It may be hard to sell a blemished apple in a supermarket, but “you can sell a tasteless one,” British author Elspeth Huxley once tartly observed, “provided it is shiny, smooth, even, uniform and bright.”
You, friend, are not fooled by those waxed wonders.
The mere fact that you’re still reading this article indicates you’ve already decided to pick your apples this fall from their natural setting, fully enjoying the feel of sunshine on your back and the scent of crisp apples in your sniffer. How sweet it is to be an upstate New Yorker right about now.
The immediate area boasts plenty of places where you can pick your own apples, buy them just-picked or sample various goodies and beverages made from them. To guide you in your venture, a list of you-pick orchards follows.
But what kind of apples should you gravitate toward?
That’s where things get mighty tricky. One person’s all-time favorite apple may be another person’s “meh.”
So before selecting an apple, define what you want to do with it and whether you like your apples on the sweeter side (think Golden Delicious, Gala or Empire) or more tart (such as Macouns, McIntoshes and Cortlands). And whether you like your apples very firm or not so crunchy.
To get to the core of your needs and desires, check out the list of apple recommendations that follows.
Then, there’s the question orchard employees hear most often: What kind of apple makes the best pie?
Baking experts, including the folks at King Arthur Flour and cookbook author and television personality Alton Brown, go with this: There is no one perfect apple for pie making. For rich depth of flavor and a balance of sweetness in the filling, use a mixture of at least three, preferably four, different apples in the same pie.
Brown is known for an apple pie recipe calling for slices of Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Braeburn and Golden Delicious apples. Note that the first two types of apples are a bit more tart and firm-fleshed than the last two. That’s the whole idea.
In her pie recipes, cookbook queen Martha Stewart has favored such combinations as: Rome, Cortland and Granny Smith and, alternately, Granny Smith, Gala, Cortland and (a real heritage choice) Winesap.
The beauty in picking your own apples is, you can easily create your own top-secret pie-making combo. Just aim for two firm, tart apples and two sweeter apples.
Most bakers avoid using McIntosh apples for pies because they are high in water content, resulting in some shrinkage in the baking process. However, if you mix them in with other apples it’s less of a concern.
Enjoy the experimentation and get ready to receive compliments on your pies.
Now for that rundown of some favorite nearby orchards — or, to drop a Steely Dan line, “the where to go, the what to do.” Bear in mind that most orchards started their you-pick seasons during the week of Labor Day:
1174 Rt. 29, Schuylerville
Pick-your-own extends through the end of October at Saratoga Apple and those who wait until October to go pick will be comforted by these words from owner Nate Darrow: “We are very well-endowed with late apple varieties, late into the season.”
The wide variety of mid-season to late apples includes Empires, Ida Reds, McIntoshes, Macouns, Cortlands, Crispins, Jonagolds, Macouns, Granny Smiths, Braeburns, Fujis, Northern Spies, Spy Golds, etc.
There is one firm rule to picking your own apples here: Every adult who goes into the orchard must have at least one pre-paid $10 peck bag for picking apples, with each such bag being able to hold 10 to 11 pounds of fruit. Children ages 4 to 12 must be equipped with a pre-paid $7 half-peck bag, which holds 5 or 6 pounds of apples. Those younger than 4 don’t get a bag and are therefore not charged for entrance into orchard areas.
“We want each Suzy or Johnny to have a wonderful experience when they come to pick,” explains Darrow, “so that’s why we have a minimum for you-pick people.”
This farmstand is open all year and, due to special climate-controlled storage areas, can sell local apples at the store and at farmer’s markets yearround. “The low-oxygen environment puts the apple to sleep in refrigeration,” says Darrow.
Along with a real wealth of produce and gourmet edibles, the farmstand now has a cider pub featuring six beers on tap and six hard ciders. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are “pop-up” suppers.
1569 Route 9, Clifton Park
At this century-old, 100-acre farm, roughly 40 acres are devoted to apple trees. Most weeks during the season, 10 varieties of apples are available for picking by the public. The you-pick season only runs from four to six weeks here, so check to make sure it’s still on before motoring.
