FOOD: Taste Test — 25 Apple Varieties at Farmers Market

Jimmy's family gets down to business judging the 25 varieties he lugged home from the Farmers Market.

Jimmy's family gets to work judging the 25 apple varieties he lugged home from the Farmers Market. . .

Story and Photos by Jimmy Scarano


One of the great benefits of the local food movement over the past decade has been the increased diversity of fruits and vegetables available at farmers markets. “Old-time” and heirloom varieties, along with cutting edge hybrids and disease-resistant strains, are everywhere.

Apples are a prime example.

On my last visit to the City’s Farmers Market I spotted 25 varieties of the iconic fall fruit. That’s four or five times as many as the supermarket, even in the dead of autumn.

But are all the apples really that different?

I wanted to do a sit down tasting of every variety I could get my hands on and come up with a list of the best apples in Falls Church.

This proved to be my most challenging taste test yet, as I had to take notes on each apple’s appearance to be able to tell the varieties apart before I could get them home and line them up. I cleaned out one of each kind from Toigo Orchards, Sunnyside Farms, and Black Rock Orchard, often getting strange looks from the vendors as I scribbled notes.

I drew a lot of attention at Black Rock Orchard in particular. A woman slicing up samples for market-goers asked what I was doing with the pen and pad and when I said I was writing a story about apple varieties she insisted on calling me Mr. Reporter Man. Then she just kept talking to me about apples, which I think might have bothered a normal person but didn’t bug me in the least. I could talk about apples all day. She insisted that the Idared was the best baking apple of all time. For eating, she liked the tart-sweet Suncrisp. And she hated Honeycrisps, the ultra-popular, super sweet and crunchy apples that have seen a meteoric rise to fame in the last five years. I was able to slip away when she started ranting at a customer who only wanted to buy Honeycrisps.

When I finally left the market the 25 samples I’d gathered totaled almost 15 pounds. Thankfully, the tasting was a family affair, with my mom, brother, sister, aunt, and aunt’s boyfriend all participating.

The tasting itself was simple. With my handy descriptions of each variety in my notebook, all I had to do was take the apples out, line them up, and assign each variety a number. Each taster was given a piece of paper numbered 1-25 and one by one I picked up an apple, sliced it into six pieces (with the skin on), and passed it around the table.

We ate the apples leisurely, sometimes discussing the texture and aromas and other times not saying much at all. The 25 apples seemed daunting at first but turned out to be a breeze to get through. I could have done 50 no problem.

Though there were some discrepancies among the tasters, for the most part we agreed on which ones were good and which ones not so good. I’d say the results reflect the collective apple thoughts of everyone that participated in the tasting.

Rather than declaring winners and losers, I’ve devised five categories that I think better illustrate how the apples fared (note that some apples double as good eaters and good bakers).

The Elite Eating Apples: Honeycrisp, Mutsu, and Liberty. It didn’t shock me at all that Honeycrisp and Mutsu were two of the most-loved apples. I’ve been a fan of both for quite some time. Honeycrisps are a product of the renowned University of Minnesota apple breeding program and are incomparably juicy and sweet, with a crispness that is somehow apple-defying. They are almost a different fruit entirely. Mutsu apples, otherwise known as Crispins, originated in Japan in the 1930s by crossing a Golden Delicious and an Indo apple. We liked our Mutsu for its sweet-tart balance and remarkably crisp texture. It also had an almost citrusy complexity that everyone enjoyed. The Liberty was a new apple to all of us and a pleasant surprise. It might be my new favorite apple. It had a beautiful white flesh and a sweet and sour flavor unlike any apple I’ve had.

The Good Eating Apples: Suncrisp, Jonagold, Grimes Golden, Granny Smith, Fuji, and Empire. Though these varieties didn’t offer the same balance and crispness of the top choices, I’d happily sport any of them in my fruit bowl. A Grimes Golden, Jonagold, or Fuji will satisfy any eater looking for a sweet apple. All three had very little acid. The Grimes was a particular favorite of a few tasters because of its floral, pear-like taste. If you’re a Granny Smith devotee I’d recommend Suncrisp or Empire as an alternative. Both were tart and juicy.

The Acceptable Eating Apples: Arkansas Honeycrisp, Autumn Crisp, Gala. These one-note apples were edible, but I wouldn’t reach for them unless I had no other options. Gala is widely available everywhere these days and well-liked by many. Our sampler was almost candy sweet, which some enjoyed and others didn’t. Autumn Crisp was tart but flavorless and Arkansas Honeycrisp tasted nothing like its more famous cousin—it was perfume-like, very sweet, and a little mushy.

The Best Baking Apples: Mutsu, Granny Smith, Empire, Suncrisp, Autumn Crisp, Liberty, Snapp Stayman, Idared, Red Winesap. Serious apple connoisseurs will get into heated debates about what constitutes a great baking apple. I say that any apple that is tart and firm makes for a good cooking apple. Personally, I think the more types of apples you toss into a pie or crumble, the more complex and tasty it will be. Any of these apples, mixed or on their own, would be a good choice for baking. It’s worth pointing out that the Snapp Stayman and Red Winesap had an astringent, winey quality that seemed strange to some people. I happened to like both and threw them in with the rest of my bakers for a delicious apple crisp. 

