HOW TO MAKE THE BEST TASTING APPLE CIDER
Thirty-five apple varieties compared to see which makes the best tasting apple cider.
High in the beautiful Tehachapi mountains of southern California is a small, family owned apple cider company that every Fall produces some of the best cider imaginable. Every week they press fresh cider using only locally grown apples. As the season progresses, the mix of apples going into the cider press changes so that the flavor evolves during the months of August, September and October. It's a delight to make regular trips every month to sample how the cider's flavor changes. Unfortunately, a late frost in 2013 destroyed almost the entire apple crop. There would be no apple cider for 2013.
Not willing to be deprived of the delights of fresh cider, I decided to try making my own. At first the idea seemed simple enough, but experience quickly showed that there's more to making apple cider than expected. How is it made? Should it be filtered? Did I want apple cider or apple juice? And most importantly, what variety of apple makes the best tasting cider? In time all these questions were resolved but it was a prolonged, messy project. This page chronicles what I learned so that anyone wanting to make their own apple cider won't have to go through the same painful process.
How is apple cider made?
The Internet abounds with apple cider recipes that call for boiling apples with spices in water. According to the US government, these are "apple flavored drinks" or "fruit drinks flavored with apples." This page deals only with pure, real apple cider, which contains nothing but the juice from apples.
Apple cider is usually made by pulverizing whole apples then pressing the mash in a fruit press. If the apples are cooked first to help free their juice it's called hot pressing. If the apples are pressed without heating it's called cold pressing. Cold pressing is considered by most to produce the best tasting apple cider. The advantages of pressing are that presses produce large amounts of cider very efficiently and that the juice gets squeezed through the pulp itself and in so doing achieves a significant amount of self straining. The downsides are that the smallest home cider presses are designed to produce gallons of cider, which may be too much for home use, they are expensive, typically $250.00 for the very smallest, and most importantly almost impossible to sterilize between uses because they have many small areas in which food can hide and the wood can absorb juice. Some people claim the wood also imparts a slightly woody note to the cider. Waterproofing the wood is supposed to prevent it from interacting with the cider, but that's only true if there are no untreated spots and raises the question of the food safety factor of the treatment.
A typical low-cost apple cider press.
Anyone wishing to follow this time honored method of making cider can make their own small, low cost press very easily by using a food processor to grind the apples of their choice, put the pulp on a large square of cloth and squash the juice out of it using a cleaned plastic mop bucket with a wringer attachment.
James Fox came up with the idea of using a $60 mop bucket as an
apple cider press.
He has a youtube video showing how it works.
The all-metal and plastic construction allows very easy sterilization between uses.
I tried an even simpler technique using an aluminum tortilla press. It didn't work. The aluminum bent under the pressure needed to squash the apple pulp and the resulting large gap allowed too much juice to remain in the pulp.
However, for most of us the simplest, fastest and easiest way to make apple cider at home is to use an electric juicer. The one used for most of this page was an Omega Juicer Model 4000, $170.00 in 2012.
Cut apples into quarters, use a melon scooper to remove the core and push the quarters into the juicer using the green plunger. The rejected pulp is very dry, indicating this juicer is highly efficient. In fact I could only squeeze an extra two tablespoons of juice out of all the extracted pulp from 10 apples. Unlike a dedicated apple press, this appliance can be used for a wide range of purposes. The biggest downside to juicers is that they whip the cider into a froth. Left to sit for five minutes, the juice can be separated from the froth by very slowly pouring the juice out of the catch container. The juice will flow out from underneath the foam, which tends to stick to the sides of the container. Another option is to use a grease separating cup, such as the following:
I prefer to let the decanted juice flow through a fine mesh metal coffee filter to catch any foam that escapes. Left in the juice, this foam gives apple cider a grainy texture, even after vigorous shaking. This juicer produced 1/2-cup of apple cider from an average apple.
