Be a scrumper: Tiny and tart, plentiful crab apples make a delicious jelly

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

Fall means it’s time to head to the orchard and pick apples. Though if it’s apple jelly you’re looking to make, you may have another option right in your own backyard, or perhaps that of a friendly neighbor. I’m talking about crab apples.

Grown for ornamental purposes and their abundant spring flowers, the fruits of crab apple trees are often believed to be poisonous or unsafe to eat. But that’s not true. While they are often intensely sour, they are perfectly edible. The only real difference between a crab apple and a regular apple, by definition, is the size. Crab apples are simply apples that are less than two inches in diameter. And just as with apples, they come in countless varieties, flavors and shades of color.

From what I can tell, it seems that the confusion about crab apples being poisonous is related to their seeds, stems and leaves, which do process into cyanide when digested just like those of ordinary apple trees. However, we don’t eat any of those parts of the apple tree and no one is suggesting you eat crab apple seeds either. If by chance you, your pet or your child does ingest these parts of the plant, the result is most likely just an upset stomach. In other words, we shouldn’t worry about it.

That’s exactly what I was pondering on a walk home on a recent evening when I passed a crab apple tree with piles of apples just lying in the grass beneath it. I picked one up, took it home, gave it a good rinse and gave a small piece a try. It was bitter, sure, but it was not bad. I kind of liked it. So I went back with a bag and took as much as I could. They were just going to rot anyway.

I looked up crab apple jelly recipes and found one in my copy of “Saving the Season” by Kevin West. He calls the recipe Scrumper’s Reward, a scrumper being one who steals from orchards. Luckily, I had one of these trees in a common area of my neighborhood. I don’t recommend stealing from any yards, but I also don’t believe in wasting perfectly useful food either. Your call. But I won’t bail you out of jail if that’s where you end up.

The jelly is fantastic. It has more depth and interest than any regular apple jelly I’ve ever made. And it’s not nearly as sweet either. The addition of the white wine and thyme add some sophistication as well, making this a good accompaniment to cheese and crackers or as a glaze on roast pork. Or, if you’re like me, and looking for some frugal, yet thoughtful, gifts, here you go.

Crab apple & thyme jelly
Makes about 5 half-pint jars

  • 5 pounds crab apples
  • Water
  • Sugar
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • A small bunch of fresh thyme

Thoroughly rinse the crab apples in warm water. Halve each crab apple and remove the stems and any leaves or residue on the bottom of the apple.

Add the crab apples to a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 30 minutes. Afterwards, strain out the apples through a fine-mesh strainer or colander and save the liquid — this is your apple stock. Squeeze out as much liquid from the apples as you can into the stock, then compost the apple solids, as you won’t need them here.

Either wipe out the same pot or get yourself a clean one. Measure your apple stock (weigh it if you can), then add this to the pot with an equal amount of sugar. Whisk to dissolve the sugar and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes and as it cooks, tie all but a few sprigs of thyme together with a piece of kitchen string. Add the wine and thyme, and continue cooking until a thermometer reads 225 degrees, the gel point. This could take up to another 30 minutes. When done, remove the bunch of thyme.

Make sure your jars are clean and hot and add a small piece of the reserved thyme into each jar. Ladle in the jelly, secure with the lid and ring and process in a water bath for 10 minutes. Please look up water bath canning best practices if you’re not already familiar with them. If you’d rather not can your jelly, it should keep in the fridge for up to three months.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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