Fall is here and with it a new bounty of apples. In my kitchen apples are a staple. They are versatile, aromatic and keep well. They are delicious fresh or cooked and baked. There are countless varieties around, even though in the supermarkets only a handful shows up. The super market apples are tailored to be eaten fresh. They tend to be more on the sweet and less on the tart side. But when baked or cooked they are often bland. They just do not have enough acidity in their taste profile to stand up well to the heat.
So, what is a good cooking apple then?
Cooking apples are tart, and quite often a bit mealy. They are not necessarily great for fresh consumption. Take one of the classics for example: The Boskop apple. It has a rough skin, that feels in the mouth like literally chewing velvet. Also it is not very juicy but more mealy instead. Sometimes they are so tart they make your mouth pucker . All characteristics I do not like in an apple I eat raw. But all that changes once they are cooked: The peel is removed and of no concern anymore, the mealyness changes to succulent plumpness without being watery and the tartness changes to a pleasing bouquet of sweet, fruity, complex aromas.
Besides the Boskop there are several others that bake well. First you need to decide if you need them only for baking, or if they have to be good for fresh consumption and cooking.
For example if I plan to make an apple cake, I buy Boskop apples, because I need specifically apples for baking. There would be other varieties, but Boskop is easist to get around here. Keep your eyes open and you might find other, often heritage varieties. I remember from my childhood a tree with Gravensteiner apples that didn’t belong to anybody. My mom would collect them and make apple sauce, which she canned in jars. We enjoyed this apple sauce all winter long. Even though the apples were quite sour and sometimes even had a hint of bitterness, they made the best apple sauce. They were so aromatic and sweet after cooking that only a little cinnamon was needed, but no sugar.
If you have the possibility to go to a farmers market ask the sellers specifically for cooking apples. You might encounter old varieties that you never heard of and are nearly forgotten. You know, they are not forgotten, because they are unpalatable, but they are forgotten because their trees do not conform to industrial farming techniques, or they son‘t yield as much, or tend to get blemishes, that are harmless, but keep buyers from buying them. If you happen to stumble upon those old varieties, get a hold of them and bake something. You will be in for a treat.
Other forgotten ones are many of the early apple varietes. Most often they exist only in single trees on old farms or backyards. They ripen very early, often already in August, but get mealy in the span of a few days. Also they don’t keep well. But they are perfect apples for making sauce and conserving it for the winter. And they are delicious in cakes, too. One early apple, albeit a modernized one, that keeps better and doesn’t get mealy in a flash, is the Delbarestivale. It has a nice tartness, but can be eaten fresh and cooks well. This is nice in August when the new harvest is still weeks away, but the craving for apple starts to kick in.
Later on in September and October varieties like Elstar, Cox Orange and Jonagold are harvested. They are great apples to eat fresh. Their sweetness is pleasingly balanced by acidity. When they are fresh their flesh is firm and juicy. Later on they get a bit more mealy and less juicy. This is the point when I start using them to bake. Their acidity keeps them from becoming bland and balances well any pastry they are paired with.
My last resort is the Granny Smith. It is firm and sweet, but tart. But honestly it is like a mediocre mash up of cooking and eating apples. They look spectacular, but their taste is a bit blah, as is their flesh and the way they taste after baking. It is always ok, but not more either. But, as it is so wildly popular all over the world, you have a fair chance of getting them, when all the other apples are not availble. Which makes them a reliable last resort.
And if you happen to have sweet apples that need to be saved from spoiling, you can mix them with a little lemon juice after peeling, let them sit for a while and bake them then. The lemon juice will add the acid the apples themselves are missing.