All apple ciders and juices are made with the peel left on. I tried an experiment to see if peeling apples before juicing had any affect on the resulting apple cider. Using red delicious apples, I juiced two with peels and two without. Immediately after juicing the apples with peels had a slightly red tinge, but not as much as I had expected. The peeled apples produced cider that at first looked lighter. However, within a few minutes both had taken on the same rich, dark caramel color we think of for apple cider.
apple cider on the left was made with peeled apples, the one on the
right with unpeeled apples.
Because the light source was on the right, the cider on the right looks lighter and clearer.
In person they were indistinguishable.
Apple cider turns brown because enzymes in the juice cause it to combine with oxygen in the air. This is the same process that makes sliced apples turn brown. This is actually a good thing because it deepens the flavor of the cider in the same way that browning a steak improves its flavor. Taste-wise I could not tell any difference between the apple cider from the peeled and unpeeled apples.
Anyone wanting to experiment with making apple cider but not wanting to invest in a press, mop bucket or juicer can do so in small quantities almost for free as long as they have a food processor. Cut apples into quarters and remove the cores as well as the dirty stem and blossom end areas with a melon baller. Mash them in a food processor until they form a smooth slush. This is one step that can't be overdone. You want something the consistency of thin applesauce. The more liquid the slush is the more juice will be obtained. Next, line a large strainer with an 18 x 18-inch piece of clean cotton cloth (a large handkerchief may work) and scoop the apple slush into the cloth.
Gather the ends of the cloth together and twist to squeeze out as much juice as possible. (Be sure to wash and rinse your hands well before doing this.)
The juice produced won't have any foam like it does from a juicer and clean up couldn't be easier: just scoop the left over pulp into the trash and toss the cloth in the washer. The downside is that this technique can only handle four apples at a time and your hands get sticky. How much juice you get will be determined by how thoroughly the apples were pulped and how hard and for how long the cloth was twisted.
I was content with this technique until one day the cloth burst and apple pulp sprayed all over the kitchen. Needless to say, I decided a safer technique was needed. I experimented with many different ideas, including an array of hand juicers and even a modified aluminum can crusher. In the end the best results came from lining a heavy duty potato ricer with food-grade paper toweling and spooning apple pulp into it. The average ricer will hold the pulp from two large apples.
Next, the paper was folded over to enclose the pulp.
Finally, the handles were squeezed together to force out the juice.
Half of the expelled juice will come from the top so turn the potato ricer on its side so both ends can drain. When finished, open the ricer, turn it upside down and gently tap it to eject the paper covered disk of dry pulp.
This makes clean up much easier than with the twisted-cloth technique. Be careful not to press too hard, particularly at first, or the paper may rupture and spray the nearest wall with pulp. You can use instead 12-inch diameter cloth disks if you don't mind the hassle of washing them.
Because the apples get so thoroughly pulped by the food processor, including the peels, I repeated the unpeeled/peeled test. This time the apple cider from the unpeeled apples was definitely darker and had a deeper, heartier flavor. I preferred it.
I recommend using these two techniques only to learn if making apple cider is something you wish to pursue. If it is, I heartily recommend getting a juicer or cider press. The best juicers are those with continual pulp extraction. Batch types, where the pulp remains in the moving element of the juicer, require more frequent cleaning, clog faster and can become unstable if pulp builds up on one side of the drum.
One advantage to making apple cider at home is that you have greater control over the quality of the apples used and therefore the flavor and wholesomeness of the resulting cider. Most ciders are made with a significant percentage of seconds, apples with a wide variety of blemishes that may include bird and insect damage, living insects, their eggs, bruises and even rotten spots. None of these are considered palatable yet because we don't see them going into the press we're not aware that some of the apple cider we may be drinking may have... glup... squashed bugs in it. Although they aren't supposed to, some unscrupulous cider producers may also include "drops," apples that have fallen off the tree and may have been contaminated with soil born pathogens. Using perfect apples hand picked by ourselves eliminates all these problems. It also enables you to eliminate apples which, when cut open, are discovered to be green or rotting.
