McIntosh apples: A sweet-tart heritage variety

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Looking for a classic heritage apple with a tangy, fresh flavor and a fine, tender texture? Look no further than McIntosh! This sweet-tart juicy variety is popular for good reason.

McIntosh Apples (Malus Domestica) are known for their balanced tart flavor, fine tender texture, bright white flesh, and bright red & green bicolor peel. This variety was discovered in Canada in the early 1800s, making it a true heritage apple. McIntosh Apples are crisp and juicy when freshly picked, and are used to make some of the best applesauce around!

There are lots of reasons to love Mac Apples! Read on to learn all about McIntosh Apples and how best to use them in recipes.

Picking mcintosh apples

Origins of the McIntosh apple

McIntosh Apples are from Southeastern Ontario, in central Canada. They were discovered in 1811 by John McIntosh on his family farm south of Ottawa. John McIntosh and his wife Hannah McIntosh cultivated the chance seedling from a small sapling into a full-grown apple tree. Years later, the fruit tree was propagated by their sons for sale by the McIntosh family.

“Friends and family were impressed, so John extracted seeds from the fruit and grew seedlings to give away or sell to others. But the fruit those seedlings produced never tasted or looked like the fruit of his original tree. Almost 25 years later, an itinerant farmhand showed John’s son Allen how to clone the tree by grafting its branches onto seedling trees. These new trees produced fruit that looked and tasted exactly like the parent tree. The grafted trees were a hit, and selling them became a successful business for the family.”

Growing Urban Orchards: How to Care for Fruit Trees in the City and Beyond, by Susan Poizner

All McIntosh Apples grow on fruit trees descended from the original apple tree in Ontario. Branches are snipped off healthy apple trees and grafted onto rootstocks to make new baby trees – an ancient method of plant propagation.

Their excellent natural characteristics make them a popular choice as a parent apple for apple breeders looking to cross-pollinate varieties. McIntosh apples are a parent variety for more-recent introductions like Spartan, Cortland, and Empire.

McIntosh Red apples are now the national apple of Canada! They are also used in the branding of Apple computers.

McIntosh apples are not genetically-modified (they are non-GMO). These apple trees were created by natural cross-pollination of the pre-existing trees, the Fameuse apple and the heirloom, Detroit Red and were cultivated using natural methods.

Large wooden bin of fresh mcintosh apples

What do McIntosh apples taste like?

McIntosh apples have a tart, sour flavor with a hint of autumn spice. The tasting notes of the apple are almost citrusy but have a refreshing acidity that is enough to be effervescent when eaten fresh. McIntosh apples are exceptionally aromatic, making them a fresh-eating favorite of those who don’t like sweet apple varieties. The flavor is best when eaten soon after harvest when these apples truly do taste like fall!

Fruit sweetness and peel color intensity increase as the fresh fruit is left to ripen on the Mcintosh tree in early autumn. Late September mature plants can be very sweet in comparison to early September macs from the same tree. The daily temperature swings of autumn bring out the sugars in the fruit, as well as the red blush of the peel.

The soft flesh of McIntosh Red apples is tender, juicy, and bruises easily. The thick skin of this delicious apple is green and red. These apples are generally smaller than other supermarket varieties, making them the perfect snack for those who don’t like their apples too sweet.

“Macs taste cidery. It’s an edge-of-ferment flavor, like soft strawberries, what the old books used to refer to as vinous. They are savory and tart, with the slightest edge of curry lingering on your lips, sometimes quite noticeable a few moments after you’ve eaten the apple.”

Apples Of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders, by Rowan Jacobsen
Inside of mcintosh apple

Where are McIntosh apples grown?

McIntosh Apples are grown primarily in the USA (particularly New England) and in Canada. McIntosh fruit trees are the favorite tart cultivar of the northeastern United States and the Canadian east coast, where it is one of the most popular types of apples. The McIntosh is also grown around eastern Europe, including in Ukraine and Poland.

McIntosh Apple trees are among the more cold-hardy varieties and are therefore popular in northern orchards. Mac trees are also quite easy to grow, making them a great choice for home gardeners in cold climates.

Harvest season for McIntosh apples: A guide

McIntosh apples ripen in late September-early October in North America, right in the middle of the apple harvest season. These apples are in season throughout autumn and over the Christmas season. McIntosh apples sold in January-early September have generally been kept in controlled-atmosphere storage to extend their shelf life. While these apples are somewhat tart, the sweet flavor increases in storage.

