Your Complete Guide to Apple Picking, From Choosing the Best of the Bunch to the Most Popular Varieties

Learn how to make one of the most anticipated fall activities a success.

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Close up of ripe red and green apples hanging form a tree in an orchard
Photo: Rory McDonald / GETTY IMAGES

It's time to throw on your favorite flannel and get your basket ready, because apple picking season is right around the corner. Whether you're gathering a bushel to turn into pie, go bobbing, or coat in caramel, visiting your local orchard and snagging the ripest and firmest looking apples of the bunch is a tradition no fall would be complete without.

But before you jump right into it, there are a few things to keep in mind that will make the activity that much more enjoyable (if that's even possible!), such as knowing the right time to go and what to look for once you get there.

When to Go Apple Picking

While you can find the fruit in grocery stores year round, most orchards are closed for picking until it's prime-time apple season. Ashley Reese, sales manager at Eastmont Orchards in Colts Neck, N.J., says they won't open their fields until Saturday, September 17th. "We will have a number of varieties available at that time along with pumpkins, mums, and gourds," she says.

As for the best time to go apple picking? Reese recommends going at the end of September or Early October. "We still have an abundance of fruit at that time, which means the orchard looks full and colorful," she says.

How to Identify a Ripe Apple

According to the Wilkens Family, operators of Wilkens Fruit & Fir Farm in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., any apple picked straight from the tree is fresh and ready to be brought home with you. However, to identify one that's ripe—meaning it has reached peak color and taste and can be eaten immediately—Reese says to look for an apple that's good in size, has a lot of color, and easily comes off the branch. "If it's difficult to pull from the branch, chances are it won't be at its best," she says.

Popular Varieties

Ultimately, knowing if an apple is truly ripe or not will come down to its variety, as each hit their peak at different times of the season. According to the Wilkens Family, the most popular varieties for picking are McIntosh, Gala, Cortlands, Red Delicious, and Golden Delicious.

mcintosh apples
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In season towards the end of August and early September, McIntosh are known for their thick, red skin and tender flesh. With a tart bite and aromatic flavor, McIntosh apples are delicious when turned into applesauce or eaten fresh.

gala apples
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A cross between a Kidd's Orange Red and a Red Delicious apple, this variety comes into season towards the end of August. It's defined by its mildly sweet flavor, crisp and juicy texture, and granular shape. For eating, the Wilkens family notes that it's good for baking and applesauce, but it's also a tasty snack when enjoyed as is.

cortland apples
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Like McIntosh, Cortlands are a favorite in the commercial apple business, so you'll definitely see these at the orchard during fall. It ripens around the middle of September and is very crisp, juicy, and slightly tart. Because its flesh is slow to brown, it's ideal for apple salads, according to the Wilkens Family.

red delicious
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Red Delicious

One of the most widely known and widely grown varieties in the United States, Red Delicious apples are in season at the end of September. This one is known for being juicy and sweet, but it has a mild flavor that's best for eating fresh rather than using it for cooking.

golden delicious
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Golden Delicious

Despite having similar names, the Wilkens Family says golden delicious apples have no relation to red delicious. The popular variety—which is in season during the final weeks of September—has a sweet flavor and is identified by its light yellow skin. If you're planning to use your apples to make pie, you'll want to pick up a few goldens (they're also good for applesauce and eating fresh).

How to Pick an Apple at the Orchard

When choosing apples at the orchard, Reese says to look for ones that are firm to the touch and don't have any brown spots. Once you've found one you'd like to take home with you, exercise great care as not to disturb surrounding apples or harm the tree.

Avoid Fallen Apples

Since apples are freshest when on the tree, Reese recommends against selecting ones you've found on the ground. In fact, Eastmont Orchards doesn't even permit visitors to purchase fallen apples—instead they're reserved for animal consumption. "Since we are unable to sell ground apples, we ask that customers take care when removing apples so that they don't knock other apples from the tree," Reese says.

Don't Shake the Tree

While it may be tempting to give the branches of an apple tree a good shake to see what comes off, Reese says this is something visitors should absolutely never do. "It takes five years and countless man hours before each apple tree is at full production," she says. "By shaking branches and climbing, you will damage the tree. Please be respectful of the tree and the farm rules while you are on any farm or orchard."

Roll Upwards and Pluck

Believe it or not, there's a specific technique you should use when picking an apple off a tree. Grab the fruit in your hand and roll it upwards toward the stem; then put your pointer finger on the stem and gently remove the apple from the branch. This method prevents you from damaging the growing spurs on the trees.

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