A new feature this year will be weekend story times at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m., during which children will be read simple stories about how apples grow, who Johnny Appleseed was, stories about pumpkins and, eventually, Halloween tales. In addition, apple pickers of all ages will enjoy a visit to Rainbow Delights, a shop offering sandwiches and soft and hard ice creams.
227 Blue Barns Road, Burnt Hills
Eight varieties are available here most days: McIntosh, Cortland, Jonagold, Empire, Macoun, Red Delicious, Crispin and Northern Spy. Picking can be done 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. But that’s weather permitting, so call before you go if it’s been raining. This year, pick-your-own will last “maybe through Columbus Day weekend,” says owner Alan Colyer.
Allow some extra time for a stop at the 109-year-old FoCastle Country Store, a separate business (once owned by Colyer) on the same road just north of the orchard. Cider, cider doughnuts, pies, gifts, kid-pleasing candies and a recently revitalized restaurant await.
141 Sugarhill Road, Rexford
Owner Kevin Bowman represents the second generation to run this popular business, but “some of the fourth generation is here, too,” in the autumn.
With its wide range of apples to choose from, the place is so hot and happenin’ that Bowman suggests visitors “come pick apples first during your visit, then go do the other things you want to do while you’re here.” The greatest influx of people coming to pick is from 1 to 2 p.m., so that’s when the line-up of cars can be impressive. Picking can be done 9:00 to 5:00 seven days a week, usually through Halloween.
The charge for picking is by the pound of apples selected. Other activities have separate charges and include such adventures as pony rides, horse-drawn hayrides, a cow train and a new apple cannon.
Cow train? “It’s for the smaller kids,” says Bowman. “Basically, they sit in little (cow-shaped) cars getting pulled by a little tractor. They do seem to love it.”
As for the apple cannon, “we’ve got a big one now,” he chuckles. “It looks like a massively huge machine gun where you put an apple in and it shoots out at a target 300 to 400 feet away.”
Good times, good times. Oh, yes, and then there are the usual baked goods, cider drinks, preserves and seasonal gift items to keep the adults happy, too.
267 Sugarhill Road, Rexford
More than 40 varieties of apples are grown here with “maybe 25 to 30 varieties” available to U-pick customers at any given time during the season, which runs through Oct. 31, says owner Duane Lindsey.
While you can score some cider, cider doughnuts and pies at a modestly scaled shop here once your apples are in the bag, “we don’t get into the entertainment,” says Lindsey. “We’re here for those into the picking experience.”
Customers’ on-line reviews of the place indicate they’re more than fine with that, praising the “more low-key and relaxing” atmosphere. Other comments: “Easy to do some quick picking” and “Many types very close to one another, not row after row of single varieties.”
660 Riverview Road, Rexford
Seven or eight varieties can be picked from trees planted, in many cases, before the turn of the previous century. You-pick tends to last until the third week of October, sometimes a bit longer. It can be done from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “unless it’s really raining,” cautions owner Isabel Prescott.
Prescott’s goal is to “really concentrate on families and children and give them a fun experience.” Apples picked are priced by bag size used (so it’s by volume, not apple type), but most of the family-friendly activities are free, including hayrides into the orchard and gazing at the ever-popular doughnut robot.
The “robot,” at work behind a window, punches out the doughnuts, fries them, flips them and then conveys them into the kitchen where they will be sugared.
“Then there are animals to meet,” adds Prescott, “and a hive where you can see bees actually making honey.”
Thatcher State Park is about six miles away, so bring your hiking shoes to accommodate a hike before getting on to apple selecting.
The orchard, run by the Ten Eyck family, recently became a centennial farm. It features a cafe, plus a cidery and brewery tasting room.
Lots can be learned about the land’s long, rich history. These days, the orchard’s website provides a special hotline number enabling callers to check which types of apples are available for picking that day.
6654 Dunnsville Road, Altamont
Visitors may pick their own apples on Saturdays and Sundays only, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Columbus Day weekend.
The charge is a flat rate based on bag capacity (pecks, half pecks), not types of apples.
The farm market offers both fruits and vegetables along with cider doughnuts, breads, pies and other pastries.
Terrace Mountain Road, Schoharie
Picking can be done here between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. seven days a week “probably until the end of October,” says a spokeswoman.
