Squishing Your Own (Apples)

The unique coloration of Gravensteins is easy to see here.

Standing majestically above the almost numberless benefits of living in rural west Sonoma County, California, is one’s proximity to the Gravenstein apple.  Considered an “extra early” variety, its season is early, finishing in mid-August.  Available in Green, Red and the more typical Yellow-Red-Green mottled hue, it is a fine apple for eating fresh, though its bright-tart flavor is not as sweet as the Delicious, the Macintosh, or other late season apples — and yet local boy Luther “The Plant Wizard” Burbank was of the opinion that “If the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”

But it can’t be had; the Gravenstein will not “keep” for more than a week or three even in cold storage, and so it sees general use as a pie and sauce apple.  For cookery it is splendidly suited, as American soldiers in World War II discovered; the bulk of the applesauce and dried apples supplied to U.S. troops came from Sonoma County’s famed crop.  In fact until only recently the noble Gravenstein was the county’s signature fruit, that role now alas usurped by the hoity-toity wine grape.  These days only Nova Scotia in distant eastern Canada may claim the Gravenstein apple as a mainstay.

But it’s juice where the Gravenstein revels in its truest glory.  Thorough experimentation has led me to conclude that there is no finer “single variety” fresh apple juice to be had, than what is squished from the Grav.

As luck would have it a neighbor of mine has an ancient Grav tree, so decayed and worm-eaten it’s now literally half gone, more or less the shape of an immense celery stick in fact, and yet it’s laden every year with fruit.  Recently, his family and I managed, between the four of us, to collect and crush enough apples to press out thirteen gallons of magnificent juice in a single evening.


The Stainless Steel Cider Press and other apple presses are available at Lehmans.com and Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio.

Pressing apples for juice requires the proper equipment, and this can be mighty expensive gear, but if you are actively looking for the best possible food for your family you might consider joining funds with a few other families (especially ones with apple trees!) and purchasing a press to share out between you.  Properly cared for during use and storage, it will last for decades.  The next best thing is to have a friend who owns one and doesn’t mind lending it.  Following that, your local hardware store might have one to rent on a daily basis, as mine does.

And naturally, you need access to apples, LOTS of apples.  For making juice they don’t have to be in especially pretty condition, and if you know someone with a commercial orchard you can acquire plenty of Grade B fruit for less money than you might think.  Your local greengrocer might also be amenable to this offer, since he probably can’t sell bruised or past-prime fruit, if he has any.

Apple varieties may not be the same, but the process of pressing them for juice is, so what worked for us using Gravensteins will work for you no matter what kind of apple you employ.

The best apple juice is a balance of sweetness and tartness.  This can be achieved with a mixture of varieties (such as Delicious + Granny Smith), or by using a single variety like the Gravenstein only in different conditions — i.e., picked slightly under-ripe, picked ripe, a windfall, or an over-ripe windfall.  Having some quantity of all four in the blend will yield the best final product.  It is a happy peculiarity of the Gravenstein’s typical uneven ripening habit that, at this time in August, all four conditions can be found on (and under) a single standard tree.

Available in 4 colors, this lightweight and sturdy bucket is ideal for apple pressing day duties. Available at Lehmans.com or Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio.

If you have a the time and space, you can sort your apples before you start pressing for juice, reserving the juice from each condition (or variety of apple) in a separate container for blending after all the work is done.  In the hurly-burly of the day’s labor, however, I’ve found it much easier to fill barrows and boxes with a mix of the various Gravensteins, and simply press them all at once.  Choose whichever method works best for you.

Besides an apple juice press, you will need a large tub to wash the fruit in, and of course a number of containers in which to store the juice.  I’ve found over the years that plastic half-gallon jugs are very good storage vessels, especially the style that are somewhat square, as they nest together efficiently in the freezer.  If rinsed clean afterwards, they can be re-used in the next season.

Juice Your Apples
Freezing is my chosen method for long-term storage of apple juice, though I am advised canning it is also possible.  This has the advantage of needing no electricity to store, but the price paid is in the quality of the juice: the floral delicacy and complex flavors of the fresh product are lost somewhat during canning, owing to the heat.  A month ago, clearing space in the big freezer in preparation for our pressing, I chanced across a jug of Gravenstein juice which had been set into the corner of the freezer in 1996 and subsequently lost behind an accrued glacier — for 15 years!  After defrosting, the tang of the juice was so perfectly intact I nearly had to go outside and walk around for five minutes; the aroma and flavors of that first deep drink were pristine, and unchained a host of memories long shoved aside.

One is obliged to collect the apples during the day, when you can see them, but you’re better off to press your juice when the sun is going down or else you will attract a cloud of flies, wasps and hornets while you work.  So, make sure to have adequate lighting rigged up ahead of time.  Flashlights won’t do it.

Step 1 is washing.  Apples are dusty and this needs to be cleaned off.  Fill your tub about half-way with cold water and empty a few dozen apples into it, or enough so they’re all touching.  You don’t need to be especially gentle with them, as a bruised apple is actually easier to press juice from than a sound one.  Extremely bruised apples are OK too; in fact unless the apple is totally brown and soft and reeking, use it for juice.  Apples which are partially soft, brown and reeking can have the offending bits quickly trimmed off with a knife.  Shove the floating apples around in the tub for half a minute; their rubbing against each other should be sufficient to clean them off.

