Friday, February 6, 2009

The Great Baked Apple Bake-Off--Which Apples Make the Best Baked Apples

Basket of Jonathan Apples

When you're out at the farmers' market, does it make a difference which kind of apple you buy for preparing whole baked apples? Are some apples–like some potatoes–better suited for baking than others? 

The answer is yes! After conducting informal comparison bake-offs of different varieties over several autumns, I’ve determined that some bake up beautifully and others don't.

The basket at left contains one of my favorite old-fashioned baking varieties, the Jonathan. When you can find them, they are delish right off the tree, or cooked or baked. Their only drawback is that they are somewhat hard to find, and they tend to be smallish so when baked whole the finished servings are on the modest side.

Pink Lady Apples
As I learned from extensive comparison testing, some baked apples come from the oven temptingly colored, nicely shaped, and with full-bodied fruit flavor and aroma. Others emerge looking a bit slumped and faded, but tasting appetizing. Still other kinds emerge bland, limp, or mushy, or all three. Though you might (rightly) guess that very crisp, tangy, intensely flavored apples are the best candidates for baking, not all the varieties in this category actually do perform well. The Granny Smith, as you'll discover below, was a dud!

It's common for recipes simply to call for “baking apples,” or “tart apples,”or “large apples,” which is not really helpful! Occasionally they specify Granny Smith or Golden Delicious or Rome; a few suggest McIntosh. So I started out by giving these four a try. (When you want "baked" apples in a hurry, try my handy --and yummy Microwave-Baked Apples.)

These four varieties baked up noticeably different from one another. The Rome apples held their shape, although the skins tended to split and lost a lot of the original pretty red color. The flesh tasted pleasantly tart. 

The McIntosh apples split apart and completely collapsed. Their flesh softened to the point that an actual applesauce bubbled out the center tops. (No wonder they are often called applesauce apples.)

The Golden Delicious were okay, but not at their best either. They kept some shape, but their handsome yellow skin faded a bit. They tasted good, but I felt that baking muted the tantalizing fruity-sweet flavor that’s the best feature of these apples.

Granny Smith Apples
The Granny Smith apples were a surprise--and not in a good way! Baking seemed to bring out their usual tartness (make that sourness), but not their flavor. Plus, they collapsed completely, and their skins turned a homely olive drab as you can see in the pic at right.

Unimpressed, I set out to find varieties that baked up better. Eventually, I tried over 30 different kinds (shown above right)–carefully labeling each type to keep the contestants straight. I baked them all in the same kind of dishes, with the same recipe, in the same oven. I always tested two of each type at once, to be sure the results were characteristic and not a fluke. Every apple was sampled and informally rated by two or three tasters.

The details are in, and there is not one all-out favorite, but several “best bakers” available this time of year. They are listed below, along with my comments and testing notes. Additionally, I’ve mentioned a number of other varieties that bake up nicely and are well worth trying—some of these may be hard to find.
Honeycrisp Apples

 In case you don’t see your favorite apple suggested, there are several possible reasons. In general, most of the popular eating apples–Red Delicious, Gala, and Fugi, for example–simply don’t stand up to the heat. A lot of their appeal comes from their mild taste, lack of acidity, and gratifying crispy texture. Baking tends to negate these qualities. Plus, not only the McIntosh but the Cortland and Macoun (both crosses of McIntosh with other apples) tended to break down when baked whole, although their flavor was pleasant. Of course, if you grew up enjoying these varieties, their applesaucy consistency may strike you as just the way baked apples should be! 

A while back, I invited Guy Raz, host of NPR Weekend All Things Considered to come to my kitchen and do an apple comparison tasting. You can catch the short interview and find out what apples Guy liked best here.

Tip: Cinnamon and sugar can’t save apples that are past their prime. (Once picked, store apples in the coldest part of the refrigerator; experts say 33 degrees F. will keep them at their best.) Even highly recommended kinds won’t come out succulent and full of flavor unless they go in the oven that way. And speaking of the oven, if you prefer your baked apples in a crisp, check out my favorite apple crisp recipe.

