Apples are a well-loved and familiar fruit to Americans. In fact, after bananas, they are the most popular fruit in the United States. Not only do we enjoy eating them, they are also a part of our cultural identity. Apples are as American as, well, apple pie.

But apples are not actually native to the Americas. European settlers brought apples with them and planted trees in their new homeland. Soon those trees were cross-pollinating with our native crab apple and varieties of apples unique to North America sprang up. Apples can be eaten raw, as a part of a salad, they can be sautéed, baked whole, pureed into sauce, or used as the components of pies, tarts and fritters. Apples are very nutritious. They are high in soluble fiber, which helps to reduce our cholesterol levels. They contain flavinoids, which reduce the risk of cancer, and they are a good source of vitamins A and C as well as folic acid. At last count, there were over 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the US alone (There are over 7,000 varieties throughout the world.) With so many different varieties on the market, buying this “familiar” food can be daunting.

When choosing an apple to eat by itself, look for varieties that are firm and crisp with a good amount of juice. Baldwin, Cortland, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Mutsu, Red Delicious, Rome and Winesap are all great for enjoying as a snack. Apples are also a wonderful addition to both fruit salads and green salads. Look for Cortland, Empire, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Ida Red and Mutsu to add to salads. When picking an apple for applesauce, choose a variety that releases a lot of juice and softens completely. Rome and McIntosh are good choices. Apples for pie have the qualities of both eating and sauce apples. They should retain their shape when cooked but also be able to become nice and tender. Most bakers favor apples with a more tart flavor, which helps balance out the flavors of the pie. Cortland, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Greening, Mutsu, Pippin, Rome and Winesap all make nice pies.

On the East Coast, the harvest runs from August through December and generally peaks in October. Choose apples that are firm and unblemished. It is best to store apples in a cool room, or the refrigerator. Try to store the apples in a single layer and don’t store overly ripe apples or those with broken skin near other apples. When an apple is damaged, it emits ethylene gas, which will cause the other apples to ripen too fast.

Recipes: Apple and Leek Hash, Apple Upside-down Cake, Homemade Apple Sauce