Mcintosh apples in the grocery store

Tips for buying McIntosh apples

McIntosh apples are available for sale in colder apple-growing regions, including Canada, northern areas of the USA, and eastern Europe. They can be found in local supermarkets and orchardists at the farmers’ market or roadside fruit stands. They are generally available in the fall through early winter.

One pound of mcintosh apples
Three mcintosh apples weigh just slightly over one pound.

There are typically 3 McIntosh apples in a pound. McIntosh apples cost about $2-$3 per pound. The best time to buy McIntosh apples is in the fall during harvest season, when 5-lb bags are often available for $5, resulting in a great unit price of $1/pound of apples.

Bags of mcintosh apples in autumn at store
These 5-pound bags of mcintosh apples are priced at $5 during the fall harvest, leading to a bulk price of $1 per pound.

How to grow McIntosh apples

McIntosh apples are relatively easy to grow in comparison to some newer varieties. They grow best in climates where autumn nights are cool and the days are relatively warm and sunny. McIntosh apple trees can be grown in USDA growing zones 4-9 in well-drained soil, full sun, and proper upkeep.

A McIntosh apple tree cannot be grown from seed. A seed from a McIntosh apple that grows into a fruit-bearing apple tree will produce genetically-unique fruit from its parent, as the seed was pollinated by a different variety.

“Today there are millions of McIntosh trees around the world. Like all cloned or grafted varieties, all are made from a cutting from the original tree or one of its descendants.”

Growing Urban Orchards: How to Care for Fruit Trees in the City and Beyond, by Susan Poizner

Long-term storage of Mac apples

McIntosh apples can be stored for months, but their flavour is certainly the best in the first month or two following harvest. These apples can be stored in a cold room or cellar for two or three months, extending their home storage period over the holidays. McIntosh apples can be stored for 6-8 months in commercial cold storage.

When storing McIntosh apples, choose apples without defects, damage, or bruising. Pick the apples at the peak of their ripeness, allowing them to develop a nice rosy blush on the tree, yet harvesting them before they fall on the ground. Windfall apples can be used to make apple sauce, which can then be canned or frozen for long-term storage.

Making applesauce with fresh mcintosh apples from our backyard tree
Making applesauce with McIntosh Apples

What to make with McIntosh apples

There are many excellent types of dishes to make with McIntosh apples. This variety has a perfect balance of sweet-tart flavour and a uniquely soft, fine texture that cooks quickly. The tender skin easily breaks down into a juicy pulp when cooked, making McIntosh a great choice for sauce.

McIntosh apples are most commonly used on their own to make apple sauce and apple butter. They are also used in baking dishes that call for apples to be soft, tender, and almost creamy (such as cinnamon-baked apples). They can also be used to make apple cider and juice. Lastly, they are quite often mixed with firmer varieties (like Granny Smith) for use in a pie and or a tart to create a sweet, gooey sauce between the chunks of firmer apple.

McIntosh apple recipes: Bon appétit!

Here are some wonderful McIntosh Red recipes to try:

Baking with McIntosh apples

McIntosh apples are good for baking in recipes that call for a soft, almost-creamy apple texture. This apple variety cook quickly and becomes very tender when heated. When baking with McIntosh apples, it is important to understand and work with their fine, tender texture.

Baked dishes like cinnamon apples are perfect for McIntosh apples, as the cooked slices need to be soft enough to cut with the side of a spoon. An apple pie made with only McIntosh apples will have a very soft, pulpy inside.

While some audiences will appreciate a soft pie filling, others are looking for some firmer chunks inside pies and tarts. For this reason, McIntosh apples are generally used along with a firmer variety like Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, or Royal Gala, when used in baking dishes like pies, tarts, crumbles, crisps, and cobbler.

Substitutes for McIntosh apples: Try something new

Substitute apple varieties for McIntosh apples are generally other dessert apples with a balanced sweet-tart flavour and a soft texture. Some similar apple varieties include McIntosh’s offspring varieties Spartan, Empire, Liberty, Cortland, Jonamac, and Macoun. You can also use heirlooms Jonathan or Bramley’s, which are among the best apples for use in cooking.

Weighing a mcintosh apple
Green and red apple on kitchen scale
Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a gardening expert and founder of Home for the Harvest. She's also a professional engineer, certified permaculture garden designer, and master gardener in training. Mary Jane has been featured by publications such as Real Simple, Mother Earth News, Homes & Gardens, Heirloom Gardener, and Family Handyman.

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