Sliced, baked, sauced or smothered in caramel, there’s no wrong way to eat Maine apples. But true fans of the state’s crispy fruit will tell you there are right and wrong ways to eat specific varieties of apples.
There are more than 100 kinds of apples grown in Maine, according to the Maine Pomological Society. Each year the state produces around 1 million bushels of apples from 84 orchards. While the annual fall apple harvest is well underway, early varieties of the fruit were ready for picking in August and different ones will continue to ripen into October.
And each variety serves its own purpose.
Sandi Rowe Umble of Holden closely follows the apple season, much to the delight of her pie-loving friends and family.
For Umble, a retired nurse, no apple makes a better pie than the popular Maine McIntosh.
“That’s the one I go to every year and it’s one of the earlier ones that come out in late August and are around for a good part of September,” Umble said. “Every year I try to follow the timing of the crops [and] I buy them when they are at their most tart.”
It’s the tartness of McIntosh apples that is key to a successful apple pie, Umble said. A close second are Cortlands.
As far as Renae Moran is concerned, Cortlands are the best apple for baking. She should know. Moran is professor of pomology at the University of Maine and works with fruit tree production at the university’s Highmoor Farm.
“There are certainly some varieties more suitable for fresh eating and unsuitable for baking, like the Honeycrisp apple,” Moran said. “Of course, everyone has their own opinion on what makes the best apple.”
Along with Cortlands, Moran said early summer apple varieties such as Duchess or the new Pristine make great pies. As the season draws on, she said the later variety Northern Spy is a popular pie choice.
Not only are those good pie varieties, they should be used together, according to Roberta Bailey. Bailey uses at least two — better, three — different varieties of apples in every pie she bakes or in her homemade applesauce and cider.
“I really like to mix them and pies really need to have three kinds of apples,” Bailey said. “I like to use something red like a McIntosh, something yellow that is mid and then something that has a high level of acidity because all have a different flavor complexity that really complement each other.”
For 40 years Bailey has written her harvest kitchen column for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She has a MOFGA-certified organic orchard in Washington County.
“I think of apples in two ways,” Bailey said. “There are the red apples that are the more early varieties and have that great, classic apple flavor and the fall apples that are a bit more yellow and have that acidic-sweet balance that gives them an incredible flavor.”
The later varieties, like the Honeycrisp, are best for storing to use later in the year, according to Bailey.
“If you try to eat a storage apple straight off the tree in October or September it will be rock hard and make your gums bleed and probably taste like wallpaper paste,” she said. “But if you take it and store it properly, in November it will start to taste good and by December or January they are incredible.”
Another good example of the perfect apple for overwinter storage are Baldwins, which Bailey said do not really develop their peak flavor until March. There is also the Black Oxford, which comes off the tree rock hard but softens up as the months go by.
Fall apples Bailey recommends to snack on right from the tree are Gray Pairmains, which she also stores well over the winter. A close second favorite is the Cox’s Orange Pippin.
Other good snacking apples in Maine are Macouns, Jonamacs, Paulareds, Gala and Spartans.
When it comes to apples for making sauce, some of the best to use are Valstars, Liberty, Cortlands, Fuji, Mcintosh and Honeycrisps.
As far as dunking an apple into melted caramel for a popular fall treat, Golden Delicious or Granny Smith are good choices.
“Maine has the ideal conditions for apple ripening in the fall,” according to Moran. “Lots of sunny days and cold temperatures at night.”
Contrary to what many people think, apples do not need to withstand a frost before they become sweet.
“They get sweet on their own,” Moran said. “The colder nights favor good color production and it’s good for the apples’ texture.”
As long as those apples keep ripening, Umble is going to keep turning out her pies. Her creations have become so popular, there are those who will go to great lengths to secure one.
“I’ve had a couple of marriage proposals,” she said with a laugh. “I had a mason come to fix some cement at the corner of my garage door and he would not give me an estimate — he told me he wanted one thing, an apple pie.”