Foraging for free food is a seasonal highlight for many, and it’s a stellar way to manage the earth’s finite resources. After all, Americans waste an estimated 50% of the fresh produce grown each year, and the average meal’s ingredients have traveled almost 1,500 miles (representing at least five countries) before they land on your plate.
Table of Contents
You can cut back on your carbon footprint by finding and utilizing overlooked food sources. In this instance, we’ll look at what you can do with the country’s abundant crop of wild-grown and windfall apples.
The value of wilds and windfalls
Wild apples, commonly called crab apples, are the originators of all known cultivars today. Unlike their grafted counterparts, wild apples grow from seed, and each tree is genetically unique from all others. This leads to a wide variance in traits. Some wild apples are so astringent they will set your teeth on edge, while others taste sweet enough for baking without additional sugar.
Generally, crab apples are small, sour, and more durable than apples in the grocery store. They tend to sweeten once you start breaking down their sugars during the cooking process, and they can be put to dozens of uses.
How to harvest wild apples
If you’re lucky enough to stumble on a supply of wild apples, it’s time to start collecting them. You might find trees growing along roadsides or in overgrown fields. It’s also common to find abandoned orchards in the middle of forest land that once was a family farm. While these apples are technically cultivated, they can be used similarly to their wild counterparts.
Harvesting wild apples can be tricky, as the trees are never pruned and could be 30-foot or taller. Invest in an adjustable fruit picker so you don’t break your back scaling unsafe limbs.
And what about windfalls? These early-season apples tend to fall from trees due to “June drop, ” a natural process where the trees dispose of excess fruit to give the produce that remains extra attention. You can also find a lot of fallen fruit after extreme weather events. Save your back from bending over to collect them by using a nut gatherer for easy scooping.
A note on finding wild apples
If you’re overwhelmed by the process of searching for wild apples, I recommend using the Falling Fruit map. This public resource works as a global collaborative map of foraging opportunities. You can search your local area for comments from other users about free fruit sources, from apples to blackberries and a lot more besides.
Windfalls and wild apples may be small, sour, and even insect-damaged, but that doesn’t mean you can’t process them into environmentally sustainable food sources. Keep reading to learn how to take full advantage of the apple foraging opportunities near you.
14 uses for windfall and wild apples
Once you’ve gathered a few bushels of wild and windfall apples, it’s time to put them to use. Let these suggestions serve as inspiration for your own creativity.
#1 – Apple cider (hard and otherwise)
This classic fall drink is easier to make than most people think. You’re halfway there already if you have an abundant apple supply on hand. All that’s needed is a large stockpot, but you’ll be much happier with the process if you invest in a cider press—especially for larger batches.
Here’s a basic recipe to serve as inspiration. If you’re feeling adventurous, convert your cider into an even more refreshing drink by fermenting it into a hard cider. You’ll soon be enjoying an all-American drink that was popular with homesteaders more than two centuries ago.
#2 – Fruit leather
For those who crave gummy candy, homemade fruit leather can satisfy the sweet snacking urge. You can make your own easily if you have a food dehydrator available.
I find this project pairs perfectly with brewing hard cider because I save the apple pulp after straining out the juice, pile it in a thin layer on a plastic sheet on the dehydrator, and let the machine run until the pulp is slightly tacky but not sticky. The resulting leather is surprisingly flavorful, and it gives me a full second use from my apple harvest.
You can go beyond these basic instructions by incorporating your favorite spices (cinnamon is a winner) or sugar to the fruit pulp.
#3 – Apple vodka
Not interested in messing with a complicated cider recipe? You can infuse your apple harvest in vodka instead. All that’s necessary is to peel and rough-chop about five apples, removing any insect damage, and then add them to a large jar. If desired, add a few cinnamon sticks.
Next, pour in a 750ml bottle of vodka, seal well, and shake to ensure the slices get covered. Let it infuse for up to 14 days before staining out the apple and cinnamon and rebottling for use in festive cocktails.
#4 – Apple pectin
Pectin is the starch found in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables, and commercial versions are used to firm up homemade jams. Limit your reliance on the grocery store by making your own from wild apples instead.
You can find the full recipe at Pick Your Own. The premise is that you need to boil and strain three pounds of tart apples until you’re left with a concentrated gel that acts as a natural thickening agent.
