Is there any other state that can claim such a wide variety of apples? Maybe, but Minnesota has to be one of the top.
This year's bountiful crop is in the market now and will continue for weeks to come.
Grocery stores have at least seven different varieties, both bagged and as singles. That's good because then you can try different varieties.
The farmers market also has several orchard vendors, and area orchards are picking over-time to keep up with demand.
The challenge for us is which variety to choose -- an old favorite (that would be Haralson for me) or to try new varieties like First Kiss (love the name!). I saw First Kisses recently and was surprised at the size -- similar to a grapefruit.
If you want to visit an orchard and pick your own there are many close by. I'm thinking of Seakapp, almost an apple institution here, Wescott Orchard, Apple Ridge, Northwoods, Mueske Family Orchard and Pepin Heights near Lake City.
Wherever you buy apples the challenge is which to get. Do you want a sweet apple to eat or one for baking that's a little tart?
To get a better sense of what flavor profile of apple is the best for baking, I talked to Hillary Diede, who, with her husband Dane, owns Blossom Hill Orchard near Preston. Her apple pies, apple turnovers, kolachis, cookies, muffins and caramel apples are a tasty draw for hundreds of customers at Blossom Hill. So who better to ask about good baking apples?
Her preferred pie apples are Sweet Tango mixed with Cortland. If she can't get Cortlands, she'll use MacIntosh. Haralsons are also on her pie list.
Many bakers recommend Golden Delicious as the best for all-around cooking and baking, not just for flavor but also because the slices hold their shape. Granny Smiths apples are on the tart side and best paired with one that's sweeter.
"I think it's important to mix varieties together for a more distinct apple flavor and texture. They all add something," Diede said.
An excellent tip she shared is with the thickener. The night before baking, she preps the apples by peeling and slicing them and then mixes together half flour and half cornstarch. That is stirred in with the apples and the mixture sits overnight. The next day, the apple slices are added to the crusts and baked.
"The difference between an average pie and a great one is the apples. Not too sweet nor too tart," Diede said.
If you are a beginning pie baker, you might want to keep a few things in mind:
- Whether you use butter or shortening, keep the ingredients cold. And use very cold water too. An ice cube in the measuring cup helps.
- Chill the dough before rolling it out and don't handle it too much. Use just a minimum of flour when rolling.
- Don't forget to cut vents on the top crust to let steam out.
- It's fine to use a refrigerated crust that you just roll out.
- When baking, start with a very hot oven -- 425 for about 10 minutest -- then turn it down to 350. The pie is done when the crusts are golden and juices are bubbling.
- Bake on a sheet pan to keep juices from dripping to the oven floor.
Finally, we have the University of Minnesota to thank for many of our favorites. They have been cross-breeding since 1888 and in those years have developed at least 30 varieties.
Among them Haralson (1922), Honeycrisp, Sweet Tango, and Zestar. Two years ago they gave us First Kiss, also known as Rave, and this year, Triumph, a cross between Honeycrisp and Liberty which won't be available until 2025.
A new apple gaining in popularity is RiverBelle. Fred Wescott at Wescott Orchard describes it as similar to Honeycrisp in its sweetness and crunch. RiverBelle comes from the breeding program of Doug Shefelbine, a grower in Holmen, Wis. So far its availability is fairly limited, but Wescott has them. HyVee had a tasting a few week ago so that might be another place to check. I know I'll be looking for them.
Food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.