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An Apple a Day: Meet the Arkansas Black

An heirloom apple that keeps on giving, this black beauty gets sweeter with age

Photo: John Burgoyne

Depending on which in-the-know apple-phile you ask, you might hear the flavor of an Arkansas Black compared to that of a Jolly Rancher or a fine cabernet: sweet with a hint of tart—and it only improves with age. That’s why chefs such as Ryan Ratino, executive chef at Bresca in Washington, D.C., consider it one of the best apples to work with. “I discovered the apple when I was in Florida—a farmer from southern Georgia was delivering them to the restaurant where I was cooking,” he says. “We could store them for long periods of time and the flavor would only get better. It’s less abrasive than a Granny Smith, with more of a black plum texture to the skin.”

First grown in Arkansas, near Bentonville, by an early settler, Arkansas Blacks have been dangling around the mountains of the Southeast since the mid- to late 1800s. If the heirlooms find their way to your local farm stand, grab a bunch (checking to make sure none have soft spots)—they’ll store in the refrigerator for up to four months. They are usually picked when they have a deep red color and then turn dark, almost black, as they ripen. Ratino recommends pulling them out of the fridge a couple of days before you want to eat them for ideal flavor.

When cooking, don’t be afraid to think outside of the pie; the Arkansas Black’s crisp texture is ideal for raw preparations (shaved over a salad of fall veggies, for example), and its flavor is the perfect sweet-tart hit for cider, applesauce, and preserves (see recipe). “I love to serve the preserves with a roasted pork tenderloin,” Ratino says. Even better, add them to your Sunday brunch spread. “They’re  great on toast. The preserves have apple and onion, so it’s a surprising sweet and savory morning meal.” 

The Chef Recommends:

Arkansas Black Apple and Onion Preserves

Yield: 2 pints

2 tbsp. olive oil
1½ lb. sweet onions
1 lb. Arkansas Black apples, peeled and diced
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
6 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tbsp. thyme leaves, chopped
1 tsp. sage, chopped
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup apple cider vinegar

In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-low and add onions, apples, salt, and pepper. Sweat, covered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and lowering temperature, if needed, to prevent the onions from caramelizing. Add garlic, thyme, sage, and sugar and cook for another 15 minutes. Turn up heat to high and, once pan is hot, deglaze with vinegar. After the vinegar has almost completely reduced, the mixture is ready to cool. Store in mason jars in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

Tip: “Make it a day or two out and let the flavors marinate. That’s the best way to get full flavor from preserves  or sauces.”