Bigger Is Not Always Better When It Comes to Apples

Size has little bearing on interesting flavor — so why are they the global standard?

Scan the stacks of apples at a grocery store, or in bushel baskets at the local farmer’s market, and you might notice a trend toward large varieties like Honeycrisp and Gala. Bite into the juicy, crisp, sweet flesh, and the appeal is undeniable.

They rank in the top five for production, according to USApple. But packing one in a lunch box is a challenge. The largest can weigh in at just shy of a pound, defying the 6 ounces the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a portion. For cooking and baking, size is also an issue. What’s the standard when a recipe calls for four large? Are growers hoping large varieties will increase the average weight of a consumer’s purchase? Or is the giant apple a measure of the American appetite?

When it comes to breeding, some of the priorities are crispness, flavor, and color, optimizing growth for yield and disease resistance, and developing fruit to withstand the jostling of harvesting and shipping. “We look at all kinds of genetic markers, but size is not as much of a consideration in modern breeding programs,” says Dr. Nicholas Howard, a geneticist and apple breeder at the University of Minnesota and the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany.

An average apple has 50 million cells, and genetics plays a role in their number and size. Honeycrisp is categorized as medium to large, but with specific inputs, it can be giant. “Honeycrisp has a greater capacity for taking in more water or cell elasticity,” says Howard. That’s what makes it juicy. Its owes its size to its parents: the Keepsake, a medium to large sweet apple, and a University of Minnesota cultivar, MN 1627. A modern variety — like most apples sold in supermarkets — it was released into the market in 1991 and now ranks among the top ten apples sold in America.

You can’t talk size without considering crop load, or the number of apples on a tree. Generally speaking, the more there are, the smaller the fruit. In the essay “Wild Apples,” Henry David Thoreau writes: “I saw one year in a neighboring town some trees fuller of fruit than I remembered to have ever seen before, small yellow apples banging over the road. The branches were gracefully drooping with their weight, like a barberry-bush, so that the whole tree acquired a new character.”

Apple trees naturally regulate for optimal productivity, losing some of their fruit in a process called June drop. Orchardists mimic this thinning chemically or by hand, which is expensive. Applying a naturally occurring growth hormone to the tree slows carbohydrate production, and the tree drops some of its load to provide adequate nourishment to the remaining apples. The earlier in the growth cycle this happens, the larger the fruit. “Organic apples tend to be smaller because they don’t chemically thin,” says Howard.

While size might not be a big deal for breeders, it’s important to farmers. A 14-ounce Gala puts more money in their pocket. Beyond genetics and crop load, rootstock, soil management, fertilizers, pollination, ideal growing location, and pruning to increase sun exposure influence size.

Climate change is also a factor. When temperatures shoot up in March to unseasonable levels, it can trigger budding in trees. Follow it with a hard frost and a lot of fruit can be lost. For this reason, in 2017, Braeburn apples were coming to the U.K. market the size of a “baby’s head.” Drought also impacts size. The cells of a Honeycrisp can expand to absorb a lot of water, but when it’s scarce, they’re smaller. It’s a darling now, but water shortages may curtail its future.

Some apples, like Royal Gala, are patented and grown to specification. “Honeycrisp is not consistent in terms of size; anyone can grow it and call it by name, and there’s no control over the quality,” says Howard. Not long ago, the standards of uniformity would have made giant eating apples a hard sell. They were suitable for food processing, but the return to the grower was lower. Today, farmers operating on slim margins can’t afford to absorb the loss and are selling them to grocery stores, where consumers seem happy to buy them.

In supermarkets, it’s the same stuff everywhere, and it’s depressing if you like diversity.

While on tour promoting his new cookbook, “Apple: Recipes from the Orchard,” James Rich was astonished by the size of American apples. His family produces hard cider in Somerset, England, and size doesn’t matter when pressing for juice, just bittersweet or bitter-sharp flavors. As an outsider, he observed that in the fruit aisle, the American ideal of bigger is better.

Rich also became aware of the lack of variety globally while researching his book. “I asked friends in Australia and the U.S. to take photos of the apple selection at the supermarket, and I was in the U.K. The seven to 12 varieties were mostly the same.”