Apple seeds have compounds that can produce small amounts of hydrogen cyanide when digested. Swallowed whole, the seed coating prevents this from happening. Ground up in a food processor the chemicals that convert to cyanide are readily digested. I surveyed dozens of websites researching this issue and could not find an authoritative statement on how many ground up seeds it takes to make a person sick. I recommend removing them because they add nothing to the flavor except possibly woody notes.
Which Produces The Best tasting Apple Cider: Juicers or Pressers?
To ensure that the apples used in this comparison had exactly the same level of ripeness, I took six apples and cut each one in half as symmetrically as possible. One half of each was used in a press and the other in the juicer. The pressed cider wasn't filtered because that action was taken care of by the cloth that held the pulp. The cider from the juicer was defoamed then passed through a metal coffee filter.
The glass on the left came from the juicer, the glass on the right from the pressing-by-wringing technique mentioned earlier.
The juicer producer 15-percent more cider and was clearer. The pressed cider was much darker than the image above suggests. Left to sit ten minutes the juicer cider started to separate. The pressed cider didn't. I believe this is because apples to be pressed were so finely ground in the food processor that more of the apple's pectin was released, which acts as a stabilizer, keeping pulp suspended in the juice. Flavor-wise, the apple cider from the juicer was brighter, cleaner and had a simpler flavor. The pressed cider was creamier, richer and had a more satisfying complex flavor. If you prefer apple juice, I recommend you use a juicer and let the pulp separate and syphon off the middle clear juice. If you want the ultimate in apple cider flavor use a press.
To get apple cider from the juicer that's almost as good and stable as that from a press, pour the cider from the juicer directly into a blender and mix it along with its froth on high for two minutes, then strain it through a cloth filter. You'll need to twist and squeeze it to get the juice through the cloth. The resulting cider is almost as rich and creamy as pressed cider but still tends to separate.
Should Apples Be Washed Before Being Turned Into Cider?
Ignoring questions related to hygiene, I wondered if washing the waxy coating and any associated dirt off apples before juicing had any affect on the cider's flavor. Using the half-apples technique mentioned in the last section, I scrubbed half of each apple with a scrubber and hot water. The other side I didn't touch. The resulting apple ciders were identical in flavor and texture.
Should Apple Cider Be Filtered?
Pressed cider doesn't need filtering because the containment cloth automatically does that. Juicers require some external filtering because they pass much larger pieces of pulp. Fine meshed metal coffee filters work good.
One filtering technique I do not recommend is using filter paper. The pulp in the apple cider quickly fills the pores of such filters to the point where the liquid completely stops draining through it. The only way to get the juice to go through filter papers is to apply pressure to force it through, a messy process that usually results in the paper tearing.
Apple Juice or Apple Cider?
Apple cider is simply juice removed from apples with minimal filtering. It tends to be dark and cloudy, though not grainy. Left to sit some solids will eventually settle out of it. Apple juice is made from apple cider by mixing it with enzymes to break down the natural pectin that keeps solids suspended in the juice then forcing the juice at high pressure through super-fine filters to remove every last trace of pulp and fiber.
My preference is for apple cider. It's much easier and faster to make and has a deeper, richer flavor. While most homes won't have the complex enzymes needed to make clear apple juice, a close approximation can be made by the application of a little patience. Assuming you're using a juicer, have the cider made by it pour directly into a clear glass container. Place this in the refrigerator and let it sit at least an hour. Overnight would be better. What will happen is that the froth and light pulp with rise to the top and the heavy pulp settle to the bottom. In the middle will be mostly clear juice that can be siphoned off using a plastic tube.
This apple juice tastes great, but doesn't have the rich, complex flavor of cider.
What Type Of Apples Make The Best Tasting Apple Cider?