There is a flat charge for picking: $19.75 for every 1/2 bushel bag filled, regardless of variety. The 50-acre orchard offers free wagon rides around the farm property on weekends only.
Cider doughnuts can ward off hunger pangs when your apple picking goes into overtime. Also available: Hot coffee, cider drinks, handsome baked goods and various locally produced food items.
McINTOSH: Excellent for eating and highly recognizable for its somewhat flattened round shape and two-toned (red and light green) coloring. Nicely juicy and, early in their season, can be very crisp.
Flavored by those who prefer a thin-skinned apple of moderate size. Not recommended for baking, though, because of a tendency to go mushy.
RED DELICIOUS: Bright red, rather chewy skin with yellow-white flesh. A traditional choice for eating and for using in salads.
Once upon a time, this was “the most popular sweet apple in the country,” says Darrow, “but in the 1990s it started losing traction as other sweet varieties came along.
The best thing I can say about a Red Delicious is, it never offended anybody,” he laughs. “It was replaced in most people’s affections by Gala, Jonagold and Fuji.”
Coyler, another long-time apple grower, also has an interesting perspective on this variety.
“I never had much use for Red Delicious apples,” Colyer says, “but, I’ll tell you, I’ve got new respect this year.
“Last year, Caran (his wife) and I used Red Delicious apples to make applesauce, and it was great!”
Late in the season, when the apples are a tad sweeter and less firm, “just cook them down, adding no sugar, no nothing! The applesauce was sweet enough on its own. So there’s advice straight from the farmer and his wife.”
CORTLAND: Good for both eating and cooking, this apple gets fairly large and has a red striped appearance with undertones of yellowy green. Cortlands are known for a zippy degree of tartness.
If you see purplish streaks in the dark red part of the skin, that’s the sign of a Cortland with particularly well-developed flavor and a bit extra sweetness.
Says Darrow, “If a Cortland was a wine, you’d say a Cortland and a McIntosh share a great aromatic flavor. A very similar nose. My old-time favorite from when I was growing up in Vermont.”
NORTHERN SPY: OK, it may not be the prettiest girl at the dance, but a Northern Spy is nonetheless fully worth your time getting to know.
“It’s got a very subtle but profound — almost austere — flavor,” Darrow says. “A lot of old-timers use Spies for pies. Oh sure, it may be somewhat dull in color, with some blemishes and a pale skin. But people who like Northern Spies don’t give a damn about that.”
Crisp, firm, very juicy, with just the right blend of tartness and sweetness. A sure-fire success for cooking and baking.
MACOUN: Often more expensive than other apples, it is beloved for its high degree of juiciness and a great sweet-tart balance. If you like a McIntosh, you’ll probably adore a Macoun.
This variety looks similar to a McIntosh but has more pronounced coloring. Rich wine-red with a silvery gray bloom. Excellent for eating and well-suited to baking.
SPY GOLD: “I would call this a gourmet cooking apple,” says Darrow. “From a Northern Spy and a Golden Delicious. The Golden Delicious in it makes it sweeter. You can cut down the sugar a bit in a pie recipe if you use this apple. Outstanding flavor.”
NAPDRAGON: An attractive variety due to its “deep maroon and rosy ruby” skin and white flesh, according to Bowman, who names this as his favorite apple.
“Overall, it’s sweet and juicy like a Honeycrisp. It gets big but not huge, though. That makes it more snack-size, which I like.”
HONEYCRISP: Often more costly to buy, whether you pick them or get them in a store, because they are a more temperamental apple to raise.
In Darrow’s experience, each Honeycrisp tree has to be picked maybe five times during the same season because the apples ripen at different times and are prone to falling.
This variety has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. Features a lovely golden skin kissed by rose-blushed patches. Sweeter and juicier than most apples.
EMPIRE: A variety well-suited to either eating or applesauce making. With brilliant red skin and sweet, slightly spicy, juicy flesh, Empires produce a rosy-looking applesauce. Size is the smaller side, which makes them good for giving to children.
JONATHAN: A smallish, brilliant red apple excellent for eating, cooking, baking and making cider.
WINESAP: If you can even find some Winesaps, you owe it to yourself to try them. They have deep red skin and yellow-tinged flesh. Wonderful for eating, very juicy and better than most varieties for storage.