Howard echoes that: “I travel all over the world for my research and have the genetics for thousands of cultivars, but in supermarkets, it’s the same stuff everywhere, and it’s depressing if you like diversity.”

Zeke Goodband shares the sentiment. He’s the orchardist at Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont, a landmark trust property growing more than 130 varieties of heirloom apples. “At the end of the 1800s there were something like 17,000 varieties in North America,” he says. “I’m always on the lookout for apples that are new to me. If they’re still around, it’s because people found them of value or interest.”

Most of the familiar modern cultivars sold in supermarkets started as something entirely different. “When Gala came out, it was a distinct-looking orange apple, but growers immediately started to look for redder mutations,” he says. “It’s as if they want to make all apples look alike.” Goodband sells apples at the farm and in stores throughout Vermont with poetic names like Hidden Rose, Fox Whelp, Black Oxford and D’Arcy Spice. He sells to local cider makers and size doesn’t matter, it’s the flavor of the juice that counts. Tangy, bittersweet cultivars like Winesap, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Wickson are ideal.

The apples on display in supermarkets are for fresh eating, and what’s sorely lacking are cooking apples, which tend to be larger. “I cringe anytime I see Honeycrisp apple pie or Honeycrisp cider because it’s meant for fresh eating and doesn’t have the flavor for baking or pressing,” says Howard.

In the past, it was common knowledge that large varieties like Northern Spy (a grandparent of the Honeycrisp), Wolf River, Belle de Boskoop, and the British Bramley were the best for baking and cooking. Their large size made them easier to peel and yielded more flesh. “Spys for pies” fell from the lips of women in Northeastern states. Cooks and bakers were familiar with local varieties, and recipes called for them by number, a measurement Rich adopted in his new book.

Nicole Rucker, the award-winning Los Angeles pastry chef and author of the baking book “Dappled,” likes using a mix of supermarket and farmers market apples for cost and reliability. Depending if it is early or late season, at farmers markets in LA, she buys varieties like Windrose Gold and Splendor. Her recipe for Sour Apple Pie has a complex filling of up to six varieties. “I give weight measurements because it’s the standard for modern baking recipes, and most people do not bake enough to feel comfortable and have an understanding of size variation,” she says. Publishers also don’t want recipes with ingredients that are not readily available in national grocery stores.

It’s not all on the shoulders of consumers. When it comes to knowledge, a certain opacity may work to the advantage of the grower and seller. Sizing does occur, but it’s according to the number that fit into a 40-pound carton, running from 216 to 48 on the large end. The count and correlating weight are not posted in stores or referenced in cookbooks, so it’s no surprise there’s confusion.

Documenting the botanical diversity and beauty of apples is a passion for William Mullan, @pomme_queen on Instagram. He began photographing heirloom varieties as a hobby and it blossomed into a limited-edition coffee table art book, “Odd Apples.” Some of his specimens come from Scott Farm. It’s a surprise how many people connect to his sense of wonder and long for something other than supermarket aesthetic. Of the Northern Spy he writes, “If this apple had a Tinder profile, it will check every single box. It’s a perfect apple, in every possible way.” Large apples like the Calville Blanc d’Hiver, with its quince-like appearance, “keeps itself together when cooked, instead of turning to sad mush. It’s as if those humps where muscles holding its body together.” Or the Blue Pearmain, a New England native that’s a “big galactic beauty, Concord grape and melon bomb.”

For fresh eating, Goodband prefers a smaller fruit because they’re less of a commitment, and it’s not a meal replacement. He’s quick to point out he’s not a commercial grower and wants most of all for people to eat what they enjoy. There’s also an acknowledgement that a large apple is better for sharing. “Honeycrisp is a gateway, it’s sweet and crisp, but we try to steer people who visit the orchard toward other varieties,” he says. “It’s a pleasure when people discover the taste and flavor of something new.”

Writer & Chef (she/her) — @washingtonpost @Eater @CivilEats @Taste_Cooking @artofeating @FineCooking @KingArthurFlour @GlobeandMail @CBC

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