Why apples at your farm taste bitter
Almost everyone enjoys apples, and with so many different varieties to choose from, there’s usually something for every palette. However, occasionally you might bite into a rather bitter-tasting apple. Here I’ll talk about why this can happen and steps to take to ensure that your apples taste delicious.
Why Is My Apple Bitter? The Short Answer
Three main reasons contribute to the bitter taste of apples. The first reason is a high level of naturally occurring tannins in some varieties. The second reason occurs when the apple tree has experienced a “Bitter Pit” disorder, affecting the crop’s taste. The third involves the storage of the apples.
Why Do Certain Apples Have a Naturally Bitter Taste?
As I mentioned, some apple varieties are prone to having high levels of a naturally-occurring substance called “tannins,” which makes them have a bitter taste. Usually, in fruit (like grapes), the tannins are found primarily in the skins, seeds, and stems. However, apples also have tannins in their flesh.
Most apples sold at the grocery store for eating have lower levels of these tannins, making them taste sweeter and not bitter.
Apple varieties intended for cooking typically have higher levels of tannins and lower levels of sugar, so they would taste a bit more bitter if you tried to eat them. They have a firmer texture as well, which also affects their enjoyableness.
Finally, the types of apples used to make cider or alcoholic cider have the most tannins. These apples would taste extremely bitter if eaten raw, and you would notice the difference immediately. However, when fermented into cider, they have just the right taste.
What Varieties of Apples Have the Least and Most Tannins?
If you’re concerned about purchasing bitter apples, it’s helpful to know which varieties have the least and most tannins. Most of the apples sold in grocery stores will not taste bitter because they are varieties meant to be eaten raw and have lower tannins.
However, during certain times of the year, I’ve noticed that the grocery store will sell more options of apples specifically for cooking or cider-making. During these seasons, you may mistakenly purchase and eat an apple of this type. If you visit an orchard, you will also find a wide variety of apples.
Here, I’ve compiled this list of examples from each category so you can get a general idea of what to look for when selecting apples. Keep in mind, that over 7,500 varieties of apples exist worldwide and with so many different and unique flavor profiles it is impossible to cover them all.
Apples Lower in Tannins – Best For Eating
- Red Delicious
Apples with Higher Tannin Levels – Best for Cooking
- Granny Smith
Apples with Highest Tannin Levels – Use Only for Cider-Making
- Ellis Bitter
- Medaille d’Or
- Harry Master’s Jersey
Now that I’ve given you an idea of the varieties that have the least amount of tannins, you should be safe to choose from those options if looking for a good-tasting apple to eat raw.
Certain varieties, like Granny Smith, taste good both when eaten raw and used for cooking.
However, it would be best if you left some other cooking varieties and any of the cider-making varieties for those specific purposes only.
Bitter Taste From “Bitter Pit” Disorder
If you’re choosing an apple with low tannins and it still has a bitter taste, something known as “bitter pit” disorder could be the culprit. This disorder (not considered a disease) is due to a calcium deficiency in the fruit. “Bitter pit” occurs during the growth process of the apple on the tree and can happen to any variety of apples. However, it tends to hit Honeycrisp apple crops the most and is considered endemic in that variety.
Often, it results from dry soil conditions that happen when growing the apples and is particularly common in hot, dry summers. The irregular water supply prevents the calcium from being taken up from the soil and distributed throughout the tree.
Apples that suffer from “bitter pit” will have dark, circular depressions on the apple’s skin. These apples also have a bitter taste.
Although the symptoms sometimes appear as the fruits develop, often they do not show until after the fruit has been harvested and stored. This unfortunate situation can devastate apple growers.
Steps Gardeners Can Take to Help Control Bitter Pit
If you grow apples, you can control and reduce the bitter pit by properly feeding and watering the apple trees throughout the growing season.
A non-organic method is to use calcium nitrate as a foliar spray during the hottest months before your trees produce their fruit. Typically mid-June to mid-September in the U.S. This is to help increase the calcium in growing apples.
For an organic method, you can try crushed oyster shells like these but the results unfortunately may not be as reliable. Organic commercial growers have been known to struggle with this also with reduced crops.
