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Let’s Talk About Apples

Updated: Jun 3

As soon as the first signs of fall begin to appear, I immediately start thinking about apples. I think about them in the same way that Forest Gump thought of shrimp. From salads to dessert, from raw to baked, apples are a versatile food that transcends cultures and culinary techniques.

apple picking
Picking apples at Bellewood Farm & Distillery

Since moving to Washington, the yearly visit to the apple orchard has become a much-anticipated tradition. I love meandering my way through the orchard seeing the different varieties. The various shades of red, green, and yellow fruit glistening in the sun is such a beautiful sight. There is something truly joyful about plucking an apple right from the tree. That first noisy chomp is so gratifying. Some years I bring home enough to make a few desserts and savory dishes. Other years I have purchased as much as 25 pounds for making apple butter.

Fortunately, my love of apples is a pretty common thing. It happens to be one of the world’s most popular fruits. Apples are especially significant here in Washington, which leads the United States in production. There are nearly 1300 apple growers in the state who are responsible for growing over 3 million tons of fruit. According to the Washington Apple Commission, 10 to 12 billion apples are harvested every year. The next time you bite into an apple, there is a 60% chance that it was grown in Washington state.

But Washington is not alone when it comes to apple growing. Over 2500 varieties are grown throughout the US and approximately 7500 varieties are grown throughout the world! Had I asked you to name as many apple varieties that you can think of, how many would you have come up with? I haven’t taken an official survey, but my guess is that most people would be able to name 6 to 10 varieties. There is good reason for this since there are eight main varieties that growers focus on. These include Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Crisp Pink, and Cosmic Crisp.

Given that the only native apples in the US are crab apples, one might wonder how we ended up with so much apple diversity. To answer this question, we have to go to the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. Scientists have hypothesized that bears, who love sweet fruit, dispersed the seeds as they wandered through the forests in this area during the Ice Age. It’s a case of unintentional artificial selection as the bears preferred larger, sweeter fruits. Wild horses that grazed along the margins of the forest weren’t quite as picky, but they spread the seeds as well. However, it was the traders along the Silk Road that has the greatest impact on apple distribution. Not only did their donkeys and horses disperse the seeds, but people from China all the way to Europe began cultivating them. Orchards were planted along the Nile Delta in 1300 BCE and by 800 BCE, ancient Greeks were grafting them. By 200 BC, there were apple orchards in Britain. It wasn’t until the 1500s that apples reached Central and South America. By the late 1600s, the colonists were bringing apple and pear seeds with them to North America.

apple cells
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Apples would never have made their way around the world if they didn’t taste good. To fully understand the secret to picking the perfect apple, we have to take a trip inside their cells. In each cell there is a central vacuole. This is a storage compartment for water, sugar, acids, and esters. Holding the cells together are the lamellae. In a young apple, the lamellae are strong. Small air pockets exist between the cells and lamellae. When the vacuole is full of juice, it pushes on the stiff cell wall creating turgor pressure. This pressure also compresses the air between the cells. When we bite into an apple and the turgor pressure is high, the cells immediately rupture. We hear the loud crunch and taste the juice erupting from the cells. The compressed air is released. This pushes the esters back towards our throat where they make their way to our olfactory cells. It’s at that moment when we realize we’re eating a Fuji versus a Golden Delicious. We can attribute tartness of the apple to malic acid. More malic acid results in a tarter apple.

Given that we can’t walk around the farmer’s market or grocery store with a microscope, how do we know those vacuoles are full of juice? The apple should feel firm upon touch and it should feel heavy for its size. Once apples are harvested, they continue to ripen due to the production of ethylene. This hormone causes the apples to become more soft and shrink. Meanwhile, the apple is consuming malic acid for energy. An apple that was really tart right after harvest will eventually become sweeter as the malic acid content decreases. In addition, the lamellae that hold the cells together starts to weaken. The vacuoles also begin to shrink, thereby decreasing the turgor pressure. This results in apple with an unpleasant, mealy texture. To slow down this entire process, apples should be stored in the produce drawer of the refrigerator.

Our knowledge of the cellular structure of the apple can also influence our decisions on which apples to use for cooking versus eating raw. Apples with large cells can hold lots of juice. These are the apples we want to snack on. Those with high acid are best for cooking because acid is a flavor enhancer. When it comes to baking, apples with less air between their cells are optimal because the cells hold up better when exposed to heat.

varieties of apples
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Apple Spice Cake Ottolenghi
Ottolenghi’s Apple Spice Cake

Over the years I have collected a few recipes that are my go-tos. The Apple Bundt Cake is probably one of my favorites. The preparation only requires two bowls and you don’t even have to pull out the mixer. The secret ingredient in the recipe is the orange zest. Don’t skip it. I recently tried a different cake and I’m so glad I did. Ottolenghi’s Apple Spice Cake is not only very tasty, but the presentation is impressive. For a delicious breakfast treat, try the Big Apple Pancake. It puffs up so beautifully in the oven, but if you’re going to Instagram it, be sure to have the camera ready as it settles down quickly upon cooling. For a savory dish, Pork Chops with Spiced Sweet Potatoes and Apples makes for a satisfying one-pan meal.

We have until early spring to enjoy the best of the 2021 apple harvest. The next time you’re shopping for apples, take a moment to thank those wild animals and the merchants along the Silk Road for setting the stage for the varieties that you see today.

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