And the best baking apples are:
Empire Apple
Empire–This cheerful red, sweet-tart apple is a cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious and a far better baker than either of its parents. As you can see from the photo, the skin turns an attractive, though unusual pinkish-red, and the flesh usually holds together and wins points for its honest, gratifying fruit flavor. 

Honeycrisp–A 1960s Minnesota introduction that’s descended from Macoun, Golden Delicious, and Haralson apples, this large, super-crisp, and sweet yet tangy variety is shown in the large bowl above right and baked below right. The Honeycrisp holds its shape fairly well when baked, and its reddish-yellow skin takes on an attractive tawny-gold hue. As the name suggests, the flesh also has a faintly golden color and a memorable sweet and mellow flavor.

Baked Honeycrisp Apple
Jonathan–This old favorite doesn’t hold its shape as well as some other varieties during baking, but its complex sweet-tart flavor comes through clearly, so it gets a top rating for taste. The reddish skin retains some color, another plus. One drawback for those who prefer their baked apples large is that Jonathans are rarely more than medium-sized, 5 to 7 ounces each.

Rome–Also called Red Rome and Rome Beauty, this bright red apple is recommended primarily because it’s very large (sometimes huge!) and impressive looking, and its zesty-tart flesh maintains its integrity during baking. However, the skin does fade to russet-red and may split; sometimes it also becomes a little tough. The apple flavor is not complex, but quite zesty, which complements the classic brown sugar-cinnamon combo nicely.

Baked Braeburn Apple

Braeburn- A New Zealand apple from a chance seedling discovered in an orchard of the same name in 1952, the Braeburn bakes up attractively, as the pic at left indicates. It also has a pleasant middle-of-the-road apple flavor, especially when very fresh, and is usually 7 to 9- ounces, which yields a medium-sized baked apple. These are featured in my 2-ingredient, 10-minute microwave baked apple recipe here.
The exact parentage of Braeburn apples is unknown but they are believed to be a relative of the Lady Hamilton and Granny Smith apple, both varieties which were growing in the orchard where the Braeburn apple was first discovered - See more at:
The exact parentage of Braeburn apples is unknown but they are believed to be a relative of the Lady Hamilton and Granny Smith apple, both varieties which were growing in the orchard where the Braeburn apple was first discovered - See more at:

Honorable mentions: Cameo, Crispin, Gravenstein, Jonagold, Nittany, Pacific Rose, Paula Red, Green Pippin, Sansa, Stayman, and Summerfield.


Cynthia's Blog on September 19, 2009 at 6:45 PM said...

Good Essay on the apple. I especially like the part where you mentioned a baked apple is only as good as it was when it went in. I will definitely try the Braeburn next time I bake. Any luck with the Pink Lady? My favorite eat'n apple, but I have never baked with it.

Nancy Baggett on September 19, 2009 at 7:50 PM said...

I like the Pink Lady for eating, too. I think I tried baking it a couple of years ago, but wasn't impressed. But I can't recall exactly why. If you have good luck, please follow up so I can add it to the suggested list.

Shuckapeafarms said...

As a professional pastry chef I think you must weight the flavor of the apple along with its structure. In my opinion, both red delicious and golden delicious are a great eating apple but I don't care for the flavors when baked.
I personally prefer using Granny Smith where I want it to stand up to the baking process however, you can't beat the flavor of a Macintosh or Pink Lady!!!

Nancy Baggett on January 13, 2012 at 10:00 AM said...

I certainly agree that flavor is important, and I love to put the Macintosh and several others together in an apple pie. But when the apple has to be the star, I just think the mushy look of the Mac is unappealing. As a pro you know that looks have to count, too. Plus, you don't have to sacrifice one for the other--the Honey Crisp is not only attractive baked, but tastes really good.



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