Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Consistency: Beyond taste and texture

There are many dimensions of apple quality beyond the obvious color, taste, and texture.

One might want to know, is this apple a good keeper? Does it excel for baking? If you cut it into cubes or slices will it retain its color or turn brown?

One less-obvious dimension of quality that I have been thinking about a lot this year is, for lack of a better word, consistency (or reliability). Namely, how likely it is that an apple will be as good as it usually is.

Eat a McIntosh apple in the fall and, barring mishandling, early picking, or misadventure, you are very likely to taste a high-quality representative example of that variety. This will be true from harvest to harvest and orchard to orchard.

On the other hand, the wonderful Cox's Orange Pippin is a little fussier. Depending on factors at which I can only guess, you might eat one that is merely excellent, versus truly outstanding.

So McIntosh is consistent and reliable but Cox's is less so.

The 2013 harvest, my fifth since starting this blog, was outstanding. I got to revisit many great varieties and was struck by the variability, or inconsistency, that some of them displayed versus their quality in prior autumns.

This year the Baldwins were really wonderful, crisp and balanced and flavorful, the best I've ever had. Reine de Reinette, on the other hand, did not live up to its potential. I've noticed that before.

Reine de Reinettes: Drama Queen?
These apples were reasonably fresh, so I do not believe their qualities as keepers were at issue. They just weren't the same as they had been.

Chalk it up to the weather, the tides, or the phases of the moon: you know when you get "a good one."

For better or worse, this quality is not reflected at all in my system of rating apples, which is based on evaluating each variety at peak.

My ratings will tell you that Macoun is an outstanding apple, vinous and crisp, but they are silent on your odds of getting "a good one" in any particular year. (For the record, those odds are very good.)

I give only five apple varieties my highest rating of three stars. Here is how I assess their consistency:

In other words, my favorite apples include some flighty, high-strung varieties that do not always deliver fully.

Consistency in this sense is a valuable attribute, for obvious reasons, so most modern varieties are very consistent. They've been selected for that.

One modern exception is Sweetango. Its reliability seems to be only fair, though the variability I have noticed may be partially due to handling issues for this fragile variety.

Consistency is obviously something you want to know about when buying and eating apples, but for now I will not be incorporating it into my rating system. (I lack the basis to do so comprehensively, for one thing.)

So if you try an apple and it's better or worse than I say, maybe you are on to something about its consistency. Share your experience in a comment to my review of the variety, if you are so inclined.


  1. i think this is a great angle to look at. It is complicated though. There is so much regional variability and many confounding factors as you point out. Still, some apples are more forgiving of everything from harvest time to handling and storage conditions and problems. Pink Lady is probably the most consistent common store apple I've encountered. Cox is a wash here. I haven't had a great one off my tree yet and have given up on it. Even if I get some great apples every so many years, it's just not worth it. So, I am inclined to qualification and disclaiming when talking about apple quality. I know that must be hard the way you rate things, but I think it's good to remind people frequently somehow that mileage may very likely vary, and that the chances of getting poor specimens of apples is actually quite high. I usually buy some heirloom apples at our local coop for testing, but rarely finish one (my main criteria for a good apple;). Even apples I know and love are rarely up to my standards for various reasons, most of which probably have to do with economics and logistics, but also over watering and probably just plain indifference. With a public that is really too forgiving in this department, incentive toward outstanding quality is somewhat lacking. So, I would urge everyone not to be too hasty to judge poor apples, even though I do it myself still and it's hard not to.

    1. What you say was very much my thinking as I set out to write this post.

      I also think it is hard to separate "consistency" from things like "good keeper" and "survives handling well" and even "was handled well this time."

      But over time I feel we are entitled to form an opinion about how reliable a variety is likely to be, all else equal.

  2. I would rate Braeburn as only "fair" in consistency. It's probably the least consistent of the "regular supermarket" apples. Golden Delicious can be pretty inconsistent at the supermarket, but I think most of its inconsistency can be mostly attributed to differences in ripeness. If it's green it's going to be lousy. If it's strikingly gold with a nice blush, it will be ok.

    I am not surprised about the Reine des Reinettes. Given the difference between your review and the one at Orange Pippin, I suspected as much.

  3. I imagine consistency would be very high up on the list of requirements of a category manager for the supermarket chains. Surely they want to try and make sure for a given variety that an apple is an apple is an apple just like coke and cornflakes are always the same and consistent.

    1. And fundamentally it matters to consumers too.

      Yet consumers and growers put up with inconsistency for Sweetango, and retailers are often the weakest link in the handling chain.

  4. mschmidt62 (aka Mike)February 3, 2014 at 3:35 PM

    Upon further reflection I am not so sure about my comments about Braeburn. It seems that a lot of the variation in Braeburn correlates with color, so it could just be variation in ripeness rather than any other sort of cultural variation.

    I just ate a supermarket Braeburn that was very ripe and maybe a little mealy on the sunny side of the apple. It had a slight overripe taste to it, a lingering aftertaste at the back of the palate, that I am having a hard time thinking of an analogue for. I kinda liked the interestingness of it, even though it wasn't a flavor that I would expect to be very popular. It might be similar to the "bitter" apple flavors that make it into good ciders.

    1. Multiple accounts, Mike?

      I was going to agree with your previous comment. I'm not a huge fan of Braeburn (though I eat them sometimes) and part of the reason is that I can't count on them to be good, though they sometimes are.

      Hard to separate this from ripeness and handling though.

    2. Yeah, sorry about the multiple account thing--sometimes I sign in with google (Mike) and other times I reply signed in as just mschmidt62 with the name/URL option. I try to be consistent but then I forget.

  5. No, I take that back. The bitter in bittersweet and bittersharp apples is due to astringent tannins, and this wasn't tannic. Amines, maybe?

  6. Maybe I should start my own blog, entitled "The Braeburn that I ate today." The entry for February 22 would be "wow, this one is fantastic." I had forgotten that I still had some nice, very red Braeburns in the crisper drawer from last week's shopping trip. I had eaten a Piñata earlier, trying to discern what made you give that variety two stars, and all I came up with was "Golden Delicious is evident here." So I took a break from the Piñatas and ate this old Braeburn. I honestly think the best Braeburns beat almost anything in my own personal taste universe. I don't have the wonderful flavor vocabulary you have, so I have a hard time describing what makes a Braeburn like today's Braeburn so wonderful, but it's been 10 minutes or more since I finished that apple and the taste still lingers. Maybe I would describe it as sort of a brown-sugar finish--but overall the apple is less sugary than many others. It's just rich.

    1. "The Braeburn that I ate today." Now there is a niche blog!


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