Step 2 is grinding.  The typical apple grinder is a metal box with a turning cylinder inside that’s studded with teeth.  The cylinder is turned by a crank handle on the side, and the apples are fed in from the top.  Our old grinder had an additional 25-pound iron flywheel welded onto the crank mechanism by a previous owner, which was extremely useful for keeping up momentum once you got it up to speed.  It’s useful at this point to have friends with big arms.

Take out a few apples at a time, shake them off so you don’t add too much water to your juice, and feed them into the top.  Grinders, like apples, vary: bigger ones can accommodate whole fruit, smaller ones require the fruit be halved or quartered first.  Halving may also be necessary with really large apples, even with a big grinder.  We neither core nor peel them, however.

What is most important is that the apples be fed into the grinder at a regular rate, so the device isn’t running wild and free one second and then suddenly seizing up when three apples drop in, the next second.

Cranked lustily, and fed attentively, the grinder spews the chewed-up fruit down into a vertical basket where it will be pressed.  As this basket fills, reach down periodically and flatten out the heap of apple pulp until the thing is full, right up to the top.  I have experimented with using a nylon net bag that fits within the wooden basket, apparently to keep the pulp more neatly contained and to filter the juice.  I’ve found this to be a waste of time; or worse — it yields a thinner, less hearty and frankly inferior product.  Do not bother with the net bag.

Step 3 is the actual pressing.  A round, thick disc of hardwood is set down into the top of the basket, fitting snugly into its circumference, and then the basket is maneuvered until the threaded shaft of the press is directly over the wooden disc’s center.  Turning the shaft screws it down, down, down…and the first rush of juice oozes out through the slats and pours into the trough and, hopefully, into your catchment container below.

Ah, that very first taste of ultra-fresh Gravenstein apple juice!  There’s nothing like it.  Do have your mug handy for a sample.  Or two.

Turn the screw-shaft a bit more, and more juice will result.  Eventually it will be quite a struggle to get another revolution out of it, so let it alone for a minute or two.  This interval can be employed prepping more apples for the next go, or jugging up the juice you’ve just pressed out.

After a few minutes, tighten the press down again.  It will yield a bit more juice.  This can be repeated two or three times after suitable rests, but soon enough the apples are pressed dry and the gizmo needs to be unscrewed.  The resulting cake of dry apple mush (known as “pomace”) is then removed and either fed to livestock, for which they may love you as never before, or broken up for inclusion in the compost pile.

Step 4 is bottling (which sounds more dignified than “jugging up”).  If you’ve segregated your apples and have two or three containers of juice of varying sweetness, sample them judiciously and decide on the ratio of your blend.  Sometimes a lump or two of pomace finds its way through the slats and into the juice (or the occasional sodden hornet, if you press during the day) but both are easily dealt with by placing a modest length of wadded-up coarse cheesecloth in the funnel; you may need to periodically remove the cheesecloth and shake out the yuck, but nothing else is wanted to adequately filter the juice.  The denser and cloudier your apple juice is, the better the flavor will be.  If you believe apple juice needs to be light and clear to be good, I would recommend you seek immediate counseling.

Step 5 is storage.  If you intend to freeze your apple juice, don’t fill the jugs to more than 3/4 of their capacity or else they may burst, since apple juice expands when it freezes just like water.  Get the filled jugs into the freezer as soon as possible, too, because Nature doesn’t want it to be juice for long!  Nature likes “scrumpy” (i.e., alcoholic cider) and usually graces the apple with wild yeast on its skin who love to feed on its fermentable sugars; keep in mind that for many centuries, 98% of the apples grown in the world were to make scrumpy, not to eat.  Left at room temperature for long, your fresh apple juice may well start to ferment within a few hours, though it won’t be noticeable for a day or two.  Nature is also apparently inclined toward sourness, because along with wild yeast the world is amply endowed with aerobic bacteria called Acetobacter that eagerly turn apple juice into cider vinegar, given the chance.

One possibility is pasteurization, which involves heating the juice to about 160° F. for a mere 15 seconds in order to kill off pathogenic microorganisms without damaging the delicate flavors too much.  The problem is, the juice then needs to be immediately cooled from this temperature, and this is almost impossible to do in the home setting.

So, freeze your fresh apple juice, and then drink it at your leisure throughout the ensuing months.  Or, years.  Or even decades!

Ice cube trays are handily employed to make frozen apple juice cubes.  The advantages are that they freeze pretty quickly and so repeat batches can be finished throughout the day, they store easily in the freezer in a large zip-lock plastic bag, and you can remove just enough of them for one serving if you like.

FREE RECIPE IDEA!  A fine hot-weather beverage is plain soda water poured over half a dozen apple juice cubes (you might even sneak a lemon juice cube in there with them); keep in mind that on a scorching afternoon there’s no possible way to wait long enough for them to melt adequately, so use room-temperature soda water and it will be ready to drink much sooner.