Real Food Encyclopedia | Quinces
You may have to hunt around for quinces. They are not a common fruit, but certainly the hunt is worth it simply for their fragrance. Oh, and they taste pretty good, too.
In the United States, the trees were once common in colonial home gardens and on farms. Prior to the 1890s, when commercial gelatin was first introduced, the fruit was primarily used as a natural source of pectin, a thickening agent for jams, jellies and other confections. Sadly, quinces have long since fallen out of favor here, US pome fruit dominance now firmly represented by its apple and pear cousins.
Fun Facts about Quinces:
- Like apples and pears, quinces are thought to be native to the Caucasus area in Western Asia, probably in what are now Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and southwestern Russia.
- One of the Ancient Greek words for quinces was melimelon (“honey-apple”), melimelum in Latin. According to “The Book of Marmalade”, this became marmelo (“quince”) in Spanish and Portuguese, from which we derive the word marmalade. Although we now think of marmalade as preserves made from citrus fruit, the word originally referred to quince preserves.
- Cooking quince turns the fruit’s flesh from creamy white to anywhere from a light rosy pink to a deep, dusky red. According to food science expert Herald McGee, this is because cooking (in the form of heat) forms anthocyanins, natural pigments that can appear red (and purple and blue) in color.
What to Look for When Buying Quinces
Quinces can range quite a bit in size, from as small as a large apple to super giant, some topping out around two pounds or so. Under-ripe or barely ripe fruit tend to be a greenish-yellow, while ripe quinces turn golden yellow. They resemble a comically shaped pear, bumpy and round in the middle. The skin is thin and easily bruised and blemished, and before cooking, most quince flesh is creamy white in color, with a core inside just like an apple or pear. They are frequently covered with downy white fuzz that must be rubbed off before cooking.
Quinces should be firm when squeezed and super fragrant. You’re unlikely to find a blemish-free fruit in the market; it is common to see nicks and scratches in the delicate skin. This is OK. Since it cannot be eaten raw and must be cooked anyway, it’s usually no big deal to pare off any serious blemishes. But do steer clear of fruit with large dark brown or black mushy spots or fruit that feel spongy when gently squeezed. Note that many recipes call for barely ripe quince (more green than yellow), rather than fully ripe fruit (more yellow than green).
Sustainability of Quinces
Because they are grown in such limited quantities in the US, quinces’ environmental impact is fairly light. However, part of the reason they have fallen out of favor in the US is that they are highly susceptible to a devastating bacterial infection called fire blight, which can destroy pome fruit orchards, like quince, apple and pear. Control for the disease used to include sprays of antibiotics like streptomycin, which were once allowable even for organic fruit. (The antibiotics are sprayed on the blossoms, not the fruit.) As of October 2014, organic farmers are no longer allowed to spray antibiotics on organic-designated fruit trees, so you can be confident that there were no antibiotics sprayed on your organic quince.
Quinces (Cydonia oblonga), like apples, pears, plums, cherries, almonds and lots of other edible goodies, are in the rose (Rosaceae) family. The fruits grow on small, super cute, often-gnarled trees that have lovely, fragrant blossoms. According to the USDA, less than 200 acres of the fruit are grown commercially in the US. The fruit’s primary commercial importance here is not for fruit, but because they are a source of dwarfing rootstock for pears — essentially, pear plants are grafted onto quince rootstock to produce a pear tree that is smaller in stature, and thus more easily harvested and maintained.
Quinces begin to make their appearance in the market around late September, ending in early November or so.
Store quinces on the countertop for up to a week, or in the fridge in a paper bag for several weeks.
If you’ve peeled and cut up quinces and don’t plan on cooking them right away, be sure to drop them in acidulated water (i.e., water with a bit of lemon juice added). They begin to oxidize and turn brown almost immediately after cutting.
The quinces we get in the US cannot be eaten raw — they are much too astringent and sour. (Some varieties grown in Iran and other warm areas can be eaten out of hand.) They must be baked, poached or simmered, usually with copious amounts of sugar, honey or other sweeteners. Beware: barely-ripe quinces called for in many recipes are extremely hard, so be careful when you’re slicing and dicing.
Quinces are probably most famously known for being the star ingredient in the Spanish confection membrillo (aka dulce de membrillo), but plenty of other European countries have a long tradition of making quince-based sweets. There are the French contignac and pâté de coing (“quince cheese”), cotognata in Italy and marmelada in Portugal. These confections are usually spread on bread or crackers, and are often paired with salty, strong cheeses, like Spanish Manchego. They all likely derive from a similar sweet common in Ancient Persia. The Italians also use quince (along with lots of other fruits) to make mostarda, a savory-sweet condiment made with fruit and mustard.
Quinces make wonderful additions to apple or pear desserts, as in this quince and apple pie or in applesauce. Like apples and pears, they pair well with warm spices like cinnamon and cloves and with rich-tasting sweeteners like honey. (The fruit is delightful poached in honey or with spices, or even baked with honey.)
In Persian, Moroccan and other Middle Eastern cuisines, quinces turn up in savory dishes as much as in sweet dishes. Paired with lamb, chicken or beef, quince add a fragrant sour-sweet note to savory recipes, as in this lamb, quince and okra tagine or this delicious-looking Persian quince stew (khoresh). And for Thanksgiving, check out this Martha Stewart recipe for turkey roasted with a quince glaze. Here are five more savory recipes with quince from website The Kitchn.
Quinces are high in Vitamin C and fiber, but not much else. The fruit contains a little bit of copper, iron and potassium. Quince seeds and fruit are used in herbal medicine to treat digestive problems and cough.
Top photo by Vladyslav Siaber/Adobe Stock.