While traditional commercial apple growers apply calcium nitrate or calcium chloride at a frequency of at least three sprays during the growing season, starting with the first bloom.
Other tips are to avoid excessive feeding with fertilizers that are nitrogen or potassium-rich. Although increased nitrogen makes trees more vigorous, it increases the risk of bitter pit disorder. Adding potassium reduces the effectiveness of the calcium sprays, negating their positive effect. If you wait until the fruit starts to grow it is too late.
Finally, apply mulch around your trees to retain moisture in the soil, and also plan to have an adequate water supply to the apple trees during the dry months. You may want to consider installing an irrigation system to help with this effort.
How Storage of Apples Can Affect Their Taste
For Homegrown Apples
I’ve mentioned how bitter pit disorder sometimes does not appear on the apples until after they’ve been picked and stored. If you grow apples and struggle with bitter pit, you cannot try to prevent the problem by adjusting your storage techniques. Instead, as discussed, you must prevent this disorder from happening during the growing period.
To keep your healthy harvested apples fresh and great-tasting, store them in a cool, dark space or in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
For Commercially-Produced Apples
If you purchase apples from the grocery store and find that they taste bitter or different than you expect, rather than the bitter pit, it may have to do with how the commercial grower stored the apples after harvesting.
Apples only grow during certain times of the year. However, you can find them year-round in the supermarkets. This fact means that the average apple you purchase in the grocery store is already many months old.
Many commercially-produced apples now utilize a cold-storage process that involves the application of a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene along with a layer of wax. The growers or distributors then stack the apples in specialized cold storage warehouses for up to 14 months.
Applying the 1-methylcyclopropene prevents the apples from going bad quickly by delaying the ripening process. However, it, along with the wax applied to the fruit’s skin, can affect the taste of the apple.
If the apples you purchased from the supermarket do not taste as good as they once did, this type of storage process could be the reason why.
Pesticides on Conventionally-Produced Apples Also Affect Taste
Non-organic apples sold in stores frequently appear on the “dirty dozen” list. This is due to the number of pesticides (up to 13) applied during the growing process. Although washing the apple before eating it can remove some of these chemical pesticides, it does not remove them all.
No doubt that these chemicals affect the taste of the apples. And if you eat conventionally-produced apples, you will find that they can have a drier, bitter, or chemical taste.
How To Reduce the Chance of Buying Bitter Apples
If you’re not growing your own apples but purchasing them from a store, you can reduce the chance of buying bitter or bad-tasting apples by following certain practices. Here are my recommendations:
- Only purchase organic/non-GMO certified apples (conventional apples are on the “dirty dozen” list).
- Purchase apples only during the fruit’s growing season (based on where you live).
- Purchase locally from farmers’ markets, small local businesses, or direct from the orchards during the growing season.
Can I Still Eat an Apple That Tastes Bitter?
Yes, you can still eat bitter-tasting apples without any effects on your health. The best ways to remove the bitterness involve peeling and cooking the apples.
If You Want to Eat Your Apple Raw
If your fruit is affected by the bitter pit, you should be able to eliminate the bitter taste by removing the skin from the apple (except for extremely bad cases). The same holds true for a conventionally grown apple that tastes different than expected.
If, after removing the peel, the raw apple still tastes slightly bitter, you could try splashing a small amount of lemon juice on the apple slices to balance out the bitterness. Or, try mixing them with some yogurt to help mask the aftertaste.
If You Want to Cook or Bake Your Apples
Although cooking the apples alone will not remove the bitterness, the preparation process that you use when cooking helps improve the flavor.
One of the most basic methods involves using sugar or mixing apples with sweeter fruits (like blueberries or strawberries) when cooking. You can also use cream, milk, spices (like cinnamon or allspice), or butter to mask the bitter flavor.
I purposely use slightly bitter cooking apples in my apple pie recipe, and after I’ve mixed them in with the other ingredients, I don’t notice any bitterness at all.
Finally, you can also peel and freeze bitter apples and then use them at a later date for cooking and baking. Freezing won’t remove the bitterness, but the cooking process, as discussed, will help.
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