One of my favorite things about apples is the endless spectrum of flavor, shape, texture, and color—when you pick them outside of the supermarket. Most orchards offer the same handful of popular varieties, which I love, but they’re only a small slice of the pie. These commercial varieties aren’t popular because they’re the best, they’re popular because they’re the best for commerce. They’ve been selected for things like size, uniformity, durability, and sweetness—making them easier to transport and sell. They’re all cloned by grafting, so they’re genetically identical and you always know what you’re getting.
If you look outside the market, though, maybe even right outside in the yard—you’ll find a surprise on every tree. Apples grown from seed, like the ones that spring up in ditches, field edges, and smaller, more adventurous orchards offer a universe of flavor, not to mention a dogged tenacity for biodiversity, with no two seedlings ever the same.
Local orchards often have great prices for “utility apples,” “critter apples,” or “drops.” I like to get a couple bushels of these to mix in with the wild and feral fruit I’ve picked myself. I use as many varieties as I can find to add depth and interest to my pantry and winter meals. Every year I try at least one new method of preserving apples, but I have a handful of essentials, and I always start with sauce.
Basic Applesauce It’s peasant food, it’s primitive food, it’s baby food, and that’s why everyone loves it. Applesauce is likely one of the first things you ate as a child, and your mother, and her mother too. I eat it plain, straight out of the jar like when I was a kid, but I’ve also come to love it as a staple in the kitchen to add subtle sweetness and body to everything from batters to braises. Some like it smooth, some like it chunky, spiced, sweet, or plain, but no matter how you prefer it, at its heart it’s just warmed, soft apples, and all you need is a pot.
Time: 45 minutes (mostly passive) Yield: 5 pints
Ingredients 5-6 lbs. mixed apples 1 cup water Spices (optional, I omit to keep it more versatile but you can add cinnamon, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, etc.)
Spiced Apple Butter My second essential apple preserve is butter. It is truly the essence of apple, cooked down dark and concentrated with warm spices into something I can spread on buttered toast every morning for the rest of my life and not tire. Aside from enjoying it as a sugar-free upgrade from jam or jelly, I love to add it to sweet and savory sauces, braises, stews, and baked goods for rich, caramel-apple flavor.
Time: 3 to 24 hours depending on method Yield: 6 pints
Ingredients 5-6 lbs. mixed apples 2 cups water or apple cider ¼ cup apple cider vinegar ½ tsp. cinnamon ½ tsp. salt ¼ tsp. nutmeg ¼ tsp. ground ginger ¼ tsp. warm spices of your preference (anise, cardamom, etc.)
Dried Apple Rings Once I’ve done a round of sauce and butter, I like to fly through the rest of my large apples by slicing them thinly and drying them on a screen in a sunny window. These store well at room temp and make a sweet, chewy addition to breakfasts, baked goods, or anything roasted or toasted. They’re also my favorite in a hunting pack and as a car snack.
Time: 1 to 48 hours depending on method Yield: As few or as many as you want.
Ingredients Apples Water Lemon Juice (optional) Salt (optional) Sugar (optional)
Apple Scrap Vinegar After all of this coring and peeling, you’re staring at a mountain of scraps. If you want to squeeze the most juice out of your apples, you could either add these to your compost pile, or take a portion of them and turn them into vinegar. Apple scrap vinegar is one of my new favorite additions to the kitchen. Its bright and effervescent taste is so lively in dressings, marinades, pan sauces, and shrubs.
Time: Prep: 5 minutes, Fermentation: 3-6 weeks Yield: 1+ quarts
Ingredients Apple cores and peels, enough to loosely fill a ½-gallon jar Water 3 tbsp. sugar Splash of raw apple cider vinegar (optional)
Note: This vinegar should not be used for canning purposes because its acidity would need to be tested before canning safely.
Pickled Crabapples I hate to pick favorites but I think I saved the best for last. Pickled crabapples are jammy little pearls that I cannot get enough of. They’re easy—pickled whole, stem and all—and they look lustrous in the jar, on a pork chop, and they shine bright and tart with charcuterie.
Time:1 hour (mostly passive) Yield: 6 pints
Ingredients 2 qts. crabapples, stems on 3 cups cider vinegar 3 cups water 6 cups sugar 1 stick cinnamon 1 tbsp. whole allspice 1 tbsp. whole cloves 1 tbsp. whole cardamom Add any herbs or spices of your liking to the spicebag