The following list compares 35 varieties of apples. In each case only the ripest apples were used, though in some cases determining this turned out to be impossible. I also compared organic to regular apples and could not taste a difference.
This New Zealand apple produced more cider per apple than any other variety tested. A good type will yield six ounces from three average apples. Koru produced a whopping 12 ounces. There was very little pulp left after squeezing. The cider had a good sweet/acid balance but a little too much citric flavor, which hid the apple notes. In spite of that I still rate this one in the top ten.
New for 2016, this New Zealand apple makes a cider that has a pure, clean apple flavor with a perfect sweet/acid balance. While it may not have the delicious complexity of Fuji or Envy, it's certainly a great tasting cider. The apples are medium large with a small, tight seed cavity and minimal blossom and stem dimples so each fruit yields a lot of useable flesh, which pulps very easily to produce a higher than normal amount of juice. Overall I rate this as an excellent cider apple.
All the Nikita apples I saw had a lot of green on them so I assume this is natural and not a sign of unripeness. When I cut them open there wasn't any green flesh so this assumption seems to be valid. The apple cider produced from these apples was so harshly acidic that one taste was all it took to convince me this was a good variety to avoid.
This yellow relative of Gala produced an honest, clean tasting cider but lacks the rich character that Envy, Fuji and many others have. I kept asking myself, "Why am I drinking this?"
In spite of its rich dark color, this New Zealand apple, new in the US in 2015, had a weak flavor and dryness that made it unsatisfying.
This variety first appeared in southern California markets in summer of 2015 and I have to say it's a great addition. Although a little tart for fresh eating, its cider is mellow with a perfect balance between sweetness and acidity. Although its favor isn't as deeply complex as Fuji or Envy, it is nonetheless very good and totally satisfying. When I conduct the next taste-off between the top ciders this one is sure to be included.
Tasted slightly dry, in the same way a wine can taste dry. The apple flavor was weaker than most varieties and the taste was noticeably astringent. This apple cider had a simple, one-note flavor.
This is the main juicing apple of Canada. The juice was clearer and lighter than most apple ciders. It has a bright, clean taste with just a hint of dryness. The apple flavor is stronger than Jonagold but too astringent.
Slightly watery, but a clean, pure apple flavor with a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness.
Very bland flavor with a hint of grassiness.
The most unique of all the apples tested. It was creamy, orangey and citrusy but in the best possible way. It's delicious, but it tastes so much like orange juice I can't give it a high score as an apple cider. Definitely an interesting one to try.
Terrible. Foul, tart, grassy, overly acidic flavor and an unattractive milky color. One problem with Granny Smith apples is that it's impossible to pick out a ripe one.
After my bad experience with Granny Smith apples I was justifiably nervous about trying the other mainstay green apple: Pippin. I needn't have been. The two couldn't be more different. Pippin apple cider is the darkest of any. It almost looks like dark chocolate milk. The flavor has a not-unpleasant citrusy astringency and the overall flavor is good, though it lacks the depth of Fuji.
This light, almost orange colored apple cider is creamy, smooth and mild with an acceptably apple flavor.
Slightly watery and overly sour.
Pure, clean, strong apple flavor with no surprises. Absolutely delicious and my fourth favorite.
One of the clearest apple ciders, but in no way is it weakly flavored. It has a clean, rich flavor with just a hint of woodiness in the after taste that is in no way objectionable. The taste is mild but not weak. Very good. This sample came from a juicer. Apples run through a food processor then pressed may be darker. This is my third favorite apple cider.
Clean, delicious, slightly astringent pure apple flavor. My second favorite.
A light colored apple cider with a bright, crisp flavor that may be a little too tart for some palates.
A simply outstanding apple cider. Very pure, strong apple flavor. This one ties with Braeburn for flavor.
Very bland with a hint of grassiness.
