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
- 1 qt 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
I slightly adapted this recipe from A Hundred Years Ago
Questions and Reviews
Hi- I am curious- why do you not have to remove the seeds from these? Apple seeds are toxic- I would like to make these but would like to know why it’s okay to leave the seeds?
I pickle them whole, but I do eat around the seeds when I consume them. The seeds are technically toxic, like apple seeds, but they generally pass through the system whole if eaten, and don’t cause a problem unless you ate a whole lot of them and somehow crushed them open.
Can I freeze crabapples with stems and blossom ends left intact ,
and cook from frozen , with added spices ?
I know you can freeze crab apples, but I’ve been taught to remove the stem and blossom ends first.
I always eat apple cores – the seeds are not toxic.
I would like to know how much the recipe for the crab apples is for? Is it for a dozen jars..?
This is a small batch, makes about 1 quart. I filled my 1 litre Weck jar.
I went to Crate and Barrel and the largest Weck Jar I could find was 26oz. Looks small. What size of jar are you using?
Mine are the 1 litre size, you can see them HERE.
It’s hard to find all the sizes out in retail, so I rely on Amazon.
Like most people, at least in America, I grew up believing all crab apples were super bitter and gross out of hand, but that all changed when I found a beautiful little cherry red crab I just couldn’t believe would be completely nasty so I tried it. To my surprise while it was tart, it was also nicely sweet and tasty! No one touched them so I picked every single one I could reach. That started me tasting every crab I found, most were inedible fresh, but soon I found an odd oblong solidly red crab, and truly, if they were full sized it would be my hands down favorite apple!! Every tree i find goes on a list so I can find them no matter what happens to whatever tree I normally pick. Honestly even though you don’t get much fruit eating them right off the core, about a 1/4 of what I harvest I can’t help but eat straight up!! So they are totally worth tasting, you never know what you’ll find. We think they’re called “John Downies”, just FYI.
The best applesauce I’ve ever tasted were made from those little beauties as was my favorite fruit curd. This year I’m going to try making a small pie from them.
I’ve made a couple of different pickled crabs and they are great. I’ll give these a try too. You can totally can jar/can these, but it is always smart to check the proper proportions first obviously. Some will split, I haven’t yet figured out how to keep that from happening all the time. Mine were cooked in the syrup for 5 mins, then removed into the jars and the was syrup reduced before pouring into the jars. I then water bathed them for 5 minutes only as I didn’t use huge jars and I didn’t want them mush. They were soft once finished, but not to soft to eat, however don’t take my timing to heart anyone, because technically I think they should have been processed for about twice that. A year later they were still fine, but again, a little research will give the proper numbers. I honestly don’t know what would happen if you didn’t pre cook them, I think you likely would get a less spiced version if you did that. But crabapples are totally worth the harvest and often easy to find as few other people pick them.
Love this Sarah ~ you’re a true crab apple aficionado 🙂 I’m going to have to look up your ‘John Downies’ ~ they sound incredible!
How long to process after making the recipe (as in how to can them..) ?
Hi Julie! I am about to try this recipe, because it looks fantastic. I will definitely be canning the crabapples and so my question is — do you think that I would need to cook them before canning? I was thinking I would just pack them in sanitized jars raw, bring the pickling liquid to boil and then do a 10-15 minute process. I worry if I cook them first, it will go to mushy land. I am planning to use larger crabapples and I do find they break down pretty fast. Jut wondering what your experience was if you have preserved. Many thanks – and love your beautiful site!
Hey Andrea ~ so, I haven’t canned these, but I would think it’s best to cook the apples, at least a bit to soften them. (Remember to prick them first, that helps them stay intact.) The recipe that I adapted was an old one that was originally canned, so it’s probably ok, but the main thing with canning is that the chemistry has to be correct for safety, so I don’t like to give directions if I’m not 100% sure. I did read that canned crabapples are usually water bathed for about 30-35 minutes. You can check out this recipe ~ https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/crab_apple_spiced2.html for the proportions of vinegar and sugar they used.
Thanks for the clarification Sue (and I am sorry I called you Julie!) I will check the specs for canning and report back.
lol, and can’t wait to hear how it goes for you 🙂
I’m wondering what proportion honey would be if replacing the sugar in this recipe?
I’m not sure Julie, you might try adding it to taste. As a general rule honey tends to be sweeter than sugar so you could start with half the amount of the sugar in this recipe, and work from there.
Its right into Autumn where I live, and yesterday, a neighbour gave me ‘branches’ of Crab Apples laden with beautiful tiny red fruit. I now have about 8 kilo’s of Crab Apples sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for me to do something with. I have to make some of Granny’s Crab Apple Jelly… (memories as a child, sitting in Granny’s old fashioned country kitchen in Surrey England} But I’m going to have a go at these spiced apples.
Living alone & plenty of organic veggies at my back door…and reaching my life’s ambition to cook from scratch…and preserve everything I can… I sometimes, instead of cooking a meal, I serve up, for myself a plate of anti pasta. I recon Spiced Crab Apples, would go down a treat, home made cheeses, olives, roasted tomatoes…. etc a bottle of red, a good old classic movie, wood fire burning. I can picture me now… laid back on the recliner, movie playing, eyes closed, mouth open, empty plate and wine glass. Probably not a good look. But who cares….
Thankyou for sharing this recipe.
Susan, High Country Victoria, Australia.
love this comment Susan, I think you paint a perfect picture, and you made me very hungry! You’re so lucky to have such a nice neighbor, I hope you enjoy these.
Susan- this is the BEST comment I’ve read all day…. and I aspire for the same things! Thanks for that.
do you sell them already in a jar ????
No, this is just the recipe, Francoise, sorry!