Pumpkins may be one of the more recognizable totems of fall, but apples capture the essence of the autumn season just as well—maybe even better (and even though they’re available in produce bins all year long). Press an in-season apple and you have a glass of pure fall flavor. But you don’t, in fact, have apple juice; you have apple cider. So, what’s the difference?
Primarily, it’s the amount of processing that’s done to the liquid. Freshly pressed apples yield apple cider, a hazy, amber elixir that tastes fully of the fruit itself (not simply sweet and a little tangy). Single-variety apple ciders each taste different from each other, and all taste a lot more robust than apple juice—the texture is more robust too, since fine particles of pulp usually remain suspended in it.
Since apple cider isn’t filtered and often isn’t pasteurized either, it has a much shorter shelf life—about 10 days maximum—and should be refrigerated at all times, lest it ferment. (Coincidentally, “cider” anywhere outside of the U.S. and Canada automatically refers to the alcoholic stuff, which we, in order to distinguish it, call hard cider.) While apple cider can generally be considered the healthier option, in that it has more naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and lower sugar content, when it’s not pasteurized, it can potentially be dangerous if it’s improperly handled or stored at any stage. For that reason, even many smaller farms and orchards now pasteurize their fresh-pressed cider just long enough to render it safe.
Take that beautifully unrefined apple cider and filter out all the sediment (along with all the pectin and starch and most of the fiber), then pasteurize it so it’ll last a long, long time without risk of spoiling or fermenting, and you have apple juice, the clear, golden-yellow liquid served out of countless sippy cups through the ages. The taste is generally sweeter and less complex than cider, more of a generic apple flavor. It often (but not always) has added sugar, so look for “100 percent juice” and “no sugar added” on the label to make sure you’re getting the healthiest product. Even then, it usually contains necessary preservatives—and added vitamin C, to replace what’s filtered out during processing.
For legal and labeling purposes, however, the definitions of apple juice and apple cider, and the boundaries between the two, can be almost as murky as the most rustic, fresh-pressed cider you’d find at your nearest orchard. Take, for example, this tidbit from the FAQ section of nonalcoholic sparkling cider giant (and purveyor of other apple-based liquids) Martinelli’s web site: “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% pure juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.” That is, at once, both transparent and tricky! (Martinell’s also sells “unfiltered apple juice,” as do other brands, which is more like what people traditionally expect when they think of cider, as it’s more opaque and less refined.)
Other major brands of apple cider you’re likely to find in the supermarket, like Litehouse, are more akin to what you’d find at a farm stand—darker, cloudier, and somewhat less processed than what’s labeled apple juice—but they’ll generally still be ultra-pasteurized so they can sit at room temperature until you open them, without any ill effects or fermentation. Some brands specify which type of apple they’re made from—Litehouse offers Gala apple cider and Honeycrisp apple cider, for instance—but if they don’t, they’re probably made from a blend of apples (which is not a bad thing; mixing sweet and tart apples can give you the best balance of flavor, and is often called for in homemade apple juice, which, since you can’t really refine it to commercial standards, is pretty much the same as homemade apple cider).
Then there’s spiced apple cider, which has things like cinnamon and nutmeg already added to it; some commercial brands of cider do include such ingredients, so check the label to be sure you get exactly what you’re after. (And if you want to add spices to your own at home, mulled cider is easy to make!) It may not need saying, but apple cider vinegar is a totally different thing, which some people do drink, in smaller doses, for the purported health benefits.
Livestrong has more info on the issue.Hard cider is basically fermented apple juice, although that’s simplifying it quite a bit—for one thing, “Many cideries use an apple concentrate, ferment it, cut it with water, and add juice or sugar after the fact, which is called back-sweetening.” Speaking of concentrate, look at apple juice labels and you’ll see that plenty of them, even those designated 100% juice, have been reconstituted from concentrate. That basically just means that water was removed from the juice at some point before being added back in, sometimes along with extra sugar;
Outside of the beer aisle, if you’re still unsure about whether you’re looking at apple juice or apple cider, you can usually trust your eyes—as per the sage advice of Ned Flanders: “If it’s clear and yella, you’ve got juice there, fella. If it’s tangy and brown, you’re in cider town.” As he goes on to say, there are some caveats, but for the most part, this holds true (at least in America).
And when you have your apple juice or apple cider, there’s a lot you can do with it besides just drinking it straight.
Apple cider and warm spices are captured in soft, chewy caramel candies for a classic old-fashioned treat that never goes out of style. Get the recipe.
This easy cake is full of sliced Granny Smith apples, cinnamon, and heavy cream—and has a full cup of apple cider in the batter too. The sweet-tart glaze has another cup of cider in it for extra apple goodness, but both times, the cider is reduced to intensify its flavor and make it a bit more syrupy. Get the recipe.
There are tons of awesome ways to eat apples for breakfast, but apple cider doughnuts might be one of the best. You can bake your own in the classic style, but for something a little fancier, try these piped and fried French crullers with a warming chai spice glaze. Get the recipe.
There are lots of secret chili ingredients out there, apple cider vinegar being one of them, but why not try actual apple cider when it’s abundant in fall? Fresh apples end up in the pot too (but beans do not). Get the recipe.
Pork and apples (in every form) are perfect partners, so our tender pork loin’s creamy sauce contains both nonalcoholic apple cider and very alcoholic apple brandy. The sweet cippolini onions and salty pancetta pair beautifully with all the warm, rich flavors too. Get our Pork Tenderloin with Apple Cider Calvados Cream Sauce recipe.
Apples can even work with seafood, like sweet, tender scallops. Gastrique sounds super fancy, but it’s basically just a savory caramel sauce—and here, it’s made by simply cooking down apple cider until it’s more like a glaze. Get the recipe.
Warm apple drinks are wonderful, but cold, crisp ones make for great fall cocktails too. For this one, you make fresh Honeycrisp apple juice, plus Honeycrisp apple syrup, and combine them with vodka, ginger beer, and cinnamon. Of course, you can substitute store-bought juice, or even try cider if you want. Get the recipe.
More proof that apples work with plenty of protein besides pork: you can make apple juice grilled chicken, an apple juice brined turkey, or even apple juice-marinated steak. This one actually calls for apple juice concentrate itself, but you could try cooking down fresh apple juice if that’s all you have on hand, or even use the juice as-is. Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Make Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel Filling
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Shutterstock.