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Crab Apples: Everything You Need To Know About These Tiny Apples

What are crab apples? Are they real apples? Or are they a different type of fruit entirely? There are as many questions about crab apples as there probably are crab apple trees in your local neighborhood - a lot.

Crab apples are everywhere, but they are so often misunderstood or simply unknown. Crab apples are really just tiny apples - they are the same species of fruit, just much smaller - and while they do have a bitter taste, there are lots of great recipes that are perfect for using up scavenged crab apples!

This article will explain what they are, how they differ from ‘real’ apples, and what to do with crab apples! Get your apple peeler ready, and start reading!

What are crab apples? 

Let’s start at square one. 

Crab apples are tiny apples, but there’s so much more to them than this. There are thousands of species of apples, and they are all thought to descend from the same common ancestor. Crab apples are just one extension of this line, but they grew to be much smaller than the apples we find in the supermarket. 

That’s because crab apples are generally still wild apples. They aren’t often cultivated, at least on a mass scale, but they are everywhere. In fact, there’s probably a crab apple tree outside your home if you live in North America. They are a hardy, robust species, and they grow ubiquitously. 

Crab apples are part of the apple family, but cultivated apples have been selectively bred, genetically altered, or combined to produce large, sweet apples that are easier to sell. Crab apples have a reputation for being small, tart, and bitter, in comparison, and so despite being abundant in the wild, they aren’t nearly so popular in the kitchen!

What are the differences between crab apples and apples?

The significant differences between crab apples and apples are the size and taste. While standard apples are anywhere above 2 inches in diameter, crab apples are always much smaller(yes, they are tiny!)

As we said already, crab apples are much tarter, much more bitter, and have very little sweetness, leaving crab apples uses mostly unheard of. Standard apples are often much sweeter in comparison. 

Why are crab apples called crab apples? 

Crab apples have been around for a very long time, so their unusual name origins never go undisputed. 

Crab apples have nothing to do with seafood or crabs, but the term ‘crab’ or ‘crabby’ is often used in English to describe a bitter or angry person. It could be that the apple’s bitterness led it to be termed ‘crabby’!

Like many traditional fruits, we may never know the facts!

Are crab apples edible?

These tiny apples are definitely safe to eat - like all apples, they are acceptable for human consumption. However, as with all apples, it’s not healthy to eat either the seeds, the stem, or the core. These should be removed or avoided.

While crab apples have a lifespan that can last weeks or months after falling from the tree, they eventually turn brown and become moldy if left too long. Store crab apples in a cool, dry location, or place them in a fridge to extend their lifespan. 

If crab apples have begun to turn brown inside, then it’s a good idea to throw them onto the compost heap!

What do crab apples taste like? 

This small apple might be safe to eat, but its taste is often off-putting to people who are used to traditional apples. Different types of crab apples have slightly differing tastes, but in general, sweetness is a quality they lack. 

Mini apples, like the crab apple, are so much more tart than other apples, and the bitterness can often be quite overpowering. This bitterness stems from the high levels of pectin found in crab apples - as you’ll see in our recipe ideas section, though, pectin is the substance that helps when pickling crab apples or turning them into preserves!

Different types of crab apples 

Crab apples are characterized by their size, and there are several distinct varieties of apples that fall into the crab apple category. 

The most common are the following:

  • Dolgo
  • Pink Spires
  • Chestnut
  • Centennial
  • Whitney
  • Hopa

Crab apple recipe ideas

While crab apples aren’t great for snacking, the high pectin levels ensure that they are particularly well suited for preserves. If you enjoy a bitter taste, crab apples can also be pressed into juice or cider or used for baking. 

Here are a few of our favorite recipe ideas:

Crab apple jam 

Crab apple jam is a great way to use up baskets of crab apples before the winter. You need to boil and strain the apples and add a lot of sugar to produce a jam. We suggest adding lots of spices, such as cinnamon or mint, to really add some flavor to this remarkable preserve!

Crab apple jelly

Crab apple jelly is one of the most common uses of crab apples because they are so high in pectin. This unique substance is jelly, and you can separate it from the apples by pulping, boiling, and straining them. Mix with lots of sugar, boil again, and you have your jelly mixture. Let the jelly sit in the fridge, and you have delicious crab apple jelly!

Crab apple sauce

Crab apple sauce is just like regular applesauce, except it’s less sweet and more tart in flavor. You need to boil and mash your crab apples, so you have a thick, dense sauce. Add spices and sugar to liven this recipe up!

Crab apple juice

To make crab apple juice, you’ll need to press and strain the crab apples to release all the juices from them. These are bitter apples, so you need a lot of added sugar to sweeten this juice up. You’ll also need a lot of crab apples, given how small they are!

Final words on this mini apple

Crab apples are incredibly overlooked, particularly given they are often found growing wild (even in the middle of the city!) However, crab apples are unusually tart and bitter, which goes a long way towards explaining why they are overlooked. 

Despite their lack of sweetness and small size, crab apples are perfect for turning into jam or other preserves. You can even try preparing crab apple juice or fermented crab apple cider or wine!

Bookmark our article for the next time you run across the crab apple trees fruit in the store or outside!

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