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One of the many reasons why apples were such a popular fruit in previous centuries is the fact that they are one of the few fruits that will keep well in long term storage. Unlike berries that will only keep for a few days if you don’t dry them or turn them into jams and jellies, apples that are stored properly can often last for several weeks or even months. This is one of the reasons why knowing how to store apples for the winter months was such an important skill for our ancestors who needed to have enough food in storage to last them until spring.
For those of us living in modern times, though, it’s still a very helpful thing to know even if we aren’t dependent on our harvest to see us through the winter. Knowing how to store apples to last through the winter months allows us to enjoy having fresh apples for eating and for baking with for as long as we possibly can (because you can only make so many batches of applesauce with your fresh-picked apples, and it’s so nice to be able to enjoy eating fresh apples at Christmas time and beyond!)
Ideally, we would all have quaint root cellars on our modern-day homesteads with the perfect conditions for storing apples to last until spring. But since many of us, including myself, don’t have that luxury (at least not yet anyways!), we have to adapt some of the storage techniques that our ancestors used to our modern homes.
These six tips will help you to be able to keep your apples fresh for as long as possible:
1) Make Sure to Buy Fresh Apples
If you want to store your apples long-term over the winter, it’s important to make sure that you start with fresh apples. And by fresh I mean apples that you either grow yourself in your own backyard orchard or apples that you buy from a local farm stand or pick-your-own orchard. Not apples that you buy from a grocery store.
While it’s possible that you might find some fresh local apples during the fall season at grocery stores, a lot of the apples sold in grocery stores are ones that have already been in a controlled storage environment for several months or even close to a year, and once you bring these apples home they tend to go downhill pretty quickly.
2) Make Sure You Choose the Right Varieties
This is probably the most important factor when it comes to storing apples for the winter months because there’s a very wide range of storage times among all of the different apple varieties. Some apples start going soft almost as soon as you pick them from the tree while other apples will stay hard as a rock for months if you keep them in a cold place.
Many (but not all) older heirloom varieties tend to be good keepers since having apples that you could store for a long time was a big benefit in the days before modern controlled atmosphere storage was invented. And, in general, apple varieties that ripen later in the season tend to keep longer than ones that ripen early in the season. So, if you go apple picking in late August or early September, there’s a very good chance that the apples you pick probably won’t last you through the winter. But if you get varieties of apples that ripen in late September, October or November, then you have a much better chance of being able to keep them fresh through the winter months.
Apples that have thicker skin and a harder texture and heavier feel when you hold them in your hand also tend to be ones that keep well. Many of the russet varieties like Golden Russet and Roxbury Russet feel almost like rocks when you first pick them, but over the winter months they soften up nicely in storage.
Some of the apple varieties that tend to store well are:
- Arkansas Black
- Esopus Spitzenburg
- Golden Russet
- Granny Smith
- Newtown Pippin
- Northern Spy
- Rhode Island Greening
- Roxbury Russet
And there are many others too. Even though you usually see only a few varieties in most grocery stores, there are hundreds of different apple varieties, so if you come across a unique variety at a local orchard or farm stand, you can ask the farmer (or ask Google) if the variety is one that keeps well or not.
3) Think About How You Will Use the Apples
Another thing to consider is what you’re planing to do with the apples after you have stored them. If you’re planning to use an apple for baking or for sauce then it doesn’t matter as much if the apples get a bit soft and mealy in storage.
It’s important, too, to have realistic expectations when it comes to the texture of apples that you keep in storage. In our modern era, we’re used to apples that have been kept in special oxygen-free controlled environments to keep the apples crisp until they reach the grocery store shelves. In all of the previous centuries, though, having a perfectly crisp apple wasn’t considered the absolute necessity that it is today.
An apple kept in storage through the winter will most likely not have the same crisp texture as one that you buy fresh from the store, but the complex flavors that develop in many apple varieties throughout the winter months are ones that you’ll never find in a grocery store apple. And these interesting flavors are worth the trade off for a less crisp texture in my opinion (not to mention the fact that a lot of grocery store apples lose their crispness pretty quickly anyways, especially with varieties like Red Delicious).
4) Make Sure There Are No Bruises
It’s very important to make sure that you’re storing only apples that are intact with no bruises or broken skin because apples that are bruised will start to deteriorate much more quickly. It’s also a good idea to check your apples frequently throughout the fall and winter months to make sure that there aren’t any apples that are starting to rot because they will cause the other apples to deteriorate faster too. (This is where the saying that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” comes from because one bad apple really can ruin the rest of the apples you’re trying to store through the winter.)
I like to check over my apples once every couple of weeks, and if I see any that are starting to get a soft spot, I’ll make a small batch of apple sauce or make some quick fried apples to use them up.
5) Keep Apples Cool and Humid
Apple will keep the best in an environment that is both cool and humid. You want the temperature to be as cool as possible, but you don’t want the apples to ever go below the freezing point, and you want the apples to be in a place where the air isn’t too dry.
The most traditional place to store apples is in a root cellar, but since many of us don’t have that option in our modern homes, the next best place for most of us is usually the refrigerator. For storing apples in the fridge, keeping them in a crisper drawer is usually a good place, but you can store them on any shelf where you have room if your fridge is as full as mine is. Since the fridge can be a dry environment that might cause apples to tend to shrivel, putting them in a plastic bag with holes poked into it will keep the humidity at the right level. (Even though it feels very non-traditional to keep them in plastic rather than in a nice old-fashioned barrel in a root cellar, it helps them to keep longer.)
If you don’t have room in your fridge for all of the apples you want to store, you can also keep them in an unheated room in your house or in an unheated cellar or porch. It’s just a little bit trickier to get the right temperature that way because most modern cellars are still more insulated and warmer than a true root cellar would be, and if you keep apples on a porch than you would need to make sure that the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing over night or the apples will spoil.
6) Store Separately if Possible
In old-fashioned root cellars, the apples where typically stored in barrels on the opposite side of the cellar from where the potatoes were stored because the gases released from the apples during storage could cause the potatoes to sprout or spoil faster, and the potatoes could cause the apples to spoil faster as well. Apples can also have the same effect on other vegetables, too, so as much as possible, it’s a good idea to keep your apples as far away from your other vegetables as you’re able to.
For vegetables that you’re only storing for a short while before you use them it’s not a big problem to store them near the apples. But if you have carrots, potatoes, or other root vegetables that you want to keep for several weeks or months then you wouldn’t want to store them right next to the apples.
If you don’t have a root cellar and if you’re short on space in your refrigerator, it’s not always easy to keep the apples in a completely separate place, but you can put all of the apples in a crisper drawer and then store your vegetables in the fridge shelves. This way at least there’s some level of separation between the apples and the other produce.
And Enjoy Your Apples!
While these tips aren’t an absolute guarantee that your apples will last all the way through the winter, they will give you a much better chance of being able to enjoy your apple harvest for as long as possible. And depending on your apple variety and your storage methods, you might just be able to make some of your apples last until the spring (with the promise of other fresh fruit like strawberries coming soon!) I’ve had Arkansas Black apples keep well into March, and there are several other varieties that might have kept that long too if I hadn’t eaten them all earlier.
And one of the best parts of storing apples long term is being able to enjoy the changing flavors that develop during the months in storage. Some apple varieties (including many heirloom varieties) start off being quite tart when you first pick them off the tree, but as the weeks go by the tartness mellows out and other complex flavors come forward that you would never taste if you didn’t keep the apples in storage for awhile.
So, in addition to being able to preserve your harvest for as long as possible, you can also have the fun of experiencing the surprise of new flavors emerging with each apple you take out of storage to enjoy.
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.