The Fruit That Traveled the World
The genetic origin of all our modern day apples can trace its roots back to a mountainous region of what is known as modern day Kazakhstan, a country in central Asia, but it was the Romans and Greeks that became the masters of apple grafting (grafting is a technique wherein a section of stem that includes buds is carefully inserted into the stock of another tree in order to propagate a desirable variety).
Apples have an intense genetic variability (known as “extreme heterozygotes”) which means that a seed produced from any given apple will produce an apple tree, but it may not produce fruit exactly like the tree it came from and could instead produce fruit that expresses any variable within its genetic make-up.
When early Europeans came to the United States, they brought seeds and grafted trees with them. They soon discovered that the grafted trees did poorly in the harsher soil of the United States, but the seedlings did very well. Eventually, regional varieties that were better able to withstand the differences in temperatures, soil composition, and growing seasons, thrived.
Most of the apples grown in early America were not grown to be eaten- they were grown to be made into hard cider, a lightly alcoholic drink that was consumed by all ages and was thought to be safer than questionable water sources that might be full of harmful bacteria.
At the turn of the 19th century, the Ohio Company of Associates, a private land company, offered an incentive to settlers to move to the Northwest Territory and set up a permanent homestead by granting them 100 acres of land. In order to prove the permanence, they were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees.
The genetic diversity of apples peaked between 1804 and 1904 when over 7000 worldwide commercial varieties were described. Now, most of the world’s commercial production is based on two varieties: Red and Golden Delicious. Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933) dealt another devastating blow to genetic diversity and apple production. Apple trees that produced sour or bitter apples (the ones most commonly used for hard cider production and unsuitable for eating fresh or canning) were chopped down by FBI agents. Apple growers were forced to promote the fruit for its health benefits and not for its intoxicating properties.
Today there are nearly 100 varieties of apples grown in the United States, but 15 popular varieties account for almost 90% of production. The most popular are: Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Gala, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, Idared, Jonagold, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Rome.
However, the modern homesteaders shouldn’t limit themselves to the most popular, as delicious as they may be. Many heirloom varieties are available and can be easily grown in your own orchard. Choosing the right variety for you depends on how you intend to use them. Some varieties are more suited for cooking, eating out of hand, long term storage, or making cider and some offer the versatility of being suited for more than one purpose.
- Of the popular varieties, the Granny Smith may be the best know heirloom. Known for its bright green peel and tart flavor, this all purpose apple works well in a variety of uses from eating out-of-hand, to pies, to applesauce.
- This apple, arguably the best apples for long term storage, has a deep red color with firm flesh and a tart flavor that softens and mellows in storage.
- This juice/hard cider apple is also known as the Hewe’s Crab or Hughe’s Crab produces a sweet, cinnamon-flavored cider. This variety also does double duty as a beautiful, edible landscape tree with it’s prolific blooms.
American Golden Russet
- The American Golden Russet is an excellent choice for eating fresh and for making cider. This is a very sweet apple and the sugar content ranks as one of the highest at 21%. These apples can make a hard cider that rivals the alcohol by volume (ABV) of wine.
- Considered an all-purpose apple with a beautiful red and green skin. The tree is hardy to at least USDA Hardiness zone 4a, or −34 °C (−29 °F). 50% or more of its flowers die at −3.1 °C (26.4 °F) or below. Early season McIntoshes can be eaten out-of-hand and also make excellent pies when the flavor is slightly tart and crisp. As the season progresses, they lose some of the green color in their skins, become redder, and taste sweeter.
Preservation & Uses
Apples can be preserved in a wide variety of methods and offer great nutritional value to your homesteading pantry. One of the easiest methods with the least amount of equipment for a beginning homesteader to get into food preservation is by making applesauce in a water bath canner (WBC). Click here to learn how to get started with Canning 101 and a recipe for applesauce. Once you’ve become comfortable with your WBC, try branching out into more complex recipes for apples including chutneys and pie filling.
Dried apples also make wonderful snacks and can be either eaten as is or reconstituted later and used as a condiment for poultry or pork. Apples oxidize (turn brown when exposed to air) easily once peeled. To prevent this, slice apples into 1/2 inch thick rings. To prevent browning, drop apple rings into a bowl of cold water (about 2 quarts) containing 1/2 teaspoon ascorbic acid powder, or use equivalent in finely crushed vitamin C tablets or 1/2 cup lemon juice. Keep apples covered with ascorbic acid water until ready to use. The old-fashioned way to dry apple rings was to place them on a string and hang them up to dry for about three weeks. However, if using this method, it’s very important to protect the rings from bacteria, dust, and insects or they may not be safe to eat. Drying can be made safer and more expedient by using a low oven or a commercially available dehydrator. This is a great dehydrator for beginners.
Apples are also an important addition to the nutritional value of your pantry. Based on a 2000 calorie diet, one medium apple (with skin) contains 100 calories, zero fat, about 25g of carbohydrates (4g dietary fiber and 19g of sugar), 2% Vitamin A, 2% calcium, 14% Vitamin C, 2% iron, and about 20% of the daily recommend amount of fiber.
Pressing apples into juice has multiple uses. Apple juice can be used to further process into vinegar or hard cider. Apple cider vinegar has many health benefits and is also a critical ingredient in many food preservation recipes. Check out this link to learn how to make your own apple cider vinegar.
Learning to make hard cider is also an important homesteading skill. Even if you are not the type to quaff alcoholic beverages, knowing how to make it and having hard cider in your pantry is an excellent skill and product with which to barter. It’s also a great way to use up the unsightly apples that are unsuitable for other preservation methods. The juice from any apple can be used to make hard cider, but the best hard cider comes from cider apples. Home brewing was federally legalized in 1978 and is now legal in all 50 states. This site is an excellent source for brewing information:
Whether you choose to buy your fruit from a local grower or decide to start your own orchard, apples are a great fruit to add to your homesteading pantry and garden and have many uses beyond the sad little red thing in the lunchbox.