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Apple-picking season is upon us and, with it, the race to snag the brightest, juiciest fruit in orchards across the U.S. But with pick-your-own orchards often boasting five to 10 apple varieties to choose from, it can be overwhelming to decide which fruits to put in your basket.
William Mullan runs the Instagram account @pomme_queen, which is dedicated to tasting and taking photos of different apple varieties people the U.S. have never heard of. “There are literally thousands and thousands of apples,” he says. “Some taste like strawberries and lemonade, some taste like licorice and cherries. Some taste like fruit punch, others taste like Warheads of citrus cake.” Mullan recalls the Frostbite, a Minnesota apple that tastes like a red bell pepper with notes of olive. His favorite, though, is a Wickson, a delicious little Californian crab apple that he likens to a salty kiss from the Pacific.
You might not find Frostbites or Wicksons at your local apple orchard; that all depends on your location. Within the U.S., in the north, you’ll mostly see Honeycrisp, Mcintosh, Golden Delicious, and Red Delicious. In the south, you might find Parmar, Shockley, Grimes Golden, and Razor Russet. The west grows Idared, Cosmic Crisp, and Pink Pearls, while the east coast most commonly grows Baldwin, Porter, Cortland, and Jonathan. Here, we provide some tips for picking the best apples in the bunch.
It’s important to note that all apple orchards have different rules and regulations, so you should always check ahead of your visit. There are a few common ones, however, that you could safely apply to all orchards.
Lorna Roberts, owner of Castle Farm in the U.K., says that one of the golden rules to apple picking is to only pick what you plan to take home. Overpicking is the bane of every farmer’s existence and leaves unwanted apples to rot on the ground. In a list written up for guests of Castle Farm, Roberts also notes that they should twist, not pull the apples off the branch. “If you pull, the force can cause other apples to fall on the floor,” she writes.
And to make the most of their harvest, Roberts encourages people to consider all apples. “If apples do fall on the floor in the picking process, consider picking them up and using them,” she says. “You could make apple juice or a lovely apple crumble – we hate to see waste.”
Similarly, if you find a creature on an apple you pick, don’t panic.“If you pick an apple and a little ladybird or earwig is hiding on the skin, don’t drop the whole apple,” Roberts says. “Just brush it off. The apple will be 100 percent fine.”
Picking the Perfect Produce
At the grocery store, apples are bright, waxy, and shiny – something you won’t exactly see in orchards. So what does a good apple look like? Mullan keeps an eye out for russeting, where the apple develops patches of rough, reddish-brown or yellowish-brown skin. “Russet occurs when environmental stresses cause epidermal damage to an apple,” he says. “The tree responds by sending more metabolites and nutrients to the fruit, some of which we experience as flavor. This ends up intensifying the apple’s flavor and texture.”
According to apple grower Stemilt, a good apple will be firm to touch and shouldn’t easily indent after you press the skin. The smell of the fruit is also a good indicator, with varieties like Gala having strong fragrances when ripe.
To Mullan, though, a perfect apple – ones he likes to take photos of – are often cracked and russeted with stiff leaves. As an artist, he attempts to convey what apples express to him. “People have interpreted apples in hundreds, if not thousands of ways,” he says. “I guess I’m one person in a long lineage of people to find apples interesting enough to interpret visually.”