The Animal Feed Apples: Cortland, Mountaineer, Rome, Smokehouse, Ambrosia, Nittany, McIntosh, Cameo, Golden Delicious and Jonathan. There were a surprising number of apples that just plain stank. Most offensive were Smokehouse, Mountaineer, and Jonathan, which were mealy and off-putting. We agreed that the Mountaineer tasted like paper and the Smokehouse was one of the worst apples ever. Nittany, Cortland, Rome, and Cameo weren’t much better. Nittany had a vegetable taste to it that was strange and the other three just fell flat in the flavor department. Were they even apples? The Ambrosia was the oddest of any apple we tasted. It had a winey, olive-like, fermented taste that is difficult to explain. It’s easier just to tell you not to get one. The Golden Delicious and McIntosh samples we had were mushy and gross. I’ve had good examples of both of these apples before, but based on the tasting I won’t be getting them anytime soon at the farmers market.


After the tasting I spent all week thinking about apples. I rented some books, perused the Internet for hours, and even contemplated driving down to Monticello tomorrow (Oct. 17) for the annual tasting of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple varieties (few of which I have ever heard of).

In the end, my research didn’t lead to anything other than a greater appreciation for the unbelievable variety of apples in the world and the ingenuity farmers and apple breeders must have to produce new apples and preserve old ones.

The wild world of apples is far beyond the scope of a column about food in the City of Falls Church. My only hope is that I’ve opened the door a little for anyone who’s been stuck in a Red Delicious rut for 20 years. When the leaves start changing there are apples beyond the supermarket shelves and some of them are really good.

October 16, 2009 


9 Responses to “FOOD: Taste Test — 25 Apple Varieties at Farmers Market”

  1. Annette Hennessey on October 16th, 2009 3:00 pm

    Thanks, Jimmy! Wish I had read this before I took three kids apple picking last weekend. I’ll trade you some Pink Ladies for a Liberty. (My three bushels of Pink Ladies will last us a while!)

    Note to self: keep a more watchful eye on the kids while picking unless you want a WHOLE mess of apples…

  2. TFC on October 16th, 2009 3:02 pm

    Now, if you would please make 9 pies with your baking apple varieties and invite us to sample! ..on second thought…you may need a few more than 9 pies…maybe the rental kitchen up by GM would donate kitchen time? I’ll help peel.

  3. vlfrance on October 17th, 2009 4:03 pm

    Along with the pie theme…taste test the ice creams offered at the market to see which is best a la mode with apple pie! Okay, right, I guess that’s a little out of hand…

    Great apple reporting and sadly my pedestrian palate runs to the acceptable eating category with the sturdy gala standby. You’ve inspired me to go apple upmarket!

  4. S Frost on October 24th, 2009 7:04 pm

    What a great idea! Maybe a bit pricey… I was sad to read that Jonathans rated “Animal Feed”. I remember my dad ordering a box of them every fall–something we all looked forward to. But they weren’t mealy then. I wonder what makes an apple mealy?

  5. Tom Jones, Alexandria on June 5th, 2012 1:23 pm

    Sadly, the apple selection at the Falls Church farmers’ market is kind of poor. While they have a lot of varieties, there, the examples of the various varieties are kind of poor – particularly the past two years or so. Most of the apples coming into the Falls Church market seem to come from counties in Maryland and PA north of the market. It’s been a suboptimal couple of years for apples coming out of those areas. Better apples have been coming from the Westmooreland area of Virginia (though the 2011 season was kind of poor, even for them).

    At any rate, sampling the apples from the Falls Church market (even when this article was written) doesn’t really give as good a census as markets that source from the Virginia apple-growing regions.

  6. Judy Magavero on November 21st, 2012 9:37 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. I arrived at it while searching to find out if the Mountaineer apples for sale at a produce store in Chattanooga, TN is the same as York apples. I found some of your ratings very informative and accurate. I would suggest that readers not rule out apples that were meally in the sampling from the Falls Church market. If those apples had been held too long or picked too ripe, they would not have the great qualities of their variety. I love Fujis, Winesap and York and have enjoyed Nittany when they were available locally. I find Pink Lady and Jazz too acid to my taste. I love this apple time of year.

  7. Dale Charles/Pikeville, KY on September 23rd, 2013 2:13 pm

    I have to disagree with the testers early on. To call the Mountaineer apple an animal feed apple is most definitely a falsehood in my eyes. I purchased a 1/2 bushel of mountaineer apples on a whim last year at the Paintsville, KY Apple Days Festival. Honestly, between my wife and two kids we had eaten the whole bag in one week. They were very tart, tangy, juicy and crisp. They were very similar to a Winesap, but crisper in that they held up well and didn’t just crumble in your mouth. I am very excited that Apple Days is right around the corner and I can possibly get a bushel to put up this year. They are AWESOME! Within the near future I hope to be able to purchase a Mountaineer apple tree. It may be possible that what I think is a mountaineer apple and what you think is a mountaineer is not quite the same thing, because I have read conflicting stories on the history of it. One was possibly developed or discovered in the 1800’s and the other within the last 10-15 years in Pennsylvania. If you have further information about it I would be interested.

  8. Andrea Nelson Arlington on October 9th, 2013 8:45 am

    This is such a great serendipity that I found your article…I was googling “Nittany Apples” trying to figure out where to get my absolute favorite, but hard to find apple. How odd that your tasters didn’t like it. Perhaps it is a bad batch this year? Regardless, I have to get to the farmers market to try out your picks (and get my beloved Nittanys).
    I’m also glad that you included a section on baking apples. I teach cooking classes for children, and we will be baking apple tarts next week! I love to get locally sourced food for the classes, so your article was super helpful!
    Andie, Creative Kids Kitchen

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