Horrible. Watery, insipid, unpleasant flavor. Only Granny Smith was worse. Red Delicious apples have two problems working against them. First, because they develop their deep red color before the inside is ripe it's impossible to tell if they're ripe. Second, Red Delicious apples were bred to look good and ship well, not for flavor. I tried again with two different apples. This time they were riper, though I couldn't tell any difference from their outside appearance. The cider from these two riper apples was still watery and weak, but wasn't as harsh as the first test.
Absolutely the best! Deep, rich, clean flavor that shouts pure apple taste. This is an apple cider you'll want to close your eyes when you drink it to savor all the complex nuances of flavor. My number one choice.
This is a pleasant cider with a bit too much acidity, but still very good. I found they didn't yield nearly as much juice as other varieties.
Clean, simple, sweet, slightly watery and one-noted.
Weak, watery, dry, odd flavor with an unpleasant after taste.
Unpleasantly tart and astringent. Hard to press.
Pleasant, light, bright flavor with just a hint of grassiness that I believe is caused by the fact that Eve's are hard to tell when ripe. Even fully colored apples can still have greenish flesh.
This apple looks so much like a Golden Delicious that I was surprised by how different the resulting apple cider was. It's sweet, mild and citrusy. Even more than Honeycrisp it tastes like orange juice. This cider looks very orange, enhancing the orange juice impression. It's a delicious drink, but doesn't taste like apple cider.
This is a very old heirloom apple that in person looks much darker than this image shows. It has a slightly citrusy, grassy flavor that's weak on apple notes. Like many dark apples, it's difficult to spot ripe specimens from which to make good apple cider.
These apples have an odd, dusky color that makes them look like they're covered with powder. In spite of its dark, rich color, the apple cider is weak in apple notes and slightly watery.
The apples were beautifully ripe so I was surprised when the apple cider tasted sharp and grassy.
Sharp. tart and astringent. Very poor.
The skin was the waxiest I've ever felt. The apple cider from this variety was very slightly dry and citrusy with a hint of tartness. I rate it as good but undistinguished.
The apples flesh was very white yet yielded a dark cider. The flavor was very good with a pleasantly, slightly acidic, but not sharp, flavor. Most of these apples have quite a bit of dark green striping. For this test I selected four apples that were almost completely solid red.
Panel Taste Test:
I gathered a panel of eight taste testers and let them compare the top four apple ciders: Fuji, Envy, Cripps Pink and Gala (no Braeburns were available.) Envy got the most votes as the best tasting apple cider with Fuji a close second.
How I Decided to Make My Apple Cider:
After all the experiments on this page I came to two conclusions: First, home-made apple cider is so much better than anything that can be purchased that I want to make it myself. Second, I prefer pressed apple cider more than cider from a juicer because it tastes better and doesn't separate as much. The only thing left to decide is what type of press I wanted to have.
The press needed to be inexpensive, easy to clean, capable of being used on the kitchen counter and small enough to not take up much storage space. The answer was one of James Fox's mop bucket presses. I found a perfect match to all my requirements in a Smart and Final grocery store in the form of a Dynamic brand Mini-mop bucket and wringer (model number BY13050084). It only cost $29.99 in 2013.
For storage the handle comes off very quickly and it and the wringer fit inside the bucket, which only measures 18 x 9 x 9-inches. It presses the apple pulp so dry that it comes out almost crumbly. Apple cider extraction is even higher than the juicer, 4.5 to 5 ounces from a large apple.
I start by quartering and coring ten apples (5 minutes.) Then I run them through the food processor fitted with a shredder attachment. I empty the food processor and replace the shredder with a standard blade and process the shredded apples until very smooth. These last two steps take another 5 minutes. Finally, I line the wringer with a 3 x 3-foot piece of cotton, pour in the apple pulp and use the wringer to press out the cider. This last step takes another 5 minutes. During it, I have to shake down the pulp after each pressing to keep it in a tight bundle so the press works as efficiently as possible, making sure to keep the pulp in the center of the press. If positioned too low, the press tilts and can't apply maximum pressure. Finally, I do a little hand wringing to get the last bit of apple cider out of the pulp. This yields 50 ounces of cider, plenty for one week's drinking.
