Heirloom apples were precious to early Americans. Here's why it's still important to seek out heritage varieties.
Credit: Gabriela Herman

"Think about Johnny Appleseed: Apples used to play so much bigger of a role [in our lives]," says Lucinda Scala Quinn, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia executive editorial food director. "Apples were the food, the sugar, the medicine, the drink [hard cider] -- and anything left over was used to feed animals. Apples weren't just for eating out of hand."

A recent New York Times article about antique apple expert Dan Bussy -- who has been cataloguing apple varieties since 1983 and has written a seven-volume encyclopedia of pomology that will be published next January -- reminded Lucinda of her visit to Maine apple grower and historian John Bunker.

Bunker explained that there used to be myriad varieties of apples, and often people didn't name them as much as say, "That's the cider tree" or "That's a sauce tree." People didn't need to name their apples; they just had to be sure to use the right apple for the right purpose.

Eating apples whole was less important than transforming them into applesauce and apple butter or making apple cider vinegar, which was used to aid digestion and treat inflammation. Apples were prized for how long they could keep without spoiling; their appearance was less important then. Today, apple growers say shoppers -- even at farmers' markets -- want pretty apples, but many of the heirloom varieties that are grown are less than picture-perfect, even though they likely have an exquisite flavor.

Bussy and Bunker are among a small band of antique apple partisans who are seeking out and preserving some of the many apple varieties that have been lost in the shuffle -- or, as Bunker says, "misplaced." So if you always snack on modern apples like Honeycrisp or Empire, seek out heirloom apples the next time you go apple-picking or pay a visit to the farmers' markets. Sure, try one out of hand. Just remember that its flavor and texture are likely to be decidely different than what you're used to -- but that means it might be an apple best suited for sauce or butter.

Fortunately, we've got an excellent point of reference. This comprehensive, historical apple glossary, which breaks down lesser-known apple varieties by texture and flavor.

See Our Apple Glossary

Above, host Thomas Joseph of our popular series "Kitchen Conundrums" takes the guesswork out of picking the perfect apple for salads, sauces, butters, and more. Isn't it great to have variety?

Tell us: Which variety of apple is your favorite -- and what do you use it for?

Comments (1)

Martha Stewart Member
October 25, 2014
Hi Martha! Thanks for another wonderful extra comment program about all of those delicious apples that you use for so many cooking items! My favorite is a Gala apple that I love to eat every morning with delicious cupcakes for breakfast! I get them at Costco all the time! Have another great day! Jan