What to do with crab apples – three and a half good ideas

“‘My first attempt at cookery will be crab-apple jelly,’ I announce. ‘Do you have the slightest idea how to make a jelly set fast?’ ‘With sage,’ I add, as an afterthought. Yes, sage, I think. Such a muscular, earthy herb–perfect for the cruel tartness of those tight little crab apples. ‘Eliza? Did you hear me?’”

Annabel Abbs, The Language of Food (about Eliza Acton)

I can hardly believe it. My crab apple tree is bearing fruit already! And it’s not even September.

And I have so many, that I will have to preserve them in every way I can think of – I’m going to be using three good, tried and tested methods – hooch, freezing, and sugar.

Unlike their larger brothers, apples, crab apples are too tart to eat raw. But they do make some elegant foodie treats.

From the sustainability point of view they tick all the boxes… you use the whole fruit, cores … the lot. If you have any cores left over, you can make jelly. If you have any whole fruit remaining you can make jelly… hooch… sauce… whatever.

And the trees provide other benefits: they have beautiful blossom in spring, and flaming leaves in the autumn, they help other apple trees pollinate, and they help sustain birds as winter approaches. The trees are easy to grow in sun and in shade. Fruits vary from golden, with a coy blush (like mine, in the featured image above), to downright scarlet – like overgrown rosehips. The deeper red varieties tend to have more of a sour, tannic taste. For a lot more information on crab apple trees and how to grow them, go to the Green and Vibrant site.

It’s actually the malic acid in the crabapple (the Malus Sylvestris) that gives it its tannic, mouth-twistingly sour, taste.

How do you know when your crab apples are ripe?

To check the crab apple is ripe, cut it open and look at the pips. They should be dark brown. Additionally, if you taste the fruit, it will be sour, but you should be able to tolerate the sourness.

Once harvested, use the crab apples quickly, because they bruise and mark easily.

Why are crab apples (or, crabapples) called that?

There’s a theory that the word is derived from Norse or Swedish, but investigation hasn’t been able to find any evidence of this. It could simply be that they are ‘crabby’ in the sense of ‘fruit gone sideways… not good to eat’.

What are the three and half ideas?

You can make a sauce with them; you can make jelly; you can make hooch, using vodka or gin; and you can also, very successfully make a verjuice. This is the ‘half’ idea, because you really need an apple press to make it (a rather elite group of people, apple press owners). If you do have one, go to this post on the Mrs Portly’s Kitchen blog. Verjuice is a wonderful condiment, an alternative to vinegar, which you can use to make a vinaigrette and which will not ruin the taste of wine.

Crab apple sauce

The first thing to do is to make crab apple sauce. Crab apple sauce is a kind of apple sauce plus. It’s got a sophisticated, intense flavour. On the other hand, it tends to be slightly lumpier, less silken than traditional apple sauce. Use it for all the same things – especially good with roast pork, or with gammon, or a veal and ham pie, or as the basis for the filling for a crab apple pie.

how to make crab apple sauce

Recipe for crab apple sauce


  • Approximately 230g/8 oz crab apples
  • 120 ml/½ cup water
  • Golden caster sugar, or even soft brown sugar, to taste


  1. Wash, quarter and core the crab apples – save the cores, and any other bits, and put into another smallish saucepan. This is a bit fiddly – if you have a glut simply cut off the flesh to leave the core in a neat square box. Nothing will be wasted because you’ll use the cores for jelly. Don’t peel them though.
  2. Put the crab apples into a saucepan along with the water, bring to the boil, and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes – until they’re soft. Note – you don’t want to cook too long, you don’t want them to boil dry.
  3. Drain the soft crab apples into the saucepan with the cores etc. Then blend the crab apples – either with a stick blender, or in an ordinary blender.
  4. Add sugar to taste. Then, either freeze, or it will keep in the fridge for about a week.

Crab apple jelly

OH JOY!! Crab apple jelly is a real treat – great with pork, and with lamb… and also cheese. And you don’t need to fiddle around adding pectin, crab apples already have more than their fair share. Frances Jones-Davies uses her crab apple jelly to make a layered pie of hot-water crust pastry with chicken and sausage meat. Pru Leith serves hers on toast with peanut butter.

Here’s a very straightforward recipe.

how to make crab apple jelly

Recipe for crab apple jelly

2 kg/4 lbs of crab apples will make about 1500ml of jelly (about three jars)


  • Crab apples – or the crab apple cores remaining from making the crab apple sauce, and the juice you’ve saved.
  • Golden caster sugar – a quarter of the weight of the crab apples
  • Lemon juice – juice of half a lemon per 500g/1 lb of sugar
  • You can experiment with adding star anise, dried chillies, or infusing garlic or sage.
  • As Jen suggests, in the comments below, some slices of ginger and lemon peel added to the mix when boiling go well


  1. If you haven’t already, sterilise your jars – to find out how to do this, follow this link.
  2. Wash and quarter the crab apples. Put them into a saucepan, and just cover the fruit with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about half an hour.
  3. Line a sieve with a muslin, or a coffee filter (depending on quantities and what you have to hand) and leave the pulp to drain into another saucepan, overnight. Serious jelly makers will use a jelly bag.
  4. The following day, resist the temptation to squeeze into order to get more juice – it will make the jelly cloudy. Measure the juice and add about seven tenths of the volume of the juice in sugar. This is the accepted ratio – I think it’s a bit sweet, so I tend to add a bit less, but you need to be careful otherwise it won’t set, and it won’t keep for so long.
  5. Add the lemon juice.
  6. Get the mixture to a rolling boil for about half an hour. Fill a dessertspoon with some of the liquid, put it in the fridge and, after about five minutes, look to see if it has set. If it has, it’s ready.
  7. Leave the liquid to cool a little (you don’t want the jars to crack), it’s at this stage that you can add the star anise, or whatever else you are experimenting with. Fill the jars, label, and enjoy!

Crab apple hooch

The third thing to do is to make crab apple hooch. You can go down the white alcohol route, or the whisky route. Again, this really isn’t complicated. Either version is a real restorer after a bracing winter walk! But they are also inspiration for creative mixologists.

A really good variation on this is to add some fresh ginger.

Recipe for crab apple vodka or gin

Makes over a litre


  • About 40 crab apples
  • 1 litre/1.75 pints vodka or gin
  • 225g/1 cup caster sugar BUT BE VERY CAREFUL, you may not need this amount. Use half to begin with, and then keep tasting.


  1. Fill a large glass jar or jug about half way with crab apples. Add the sugar. Then add the vodka or gin. Then add, if you can, more crab apples so that they are covered by liquid. If you have any left over crab apples you can use them to make jelly.
  2. Store in a dark place every couple of months, stirring every now and then. 
  3. Then strain your hooch through muslin (exactly as for making damson gin – go here for more on that), decant, test to see if you need to add any more sugar, and serve.
Crab apple vodka in the making

Recipe for crab apple whisky

You can make crab apple whisky in a very similar way, adding three or four slices of ginger, and maybe a stick of cinnamon.

how to make crab apple jelly
This post is dedicated to Mandy Harrison and Alan Page… with thanks for their help.
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Fabulous and well-done! My mother used to forage for crab apples in Riverside Park in NYC back in the day; this would be the 1970s. She made applesauce, with honey. Excellent. We have native american heritage and this always felt like a real callback to time with her grandmother who did a lot of her raising.


Thanks so much for the recipes. I just finished my first ever batch of crab apple jelly and it turned out beautifully. I added a few slices of ginger and lemon peel during the boiling. I love that I didn’t need to add pectin. Delicious and such a pretty colour.

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