The wringer and bucket are very open so a strong spray of hot water is all that's needed to wash them out. There are, however, two cautions. First, I could not determine that the plastic the bucket and wringer are made of food safe plastic. I have not had any negative effects from using it but I not not recommend anyone use this system unless they have determined for themselves that it is safe to do so. Second, be sure to wash the cloth before the first use. New cloth often comes with a starch-like coating. Washing this off is important for the flavor and safety of the apple cider.
How to Pick the Ripest Apples:
Having decided that Fuji apples produce the best tasting apple cider, I next had to learn how to pick out the ripest, and therefore best tasting apples. What I learned from research and experimentation is that the best tasting Fuji apples don't have any green on them, are completely covered with red and any yellow areas are a deep golden color rather than pale yellow. While fully tree ripened apples should have a little "give" to them when squeezed, store apples should not. Every one of the eight store bought apples I tested that had some give to it was blandly flavored. All commercial apples are picked early so that they are hard enough to withstand the rigors of mechanical picking, sorting, cleaning and shipping. Any apples in stores that are slightly soft are most likely that way because they are older and have lost some of their moisture.
Gilding the Lily:
Drunk cool or cold, apple cider is a light, refreshing drink. But, warmed to 120 degrees F. its flavor is greatly enhanced and it takes on an entirely new character. It seems to have turned into an exquisite cognac that will make your mouth water with delight.
Most apple cider recipes call for two parts sweet and one part tart apples to create the best flavor. I have not found this to be true. After comparing many mix combinations I could not find any that tasted as good as pure Fuji apple cider. In every case increasing the tartness made the cider taste brighter, but at the cost of weakening its depth and richness.
The best apple cider comes from the ripest apples. Unfortunately, totally ripe apples are not always available. When you do find them, one option is to buy as many as possible, press them into apple cider and freeze all the cider you're not going to use right away. Cider can be frozen then thawed without reducing its quality, though it will tend to separate faster after freezing. I believe this is because the pectin that helps keep pulp suspended in the cider is damaged when frozen. Always store fresh cider tightly covered in the refrigerator for no more than 10 days. If you pasteurize it, by heating it to 160 degrees F., it may keep in a refrigerator for up to three weeks if good sanitation is employed. Frozen, it should keep for eight months in a freezer.
In late 2013 I bought 3.9 pounds of top quality Fuji apples at $1.69 a pound for a total of $6.59. From this I pressed 30 fluid ounces of the best tasting apple cider I've ever had. At 22-cents an ounce, this is four times as much as apple ciders available in gallon jugs from grocery stores and twice as much as freshly pressed farm cider. It's four times as good as the grocery store cider? Twice as good as farm pressed? In all honesty, no. But it is better than both and I know there aren't any insect or mold contaminants in it. Add to this the simple pleasure of making the cider myself and I consider it well worth it.
True farmer's markets often sell apples for as little as 50-cents a pound, making home-made apple cider competitive price-wise with store bought. The only caution is that these apples may be fresh from a farm and need a careful scrubbing to remove pesticides.
While farm-made apple cider can be great, many times it tastes better than bulk processed ciders found in grocery stores only because it's fresh while they have had much of their flavor processed out of them by being pasteurized, condensed and then reconstituted. Because farm-made apple ciders have to rely fruit rejected for the fresh market, they are actually inferior to what you can make at home since you can afford to use premium, fully-ripened, hand-picked-by-yourself apples. For this reason, as good as the Tehachapi apple ciders were I've discovered what I can make at home is much better.
I sincerely hope this page encourages more people to try making their own apple cider. It's easy and produces a delightful drink. Best of all, you can decide which apples to use to make a cider that tastes the best to you.
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