Old Fashioned Spiced Crab Apples is a vintage pickled apple recipe that makes the perfect fall side dish and a must at Thanksgiving!
I love vintage recipes, they’re a great way to shake things up in the kitchen because they come to you complete with a whole different set of food rules and values. This one for spiced crab apples goes back to the days when families would scrimp and scrounge to use or preserve every bit of food available to them, including the scrawny crab apples from the front yard tree. This is a lovely side dish for any fall or winter meal.
Crab apples are usually considered to be too small to bother with, and they’re super sour if you bite into them raw, so most people leave them for the squirrels. But the pretty flowering trees are common in yards, and come in lots of varieties, from the teeny tiny, to the ones I found, which are more like small apples.
What’s the difference between a crab apple and a regular apple?
In fact the difference between a crab apple and an apple is just size…under 2 inches is considered a crab apple. And while you can’t really make a pie with them, they have lots of natural pectin, so you can make jelly, or they can be pickled, or ‘spiced’, and then they make an unforgettable side dish. Growing up I remember spiced peaches and pears always showed up on our Thanksgiving table, and these crab apples are basically the same thing.
The apples simmer briefly in a sweet tart and spiced pickling liquid which softens them and allows the flavors to penetrate. You need to prick the apple skin with a fork so that they don’t split open as they cook, but there’s no peeling or coring necessary, the whole little fruits will get packed in the jar. I’ve updated the recipe by using cardamom and cloves instead of the typical cinnamon and they give this a vaguely exotic feel. Actually it reminds me a little bit of chutney.
You’ll want to find a large, wide mouthed jar for this project. My WECK JAR held almost the whole quart of apples. You can also use smaller jars if you have smaller crab apples, just make sure whatever you use can accommodate your fruit. I did a dry run first.
The apples will be ready to eat after a day, and will keep up to a month (or more) in the refrigerator. Serve them as a traditional side to meats and poultry, or sandwiches. I think they’d be fantastic on a cheese plate, too.
These are really really delightful! I hope you check out your neighborhood for crab apple trees, they’re in season right now, and If you want to know more about identifying and using crab apples, the best information I found is here, it’s from Ireland, but the info pertains to the States, too.
Old Fashioned Spiced Crab Apples
- a quart of crab apples
- 1 3/4 cups cider vinegar
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 Tbsp cardamom pods
- 1 tsp whole cloves
- Wash the apples well, and leave the stems intact.
- Gently prick the apples all over with a fork or the tip of a small sharp knife. This is so that they don't burst as they cook.
- Combine the vinegar, water, and sugar in a pot.
- Roll over the cardamom pods with a rolling pin or the side of a wine bottle to gently crack them open. Don't lose any of the black seeds. Add the cardamom (seeds and pods) and cloves to the pan and bring to a boil
- Turn down the heat and add the apples to the pot. Simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your apples. Use your judgement, you don't want the apples to get soft and mushy.
- Carefully remove the apples from the hot liquid and pack them into your jar or jars.
- Strain the pickling liquid and then pour into the jars, completely immersing the fruit. Let cool and then cap and refrigerate.
- The apples can be canned, as well, for longer storage.
- Makes 1 quart
notes and variations
I slightly adapted this recipe from A Hundred Years Ago