Food News

What Is a Cosmic Crisp Apple?

This sweet, crispy, juicy apple took 20 years to develop.

Published Feb. 27, 2020.

Carolyn Grillo

On a chilly December morning as I wandered among a sea of other shoppers in the produce aisle of my local Whole Foods, a pyramid of larger-than-average, deep-red apples caught my eye. The sign next to them read "Cosmic Crisp." I gasped: I had been waiting months to try these apples. I called over to my wife and began dropping armfuls of apples into our shopping cart. Yet customers around me continued sifting through the Granny Smiths and the Galas, unaware that something special lay between them. 

No one else in the store seemed to know the amount of work and money it took to make these apples a reality. They took 20 years and tens of millions of dollars to produce, and then they launched with a $10 million marketing budget. Was it all worth it? Read on to learn more about this specifically engineered apple.

The History of the Cosmic Crisp

For generations, Washington State—the largest producer of apples in the United States—primarily produced Red Delicious apples. According to The Atlantic, in the 1980s, 75 percent of the apples grown in Washington were Red Delicious. By the 1990s, they were losing market share to specialty apples such as Gala and Fuji. In 1991, The University of Minnesota released the apple it had been developing—the Honeycrisp—and its popularity rose rapidly. Washington farmers needed licensing or a membership to a grower’s club to plant these specialty apples, but both these options were expensive and exclusive. Hoping to replicate The University of Minnesota's success with the Honeycrisp, Washington State University decided to breed its own apple.

Developing a Better Apple

Horticulturist Bruce Barritt and pome fruit breeder Kate Evans saw an opening in the market for an apple that was “firm, crisp, and juicy,” according to the Cosmic Crisp website. They crossed Honeycrisp and Enterprise apples, taking the best parts of each—the crispy texture and sweetness from Honeycrisp and the long shelf life, durability, and color of Enterprise—and methodically repeated the breeding process for 20 years. Originally known as WA-38, this apple got its name from a focus group who noted that the lenticels—small freckles that function as pores on the skin of the apple—reminded them of constellations. (See the photo below.)

The skin of the Cosmic Crisp has small freckles, called lenticels, which reminded focus group members of starry constellations—hence the name "Cosmic" Crisp.

Barritt and Evans had three main requirements. First, the apple needed to be able to thrive in Washington’s cool, rainy climate. Second, the apple must be crisp and crunchy as well as have balanced sweetness and acidity. And lastly, the apple should have a long shelf life, which would make it easy to transport and reduce food waste. The apple growers of Washington took a major risk, pulling out Red Delicious apple orchards and planting 12 million Cosmic Crisp apple trees in their place. Washington state farmers have exclusive rights to grow Cosmic Crisp trees for 10 years.

What Does $10 Million of Marketing an Apple Look Like?

In October 2019, the Cosmic Crisp was launched with a marketing campaign befitting an apple that took two decades to develop. The marketing features lofty taglines such as The Apple of Big Dreams. The theme of their first campaign was “imagine the possibilities.” Marketers didn’t stop there. According to The Telegraph and The Packer, this apple has six brand ambassadors, including a blogger, a teacher, and a former astronaut, who are responsible for promoting the apple and educating consumers about the brand. The Cosmic Crisp even has its own trailer.

It's worth noting that the Cosmic Crisp's debut and marketing rollout weren't without controversy. Some people feel that the industrial agriculture breeding, consulting and marketing initiatives, planning, and multimillion dollar investment in this humble pome fruit are more akin to a new product launch from the other Apple.

What Do Cosmic Crisp Apples Taste Like?

We were able to get our hands on some Cosmic Crisp apples in the test kitchen. We conducted a blind side-by-side tasting with nine editors, some of whom were born and raised in New England apple country and consider themselves “apple experts.” We tasted Cosmic Crisp apples next to Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, and Honeycrisp.

A team of tasters sample Cosmic Crisp apples alongside many other varieties in a blind taste test to see how the flavor and texture compare to other readily-available apple breeds.

How did the Cosmic Crisp apples compare? Tasters scored the Cosmic Crisp significantly higher than the other apples. They called the texture “crunchy,” “very juicy,” and “delightfully crisp,” with a skin that “snaps when you bite into it.” Its flavor had a “wonderful balance of tart and sweet.” Shoppers at the Whole Foods Market in Boston’s South End neighborhood must have agreed with our tasters, because when I returned a week later they were sold out—and have been ever since.

Where to Find Cosmic Crisp Apples

Since our local Whole Foods has been sold out, we have seen them on Amazon Fresh. Some staffers have seen them at other grocery stores around Boston. The Cosmic Crisp website details where you can find some around the country.

How to Use Cosmic Crisp Apples

While we don't have any recipes that specifically use this new type of apple, you could try them in our Apple Galette or substitute them for sweet apples in this Deep-Dish Apple Pie. Their balanced tartness would also lend itself well to savory recipes such as our Skillet Pork Chops with Apples and Maple-Sage Butter, Sausage and Apple Skillet Stuffing, or Bitter Greens, Fennel, and Apple Salad with Warm Pancetta Dressing.

Read more about tools we love for preparing apples and our favorite ways to cook with this versatile fruit:


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