristic to be aware of when choosing apples for cooking is the level of acidity. Heating tends to bring out the inherent sweetness in apples, and it is therefore an advantage if you start with an apple that has some tart acidity to it, as this will give the resulting dish more flavor and backbone.
The acidity, along with the general texture of the flesh, also influences what happens to the apple when it is cooked. Apples can be divided into three groups when cooked: those that retain their shape, those that lose their shape, and those that dissolve into a puree. Knowing this can help you choose the right type of apple depending on what type of dish you are cooking. In general, the more acidic the apple, the more likely it is to cook down to a puree. Summer apples, which tend to be less dense than later-ripening ones, are also more likely to form a puree when cooked.
The world's greatest cooking apples?
Whilst any apple can be used for cooking, there is a select band of apple varieties which are transformed by cooking. These are the varieties to grow if you want to turn your regular apple pie into something extraordinary.
Bramley's Seedling (England)
With one of the highest acidity levels of any apple, Bramley quickly cooks down into the smoothest and lightest of apple purees, whilst retaining a rich sharp apple flavour. It is far too acidic for eating fresh, but is the mainstay of apple cookery in England. Although English apple recipes tend to specify Bramley alone, it is greatly enhanced by the addition of a second sweeter variety which will retain its shape. Bramley also grows well in most parts of North America, and is an excellent addition to any home orchard.
Calville Blanc (France)
It is difficult to identify a 'best' culinary apple because so much depends on the recipe and the chef. However there is no doubt that Calville Blanc deserves a place in any cook's orchard. It is of course the perfect choice for French patisserie cooking, and any recipe where you want slices of apple which will keep their shape, but it can also be used to produce a thick textured puree. The key feature of Calville Blanc is the rich aromatic spicy sweet/tart flavor, which is quite a revelation if you have not come across it before.
Newtown Pippin (USA)
One of the most well-known American heirloom apples, with a well-defined aromatic flavor that is equally good for eating fresh or for use in the kitchen. Newtown Pippin has a dense hard juicy flesh that responds well to cooking. It does not usually retain its shape, but produces a very useful chunky textured puree.
Another great American apple variety that can lift almost any apple recipe it is used for. As with many good cooking apples, it has a naturally strong and distinctive flavour that seems to be enhanced rather than diminished by cooking.
Apple cooking matrix
|Keeps shape||Retains some shape||Puree|
Granny Smith (not as sharp as you might expect),