Gearing up for Apple Season
It’s always exciting to see the first local apples in the markets. I saw some this past weekend at a farm stand on the New York/Vermont border. They were labeled “Early Macs,” which means they were probably just McIntosh apples that ripened early.
Here’s a roundup of the early season apples you’ll most commonly find at farm stands and farmers’ markets this time of year:
McIntosh: This apple cooks down quickly, which makes it a perfect choice for applesauce or for eating fresh. It was discovered as a chance seedling in Ontario and introduced commercially in 1870. It thrives in colder climates and ripens as early as late August, but it is not typically an apple that holds up well in long storage. The flavor is tart and even spicy, with slightly “green” undertones and the flesh is snow white, juicy, and a bit grainy.
Gravenstein: This apple is great for pie because it holds its shape well during baking. It originated in Europe and first came to the U.S. in the 1700s. It thrives in the warmer climate of California, where it remains the signature apple of Sonoma County, but you’ll find it at apple orchards all over New England. Here, the Gravenstein doesn’t always achieve the same red and gold tones and rich sweetness of its western siblings, but it is pleasingly tart-sweet with citrus notes and dense, juicy flesh.
Paula Red: This apple sprang up as a chance seedling in a Michigan McIntosh orchard in the 1960s and it shares many of the qualities of its parent variety. Like McIntosh, the Paula Red breaks down quickly in heat, making it a good choice for sauce or for eating fresh. Tart when just picked, it does grow sweeter in storage, and it has a lovely flavor that brings to mind wine and strawberries.
Zestar: Like the popular Honeycrisp, Zestar is a hybrid from the University of Minnesota’s ambitious apple breeding program. I’m seeing it at more and more orchards as UM continues to expand its licensing program. This apple has many of the great characteristics of the new breeds: lots of juice and crunch, a good sweet-tart balance, an cold hardiness. It’s great for eating fresh, but also holds its shape when cooked, so if you’re in the mood for apple pie or crisp, this is a great choice. Zestar is also an excellent keeper.
Seeing as there are still blueberries and nectarines in most markets, you may not be ready to embrace these early arrivals, but at some point, you’ll find your appetite shifting toward autumn flavors. And if that happens in the next few weeks, these apples are a great place to start.