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Cooking with apples - how to choose the best cooking apples

Alice Hart / 26 October 2016 ( 22 September 2021 )

Should you always cook with cooking apples, or is there a place for eating apples in recipes? We look at how to choose the right apple for the job.

Apple tart
As a general rule, eating apples should always be used when you want the fruit to keep its shape after cooking

Cooking apples vs eating apples: what's the difference?

Should you use different types of apples for different recipes? And can you cook with eating apples? It turns out the ‘rules’ are a little less clear cut than one might expect, and the best apples to cook with really depends on what you're cooking. 

We can separate apple varieties into ‘cooking apples’ and ‘eating apples’ or dessert apples. The cookers aren’t usually a pleasure to eat raw; they are too sharp and tend to have tough skins. The eating apples, however, will be sweet straight off the tree, without any added sugar. That doesn’t mean the eaters don’t sometimes make very good cookers. The French always cook with apples we’d term as eating varieties; you’d never catch them using a Bramley apple!

Find out how to grow apples

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Best apples to cook with

With some exceptions, the type of apple you use is largely down to texture and personal taste.

Best apples for tarts 

A French apple tart can be made with cooking apples for the pureed base and eaters for the sliced, glazed top, giving you the best of both worlds. And when it comes to crumbles, I like to use a 50:50 mixture of dessert apples and cooking apples to give the fruit component some welcome texture and added interest.

Sometimes though, apple etiquette has to be less free and easy. For a tarte tatin, and any other tart or pastry where you need the apples to retain their shape (in fanned out slices, for example) and not upset the moisture balance, eating apples will do a better job.

Best apples for cakes

Cooking apples are sublime in an appealingly damp, Dutch-style apple cake, but a light sponge cake or a cupcake needs the drier eating apple or the batter will be too wet. So in general, use cooking apples where extra moisture and a much softer texture would be of benefit, and eating apples where you need the fruit to retain its shape and give off less liquid.

Try this Bramley apple and pudding cider cake recipe

Best apples for turnovers 

There are ways to tweak an apple’s cooking habits... My grandmother, a seasoned apple turnover maker, only adds sugar to a saucepan of gently simmering Bramley's Seedling (commonly known as a Bramley) once they are cooked, saying it stops the compote – and her pastries - becoming watery.

Simply cover the pan of peeled, chopped apples with a lid and cook until soft. You can add vanilla seeds or lemon zest too. As apples vary so much in sweetness, it also gives you control; you can taste the cooked apple and add sugar only as needed.

Best apples for stewing

If you're stewing apples for an apple crumble or pie filling Bramley works well and are the more traditionally used in the UK.

Best apples for compotes

If you are after a smooth compote, go for a cooker such as our classic Bramley’s Seedling (Bramley) or the pale green Cathead, which will break down with the heat.

Old varieties of apples

Sadly, while it’s all too easy to buy the ubiquitous Granny Smith and her friend Golden Delicious in UK supermarkets, our old English varieties can be harder to track down. 

I used to pick apples and pears in Kent as a student and well remember the joys of scrumping many different varieties on the job. Egremont Russets have been a firm favourite ever since.

If you are interested in finding out about our myriad native apples, October is the perfect time to go to an apple festival and taste as many as you can. If you’re near Faversham in Kent, go to Brogdale Hall’s Apple Festival. If you can’t make it to a dedicated apple event, local farmers’ markets are bound to have a good selection to choose from.

Popular varieties of apples

The nutty, sweet, raw flesh of an Egremont Russet pairs beautifully with a crumbly cheese, such as a Lancashire. 

For a more refined version of the same, try the Herefordshire Russet, a modern take on the Egremont with less russeting on the skin and a richer taste.

The Worcester Pearmain, with its white, often pink-stained, flesh and thin, crimson skin has a unique, strawberry-like flavour. It responds well to cooking, holding both its shape and juicy texture. Try peeling and coring the apples, cutting the flesh into chunks, and caramelizing them in a frying pan with brown sugar and butter as a pancake topping or decadent compote. Or, combined with Bramleys, the Worcester Pearmain is magnificent in an oat-topped crumble, served with butterscotch sauce and ice cream.

Spartan, a deep crimson-coloured apple with bright-white flesh, has been popular in British orchards since the 1920s. It is a stellar juicer, producing sweet-sharp and aromatic juice. Combine with pears and a touch of ginger or lemon juice to ring the changes.

Cox’s Orange Pippin is a king among apples. It should be firm and juicy with honeyed flesh and a burnt-orange colouring on the skin. Apart from enjoying it raw, I love using it in a classic French tarte tatin, where it holds up to a deep, caramel and softens perfectly. 

Incidentally, Granny Smiths shouldn’t be disregarded here; they too make an excellent tarte tatin because of their sharp-tasting flesh.

Visit our apple desserts section for more delicious apple recipes

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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