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Which apple should you use when baking? It depends on the recipe

Caramel and apples go hand in hand. (Behold this Salted Caramel Apple Pie.) Firm tart and firm sweet apples work well in pies. This recipe calls for five large apples.
Caramel and apples go hand in hand. (Behold this Salted Caramel Apple Pie.) Firm tart and firm sweet apples work well in pies. This recipe calls for five large apples.
Published Nov. 20, 2014

Pink Lady. McIntosh. Sweetango. Ambrosia. Honeycrisp.

This is just part of the apple aisle at my local grocery store. Never mind the heirlooms with whimsical names: Arkansas Black. Northern Spy. Esopus Spitzenburg. So with an estimated 7,500 apple varieties around the world (there are other wild varieties, too), just what are the differences? Apple varieties differ in texture, color, sweetness, juiciness and acidity, which are features to consider when you're baking with apples for Thanksgiving and beyond for cakes, pies and more.

Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover's Cookbook and lifestyle editor at Yankee magazine, said a lot of the new varieties are good all-purpose apples. They work well for baking, cooking or eating raw. The standard that breeders are trying to reach is really high, Traverso said, and these newer varieties feature a lot of sweetness, acidity and firm, lush fruit.

"They're like the California cabernets of the apple world," she said. Big, explosive flavor. Juicy.

Her favorite varieties for baking are Jazz and Pink Lady apples, which hold on to their rosy color when baked. In her book, Traverso organizes them into four categories based on firmness and acidity, the qualities that will affect recipes most.

Firm tart and firm sweet apples, such as Granny Smith and Honeycrisp, can cook for a long time and are great for pies and crisps. Jonagold apples, she says, make an amazing pie. Tender tart and tender sweet apples, such as McIntosh and Fuji, work well for baked recipes that don't cook as long, including cookies, cakes and pancakes.

These are helpful distinctions when considering what fruit to use for your next baking project. But if you can remember just one thing, let it be the general rule for baking with apples, which is to use a firm and tangy one, says Faith Durand, executive editor of The Kitchn and cookbook author. She said the best apple is the one that you can get your hands on. Her go-to baking apple for its availability, firm texture and sweet-tart flavor is the Granny Smith apple.

"One of the great things about apples is that they're flexible," Durand said. "Even a 'bad apple' will be fine in a baked good."

Durand, who grew up near an apple orchard in Ohio, looks forward to baked apples every fall. Apple-yogurt cake and savory oatmeal cookies with chunks of Gouda are also on her baking to-do list during apple season. She often uses Rome apples, which she considers to be an all-purpose apple.

Pie is often the first apple dessert that comes to mind this season, especially for Thanksgiving, but apples are also excellent in cakes, loaves, cookies and so much more. Next time you're making cinnamon buns, fold some diced apples into the dough. Lay a few slices on your next batch of Sunday morning pancakes.

Some of my favorite apple desserts are the easiest. Baked apples come together quickly and don't take much planning, and yet you're rewarded with a grand flavor that belies your effort. I core the apples and slice off the tops to make more room for the crumbly filling. My version includes sesame seeds because it makes the crisp cookielike and irresistible. A splash of rosewater goes into the baking dish with the apple cider for added fragrance, and it also intensifies the flavor of the apples.

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Apple blondies are bursting with a pound of apple barely held together by flour, brown sugar and warm spices. Cardamom and bits of toasted walnut take the flavor up another notch.

Caramel is another natural companion for apples, and here I included a recipe for a salted caramel apple pie. A note about that: You can't imagine the freedom I felt when cookbook author and food blogger David Lebovitz instructed me to make caramel without a candy thermometer. To trust my eyes and my nose to know when it was done. I trusted in his words, and myself, and I conquered caramel. You can, too, because homemade apple pie deserves homemade caramel sauce.

It's best to use a number of different apples in a baked good so you get depth of flavor. Cinnamon, of course, is always welcome where there is apple because this warm spice and fall fruit go together like peanut butter and jelly, but it's worth considering that apple marries well with many other flavor combinations, too. Traverso offers up some others to consider. Apples and herbs. Apples and ginger. Raspberry. Pears and apples are a favorite, underused combination that make an incredible pie, she said, because, as a chef once told her, "If they grow together, they go together." For someone who wants to go just a step beyond cinnamon, Durand says to reach for the cardamom.

Ileana Morales writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section. She also blogs at Contact her at


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