Taste Test: Exploring Flavor With Fall Apples
The incredible range of flavor and texture found in apples makes them perfect for a kid-centric tasting.
It’s been a good apple season in the small orchard that came with our house in Maine. In true New England fashion, where fall is just that much more autumnal than elsewhere in the country, apples grow seemingly everywhere here: Gnarled trees stand watch in the yard of almost all older houses, and you can regularly spot branches hanging with fruit amongst the maples, oaks, and pine forests that cover so much of the state.
A bit of that history is on display in our orchard, which includes modern varieties like Honeycrisp and Fuji as well as heirloom apples like Wolf River, a soft-ball sized variety that, like many older apples, lasts well without refrigeration and is ideal for baking. The acoustics and chin-dripping juiciness of a Honeycrisp makes it a wonderful apple to eat, but if you happen to visit an orchard this fall, or have a good apple grower at your local farmers market, buying a diverse selection of apples will give you and the kids the chance to do a little apple tasting. It’s one of our favorite things to do with our 5-year-old daughter.
When trying the apples, encourage kids to describe what the apples look, smell, and taste like, and what kind of texture they have.
There are a number of different ways to categorize apples—eating apples versus baking or cooking varieties (there are even apples that are especially prized for the way they bake up in a pie, or are preferred for drying); early ripening summer apples that are quick to rot, or long-lasting storage types; sweet, sour, sweet-sour, bitter, bitter-tart. For a tasting that shows how far beyond your standard Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples can go, be sure that you represent both sweet and tart apples. Pay attention to color and size, too, as there is impressive diversity in appearance, ranging from the deep red of Arkansas Blacks to the massive scale of those Wolf Rivers. Following are a few varieties of each broad type, but there are thousands of apples out there, and availability varies depending on the local climate.
Sweet: Gravenstein, Bellflower, Hawkeye
Sharp: Cox’s Orange Pippin, Arkansas Black, Northern Spy
Cook/Baking: Rome, Wolf River, Golden Russet
Think about how you want to present the apples for a kid-centric tasting. It can be fun to sample small bites from whole apples, but if your little one has any loose teeth, slicing is a far better option. Display the slices on a cutting board or a fancy plate, and encourage your child to help you make labels for each variety. If they’re old enough, give them paper and a pencil to record their opinions.
Some older apple varieties were specifically grown for making cider—and there’s a whole world of apple flavor in these that can be fun (if not always immediately delicious) to explore. Eaten fresh, so-called “spitter” apples aren’t likely to win any fans among kids with their intensely tannic taste, but trying a couple can show how diverse taste and usage can be in apples. (If you can’t find cider varieties, crab apples will provide the same kind of mouth-puckering tasting experience.) Cider-specific varieties fell by the wayside during and after prohibition, as the bitter and tannin-heavy fruits didn’t have much of a use outside of making a perfect cider blend. But in recent years they have been making a come back, and are as welcome for the complexity they lend to fresh cider that kids enjoy as they are in hard cider.
And if you come across any red-fleshed varieties—including Pink Pearl or Mountain Surprise—be sure to buy a few. Cutting them open in front of kids is akin to performing a magic trick.
When trying the apples, encourage kids to describe what the apples look, smell, and taste like, and what kind of texture they have. Some heirloom types have russeted skin that’s covered with brownish splotches, much like a potato, while others have beautiful combinations of red, yellow, pink, and green. In terms of flavor, there’s the easy-to-name sweet and sour, but other flavors are in the mix too—including, in some heirlooms, a floral taste that might remind some of roses, which are a distant relative of apples. Then there’s texture, which is fun to consider with kids: Does biting into an apple feel like an explosion inside of your head, as is the case with Honeycrsips? Or is it more muted, or even mushy? Once you get kids going with more creative ways of describing what the see, taste, smell, and feel, they’ll be off to the races with their own florid descriptions.
For baking varieties, sautéing slices in butter with a sprinkle of brown sugar is a good way to show how these types hold their shape and texture without making a whole pie. That being said, there really is no better way to cook an apple than to bake it into a pie.
Should you happen to have a bumper crop of apples on your hands, there’s no better apple-cooking project to do with kids than making applesauce: Cut the apples into chunks, cores and all, cook with a judicious amount of water until completely tender, and then run it all through a food mill. If the applesauce is too thin, just put it back on the stove let it simmer a bit longer so it can thicken up.
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