#5 – Homemade apple syrup
Maple might get all the credit, but you can make a tasty pancake topper from wild apples as well. This recipe from the Edible Capital District is fundamentally similar to how you make pectin, but you want to boil the juice for less time so that it doesn’t turn into a gel.
#6 – (Crab)apple juice
Embrace the sour by making homemade juice with your wild and windfall apples. If you have at least three pounds of apples on hand, you’re ready to get started. A jelly bag or fine cheesecloth will make the straining process easier. Find the full recipe here.
Note: if you want your juice to be extra fiber-rich, consider squeezing the jelly bag so that some of the cloudy juice makes it into the batch. This gives it a thicker texture and adds an extra boost of antioxidants besides.
#7 – Applesauce
Applesauce is a popular preservation strategy for a reason—it’s easy, efficient, and can be personalized in dozens of ways. You can simply follow your favorite applesauce recipe when using wilds and windfalls, though keep in mind you may need to add some extra sugar.
I’ve found I prefer running the final sauce through a food mill when using these kinds of apples because they tend to be somewhat starchier.
#8 – Bulk up homemade sauerkraut
Sauerkraut lovers can bulk out their favorite condiment by making a batch with apples. Their sour flavor pairs perfectly with this fermented cabbage, and it’s an excellent use for bruised and damaged fruit.
If you already have a sauerkraut recipe you love, consider substituting half the cabbage for diced apples. Otherwise, you can follow this recipe from SCD Essential Probiotics.
#9 – Supplemental animal feed
Humans aren’t the only ones who benefit from foraged apples. If you own livestock—or know someone who does—they offer a free and nutritious food source. I collect all the windfalls from my farm’s apple trees and dole them out to the American Guinea hogs daily for several weeks.
The pigs couldn’t be happier with the treat and removing the rotting apples from the orchard floor also reduces habitat space for insect pests. This helps the trees grow better-looking fruit the following year.
#10 – Dried apple slices
Here’s a secret—sour, slightly unripe apples make the best dried fruit slices. An apple peeler is essential for this task because you need slices of uniform thickness so that they dry at the same rate. You can maximize energy efficiency by drying the pieces in a dehydrator, though an oven turned to its lowest setting will work in a pinch.
#11 – Apple cider (scrap) vinegar
Turn the powers of fermentation in a different direction than alcohol production by making homemade apple vinegar. This recipe from The Prairie Homestead will give you a useful household cleaning product that’s also a quality natural hair conditioner.
Note that the recipe technically makes an apple scrap vinegar, which is less acidic than its cider counterpart. If you want to make an authentic apple cider vinegar, consider this recipe instead.
#12 – Crabapple wine
Think beyond hard cider when it comes to turning your foraged apple crop into alcohol. Apple wine is a heady drink that can be enjoyed within two months of processing, while most wines require a year or more of aging.
There’s not much you need to do besides chop up your apples, cook them down, and combine the juice with sugar and a champagne yeast starter. My Wine Sense shares the full recipe.
#13 – Add texture to homemade jams and chutneys
Everyone knows about apple butter, but this foraged fruit crop can be used in a far more varied range of bread spreads. Add a pucker of sour flavor to your favorite jam recipe by adding some finely sliced unripe apples to the fruit. A small amount will go a long way towards changing the flavor profile, so you might want to experiment with different levels.
This strategy works well when making savory chutneys, like in this recipe from Daily Green Inspiration.
#14 – Crabapple hot pepper jelly
Combine the sour and the spicy in one stellar condiment by making crabapple hot pepper jam. While I love using spreads like this on bagels with sour cream, it also makes an excellent pork or poultry glaze.
Try this beginner-friendly recipe from Cooks.com. Best of all, you won’t need to add any additional pectin.
Harvest wild apples for an environmentally sound food source
These recipes highlight just the beginning of what you can do with a foraged crop of apples. The goal is to change your approach to food so that you start to see potential in places that others wouldn’t look at twice.
Once you begin the process of foraging for fresh fruit in your community and finding ways to preserve it, there’s a good chance you will feel inspired to cut down on the environmental impact of other parts of your diet as well. That’s a benefit for both your wallet and the planet.