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What are the best apples to use for pies, cakes and applesauce?

When it comes to baking, all apples are not created equal.
It's almost apple-picking season! Celebrate fall with the best of the best.
It's almost apple-picking season! Celebrate fall with the best of the best. Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Good apples are like gifts from the gods, full of complex flavor and super satisfying. But with so many apple varieties out there (and more being released each year), it’s important to know that not all are created equal. Some are tart, some are sweet, some are crisp and some are soft. And each variety is suited for particular uses in the kitchen.

To get the core facts, TODAY Food spoke with Amy Traverso, author of "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" and senior food editor at Yankee Magazine. Together, we geeked out on apples. Here’s what you need to know:

How to store apples

After you bring apples home from an orchard or the grocery store, put them in a paper bag and put them in a drawer in the fridge. If you only have a plastic bag, poke holes in it to allow the air flow through. Don’t store apples on the counter unless you’re going to eat them right away.

How to know when apples have gone bad

“If you can push your finger in an apple and make a dent in it, it’s overripe,” Traverso says. “Treat it like bananas gone brown." When apples that are mostly uniform in color begin to form spots, that's another easy-to-recognize sign it may be past its prime.

However, she added, "You can just cook it down for applesauce or apple butter.”

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The best apples for pies and tarts

Who doesn’t love the smell of a fresh apple pie baking in the oven? It’s pure love. It’s also a lot of work — so make the most of it by picking the right variety of apples for the filling.

“A combination of apples is ideal because apple flavors range from lemony to wine-like to berry to spicy. The more varieties you use, the more flavor you add. In general, you want firm apples and you want a combination of sweeter and more tart apples so you get a broader range of flavors,” Traverso advises. “But if I had to choose only one variety, for me it’s Jonagold or Northern Spy.”

Additionally, Traverso says, always peel your apples for pies and tarts, because “no one wants to bite into pie and get a mouthful of peel.”

Jonagold, a cross between a Jonathan and a Golden Delicious apple, are incredibly versatile and beloved for their sweetness and moderate acidity. Getty Images

Try these: Jonagold, Northern Spy, Honeycrisp and Cortlandt, Granny Smith and Pink Lady, Golden Delicious, or Sierra Beauty, Calville Blanc, Roxbury Russet are all firm enough to hold up in the oven.

Avoid these: McIntosh, Gala, Fuji or Red Delicious. These apples are a little too soft or just don’t have the right flavor punch for the long baking time pies and tarts require.

For muffins and cakes

Try Gala or Fuji apples, which add delicate, floral flavor. These apples also happen to make great snacks all on their own.

Use apples in savory dishes

“Apples are great in a lot of savory dishes,” Traverso says. Apples complement plenty of savory meats, especially pork.

For most savory dishes, use tart apples and think of them as the acidic element, the way you would with lemons or limes. For dishes like pork that already have a hint of sweetness, sweeter apples make a great pairing.

Apple Cider-Glazed Pork Tenderloin

Apple Cider-Glazed Pork Tenderloin

Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN

For applesauce

Applesauce or apple butter are good ways to use up overripe or mealy apples. McIntosh apples are soft and also work for this purpose, as well.

Get creative

“The biggest mistake people make is not using apples enough in a really wide range of dishes,” Traverso explains.

Most commercially available apple varieties are great for snacking on and provide an excellent source of fiber. Getty Images

Pair apples with other fall fruits. “Fruits that ripen at the same time tend to go well together, like apples and pears,” she says. In her cookbook, Traverso also throws apples in sweet potato latkes and a savory pork pie with a cheddar crust — truly the combinations are endless.

“Open your mind to what apples can do, especially savory flavors,” Traverso says. “You will have a lot of happy surprises.”

Happy apple-picking season!