Spiced Brown-Butter Apples
Good cooking starts at the market, and cultivating a curiosity about ingredients before you put them into your shopping basket can have more impact on your cooking than any amount of technique or kitchen wizardry.Take apples, for instance. Honestly, they’re the most prosaic of fruits. Not only are they the third most widely grown fruit on the planet (after grapes and bananas), but, thanks to their ability to store and travel well, fresh apples are available year round in nearly every market. But you don't have to be an orchardist to realize that not all apples are the same. Even at the most bare-bones grocery, you'll find a range of shapes, colors, and sizes. If you visit an orchard or a farmer's market during apple season (an unrivaled activity for a fall weekend), you'll discover a dizzying array of varieties in hues from bright cherry red to russet gold, from golf ball to softball size, and many with lyrical names, like Belle de Boskoop, Reinette, and Ambrosia. But no matter where (or when) you shop, it helps to know a thing or two about apple varieties to make the best selection for your recipe.It would be simple if we could divide apples neatly into "cooking" apples and "eating" apples, but in truth most varieties are good for both. It's more a matter of what kind of cooking—or eating—you're after. A more useful distinction may be that drier, firmer apples (like Granny Smith and Northern Spy) tend to hold their shape best after cooking, while juicier, more tender varieties (like McIntosh and Macoun) are more likely to soften into a compote-like consistency. You'll find my cheat sheet for these general characteristics below, but the question of which apples to use when will depend on the results you're after, and which apple flavors you prefer.Many pie pros suggest using a mix of firm and tender apples to create a filling with a perfect balance of chunky and juicy texture. You also want to choose apples with some level of tartness, or a mix of sweet and tart fruit for deeper, more complex flavor. The same goes for crisps and cobblers. If you're making a classic whole baked apple or a French tarte Tatin, you'll want to select apples that won't collapse as they cook (Golden Delicious and Granny Smith are good candidates).In my kitchen, my favorite apple dessert is a pan of butter-roasted apples, because it works with whatever apples catch my eye at the market (with the exception of Red Delicious, which may be the only variety not worth cooking) and because the simple seasoning highlights their intrinsic flavors without masking them. I like to include a tiny bit of Chinese 5-spice because the blend of familiar (clove and cinnamon) with more exotic (star anise, fennel, and Szechuan pepper) adds warmth and complexity. Just take care not to add too much—it should be a backdrop to the other flavorings. The beauty of this recipe is that there's no fussy pastry or batter to weigh things down—or to give me an excuse not to whip this up on a weeknight. I often include a mix of varieties when I make this, and I've yet to find one that doesn't work. It's also a great way to learn firsthand how various apples behave in the kitchen. So the next time you stop by your local farm stand or market, grab a handful of different varieties and use this recipe to give them a taste test. It’s all in the name of research, after all.Apple Shopping Tips:- Choose fruit that feels heavy for its size. Apples should have tight, firm skin with no bruises or soft spots. A ripe apple will have a sweet, fresh aroma.- Apple season in North America starts in August and runs through November. Outside of these months, storage apples are readily available and often in great condition.- The earliest apples tend to be the most tart; fruits become sweeter as the season progresses. Sweetness can also vary from season to season.Apple Cheat Sheet:- Firm apples that their hold their shape after cooking: Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Northern Spy, Pink Lady (aka Cripps Pink), Rome- Tender apples that tend to collapse when cooked: Cortland, Empire, Gala, Fuji, Macoun, McIntoshApple Cooking Tips:- Always taste a slice of raw apple before cooking. Ideally, you want a balance of tartness and sweetness. If the fruit is overly tart, balance with additional sugar (or by combining with sweeter varieties); if too sweet, add lemon juice (or cider vinegar).- Avoid over-sweetening apple desserts; doing so weighs them down and destroys the nuanced flavor of the fruit.- Apple peels often have the most flavor. Unless the peel is super ruddy and tough, consider leaving the fruit unpeeled.