When are apples ripe?

How do you know the apples you are using for hard cider are ripe? Maybe, you would ask me to define ripe. Is ripe defined by the ideal time to harvest an apple, to eat an apple, or to press an apple. We could even consider the question of ripeness for cooking apples. In my experience, all of these situations can be different. For example, I don’t often enjoy eating apples that are ready for pressing. I would call them over-ripe. The way we harvest apples also plays into our definition of ripeness. In European countries, the common harvest method is from the ground. Planking poles or shakers are used to shake apples from trees or they are simply collected after having fallen to the ground. This is not the normal method used in the United States, where apples are generally picked from the tree. In fact, it is not uncommon in the United States for it to be considered dangerous to harvest apples from the ground (if you are making hard cider, it’s not) but, that is another discussion. The real question is usually about how do I tell if apples that I want to use for cider are ripe enough. Let’s first explore why ripeness matters.

Harvesting Apples! North Down Farm in South Somerset
Harvesting Apples! North Down Farm in South Somerset

Apple ripeness matters because it defines the amount of several key compounds important for making quality cider. These key compounds are sugar, acid, starch, volatiles, and phenolics(1). As apples ripen, the sugar content increases. You can even see changes in the types of sugar (fructose, glucose, and sucrose) present. As sugar goes up, acids and starches goes down. This is from the starches being converted to sugars. Volatiles or the compounds that form them increase as the apple ripens. These are the compounds that form the aromas found in cider after fermentation. The final key compound is phenolics, which follow a different curve. Phenolics initially are high in unripe fruit and as the fruit increases in ripeness they decline. However, they start to increase again as they become more ripe. That is not true for all apple varieties but most follow this high-low-high path and it highlights the importance your apple variety plays in all of this. Different apple varieties have different compounds and levels of those compounds. Also remember that location, weather patterns, and orchard practices can impact the levels of compounds present. You might be wondering how much impact these compounds have on your cider. In other words, does it really matter how ripe my apple is?

Sugar defines how much alcohol you will have in your hard cider. If your apple goes from a specific gravity of 1.050 to 1.055 does that really matter? As a stand-alone element of cider, not really. I mean I make good cider at both of those gravity levels. But, if you press apples that still have a fair amount of starch in them, you might end up with cloudy cider. You also will definitely start out with juice that is more acidic. So ripening is more about lower starch and acid than raising sugar. It is also about aroma. I noted that volatile compounds go up as fruit ripen. That means you can generate more aromas from riper fruit. However, phenolics go from high to low to high so you would think under or over-ripe fruit would create the best ciders. As apples ripen, they also become soft. Soft apples become harder to press so if you wait to long, you will get mush instead of juice. Ultimately, using unripe apples won’t make a bad cider but it also won’t allow you to make as good of a cider because it will be more acidic and less aromatic while potentially being hazy. That leads us back to how do you tell when an apple is ripe.

Ease of RemovalIf apples are dropping or you can twist them 90-180 degrees and they come off, they are ripe or close to ripe (Note: I usually lift pears versus twisting them). One exception to the ease of removal is in mid-summer when trees will often naturally thin themselves and drop unripe fruit. Also note that some fruit hang better and than others.
Seed (Pip) ColorIf the seeds of the apple are not dark brown or even black, the apples are not ripe. You want a dark brown to black seed or pip.
Starch Iodine TestApples may be falling off the tree, the seeds are dark brown but there still may be starch in the apple. You can use an iodine solution of 8.8 grams potassium iodide and 2.2 grams iodine crystals in 1 liter of water. I know people who use tincture of iodine, which can be a 5% solution often sold for cut and wound applications (Caution: Iodine is toxic so handle appropriately).
Sugar Level (Specific Gravity)If you are picking a tree you often pick, a great way to assess ripeness is measuring the sugar by using a refractometer. It only takes a drop and if you normally use those apples at 1.055 and they are only 1.050, you should probably wait and see how they develop. Knowing your fruit is the best way to assessing ripeness. I track when I harvest my apples each year but weather can shift these dates by weeks in either direction so knowing my sugar targets let’s me assess where they are.
TasteIf you lack a refractometer, simply tasting the apple will give you a feel for how ripe it is. If you are unfamiliar with that apple variety, it might be hard to judge.
Texture & HardnessOne thing you can definitely tell about and apple is its texture. A mushy apple from the tree is either too ripe or not good for cider. You will struggle to press them. Generally you pick apples that are still firm and sweat them to finish converting any remaining starch. Cider apples are often best pressed when you can make a slight thumbprint into them but, if you can press your thumb into them off the tree, you better plan to press them quickly or you might have mush.
Assessing Apple Ripeness
Iodine Starch Test: Assessing Apple Ripeness
Iodine Starch Test: Assessing Apple Ripeness

For hard cider, you want apples that are between ripe and senescent (over-ripe). They will have good sugar levels, lower acids and starches, high volatiles, and good phenolics but still have a firmness. For me, it is never worth trading ripeness for firmness. I have never found myself saying, I am glad I waited until those apples or pears were softer before juicing them. Because if I’ve gotten to that situation, I am mushing them versus juicing or pressing them and that reduces the yield, increases the time, and makes the process laborious and not fun. As ripeness goes, I never regret pressing a little early but I always regret pressing a little late.

(1) A. Alberti and associates, Impact on chemical profile in apple juice and cider made from unripe, ripe and senescent dessert varieties, Food Science and Technology, 65, 2016

Want more details about making and enjoying cider, check out these posts.

Did you enjoy these tips on making hard cider? Check out my book to learn more ideas and information on making and enjoying hard cider. It will help you develop a process that matches your desire and equipment. It will also show you how to pair cider with food to maximize your experience. You can find it as an eBook and a 7×10 paperback on Amazon or a 7×10 paperback on Barnes & Noble. Click on these Links to check them out.

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