Apples are wonderful when baked, play well with other flavors, and are fairly versatile. Apple cakes, pies, crumbles, and tarts, make for excellent gifts, breakfasts, or snacks…and who can turn down an apple cinnamon anything? The downside is that when raw apples are added to desserts, it can lead to leatheriness and undercooked fruit that’s tough to cut through. But you can fix that by sautéing your apples first.
The problem with baking with raw apple
When raw apple pieces are mixed into a batter, the apples release water during baking. That water has nowhere to go but into the batter surrounding it, making a wet dough pocket, and then it evaporates if it gets the chance, making a humid air pocket. If you’ve ever sliced an apple cake and piece of the fruit slips out, that’s why.
Putting apples on top of a cake isn’t great, either. When apples are laid over a cake or tart as an open-faced topping, they become dry and leathery. They lose flavor, become desiccated, and simultaneously become wet on the dessert underneath.
When raw apples bake for about 30 minutes at 350°F, not much changes about their structural integrity. It’s part of the reason why many apple pie recipes use a pre-cooked stovetop filling versus a raw apple filling. If you make an apple tart, the sliced apples you decorated it with will dry on the top, humidify underneath, and as soon as you attempt to push a fork through, the whole thing slides off of that water-slicked spot in one unbreakable piece of fruit. You were looking for that perfect bite of a-little-fruit-and-a-little-tart, but what you got was a frangipane tart with apple on the side.
Why you should sauté your apples before baking them
You can keep the texture of a firm apple and add a ton of flavor by sautéing your apples in butter before baking them. The butter seals in the apple’s juices so they don’t leatherize; pre-cooks the apples slightly allowing them to release excess water and finish cooking in the oven; and it takes only a few extra minutes in a pot or frying pan. It’s comparable to tossing veggies in oil before you oven-roast them. Once the apples hit the oven, the coating of fat allows for heat to be conducted more evenly across the entire surface of the apple and the apple will cook completely in the amount of time the entire dessert cooks, an average of 30 minutes at 350°F, allowing the eater to easily cut through the apple slices and get the perfect bite in every forkful.
Then there’s always the simple magic of butter: A coating of this delicious fat complements and improves the apple’s flavor and that of the entire dessert. Visually, the apple is improved as well. The butter allows the natural sugars of the apple to caramelize, and the butter itself will brown and take on that irresistible nuttiness it gets with the Maillard reaction. You don’t get that as well with a dry apple.
How to sauté apples for baking
To sauté your apples, cut them into whichever shape they need to be in for your dessert (usually ½-¾-inch slices or chunks). Melt some butter in a frying pan big enough for the amount of apples you’re using. For one medium sized apple, about 10 slices, I used a teaspoon of butter and a 10-inch non-stick frying pan. Over medium heat, add all of the apples and sauté for about two to five minutes, stirring and flipping the slices constantly (but no need to be frantic).
Depending on how you want the flavor to develop, you can turn off the heat after two or three minutes, once the apples soften slightly and become translucent only on the surface. If you like to keep a firmer apple texture, lean on the side of a shorter sauté. This allows you the benefits of a quickened Maillard reaction in the oven, while retaining the toothiness of a firm apple. For deeper flavor and caramelization, continue sautéing the apples until the edges of both sides begin to take on color—about five minutes. Take the apples off the heat and let them cool for a few minutes before adding any sugars or flavorings (in the case of an apple filling), or before using them to top your dessert.
After baking, your apples will be elegantly golden with even caramelization and a fabulous texture. The apples hold their shape, but as soon as you slice into them they will be delicate, sweet, and creamy. The edges will be bursting with the flavors of browned butter and caramelized apple sugars, and the entire dessert will be utterly delicious. Use the following sautéed apple recipe as a guideline for bigger batches, but I wouldn’t blame you if you ate them as a snack on their own.
How to make Butter Sautéed Apples
- 1 apple (sliced into ½-inch pieces) (I used Gala apples)
- 1 teaspoon of unsalted butter
Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium heat. As soon as the butter melts completely, add the apple slices. Stir and flip the slices constantly to coat the apples in butter for 2-5 minutes until your desired doneness. For slightly sautéed or small pieces, cook for 2 minutes. For browned-butter apples, cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool.
Use for apple desserts, or bake alone on a piece of parchment in a 350°F oven for 25 minutes and eat them as a new apple snack.
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