Quince is not a common fruit. Sure, we’ve all heard of quince (and we all know that the Golden Apples in Classical literature are actually quince, yes?), but most of us don’t encounter them very often, if at all. And if we do, we might be hesitant to bring them home. They’re fuzzy and odd-looking, and how can you tell if one is ripe? How do you store and prep and cook these things?
Let me get you acquainted with quince, so you can take full advantage of every chance encounter you may have in the future.
In season: September to November
Tastes like: A mix of pear and apple and honeysuckle, with a tiny hint of musk and an enigmatic tropical nectar
Ripeness indicator: Will go from lime green to golden yellow when they’re ripe
Prep: The fuzzy coating must be wiped off prior to cooking (and quinces must always be cooked!)
What is Quince? A Formal Introduction
Quince (cydonia oblonga) is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), and the only child of the genus cydonia. They’re green-yellow and shaped like pears, but wonky with more pronounced bumps. Some have a coat of pale fuzz. Their leaves are shiny and waxy looking and have velvety undersides.
There’s another small shrub known as Flowering Quince (chaenomeles japonica), which produces quince-like fruit, they’re part of the rose family, but a totally different genus and species, and are not part of this guide. Think of them as distant cousins.
A Brief History of Quince
Native to the Caucasus, where wild varieties can still be found, quince were astoundingly popular all over the ancient world, and remained popular and important up until the 19th century (seriously, think about that). The Mesopotamians cultivated quince 5,000 years ago, and humans did good work to distribute it far and wide.
From its origin, people used ancient trade routes to bring quince to the Middle East and Mediterranean, and the Silk Road to get it to China. Quince was a hit everywhere it went, and people were compelled to bring it along with them to new destinations.
Quince was prized for its lush scent and flavor, praised by ancient physicians the world over for its medicinal properties, and given a lot of cultural significance.
Quince plays a part in ancient Greek and Roman mythology (see: Aphrodite and Venus, the judgement of Paris, Heracles); it was a status symbol in the middle ages (royalty served it at special banquets; King Richard III had a quince bake for the final course of his coronation feast); the most popular pome in colonial America (nearly every homestead had a quince tree); and now most of us barely know it (but we can fix that).
When and Where to Find a Quince
Quince are fall fruits. Look for them from September to November, and good luck because shopping for quince is like going on a treasure hunt without a reliable map.
You’re hardly ever going to find fresh quince in a regular grocery store, though you’ll almost always find quince paste in the fancy cheese section. You might not even find them at your normal farmers market. If you know of a market with farms and orchards that bring more unusual items to their stands, that’s your best bet. Or maybe you know someone with a tree in their yard.
These are not widely grown. The only state that grows quince on a commercial scale is, unsurprisingly, California. But even the Golden State, where the majority of this country’s commercial produce is grown (which is a problem we can discuss some other time), doesn’t produce much. In 2009, there were reportedly 300 acres in the San Joaquin Valley dedicated to quince, more recently it’s around 200 acres.
The commercial California quinces (the Pineapple variety, if you’re curious) are harvested in the fall and, because unblemished quinces can keep for a long time, sold through January. A small number of quinces are shipped in from Chile in the spring; you might find those in a specialty store, but local and in season is always better.
How to Choose a Good Quince
You’ll know a good quince when you smell it. When ripe, their floral, slightly musky and mysteriously tropical perfume is impossible to miss.
Avoid any that feel spongy when squeezed; they should be hard as rocks.
As for visual cues: You’re looking for yellow. Just like their cousins, the Bartlett pear, quinces go from lime-ish green to golden yellow when they’re ripe. You always want to look for fruits without punctures, bruises, or soft spots.
How to Prep Quince
The first part of quince prep is always to get rid of the fuzzy coating. It rubs off with a tiny bit of effort. No matter how you’re going to cook it — poaching, baking, adding to a savory stew, or making a compote — you can’t skip this step.
After that, the two most important quince prep rules I know come from Nostradamus. The sixteenth-century apothecary, physician, and astrologer who specialized in treating plague victims and making predictions for the future also wrote a cookbook. The quince jelly recipe in his 1552 “Treatise on Make-Up and Jam” includes instructions we must all keep in mind when dealing with quince. I like his words, so I’ll let him speak for himself (in a translation from the Old French): “those who peel them do not know what they are doing, since the skin enhances the smell.” Full stop.
His other important piece of advice: “As you are cutting them up, place them in a basin full of water, for unless they are plunged into water the moment they are cut up they will turn black.” To this I’ll add that it’s a good idea to squeeze a little lemon or add some other acidity to the water to help slow browning (which really does happen as quickly as the old guy says).
How to Cook Quince
Quinces must be cooked. A raw quince smells dreamy, but take a bite and you get nothing but astringency that will make your mouth pucker. Cooking transforms the harsh-tasting, rock-hard pale flesh of a quince into something gentle and sweet, and pink (!).
Cooked quince tastes like a mix of pear and apple and honeysuckle, with a tiny hint of musk and an enigmatic tropical nectar (this peculiar tropical note is prominent in raw quince’s signature scent). The sturdy flesh becomes delicate and turns a rosy magenta-red, like the color of the blush on an apricot. Any liquid used in cooking will change color, too. It’s really an enchanting experience, cooking quince.
Important note: There are varieties in central Asia, the Middle East, and south America that can be eaten straight from the tree, but what’s available to us here can never be eaten raw.
How to Store
Don’t store quince in plastic or keep them in anything sealed. They might look okay on the outside after spending some time like this, but they’ll be discolored and sad on the inside.
Quince keep best in cool, dry, airy places. Even better if you’re able to give them enough space so they don’t touch each other — if one rots, you can get rid of it easily and it hasn’t affected the others. If they’re puncture-free and not bruised, they’ll keep for several weeks. Most quinces we’ll find will have been nicked and bumped, so keep an eye on them if you decide to let them sit a long while.
Store quinces away from other fruits. Their aroma is intoxicating and wonderful, but it’s also very strong, and anything you store next to them will take it on. Housekeeping manuals from the Victorian period suggest storing trays of quince at the top of the linen cabinet to scent the laundry — doesn’t that sound lovely?! If anyone tries this, please report back.
How to Freeze
If you’d like to store some quince in your freezer for future use, it’s easy. Cut and core your quinces, poach, and let them cool completely. Then decide how you want to store them: with the liquid or without, or maybe you want quince puree stashed away?
If you want to freeze without the poaching liquid, I strongly advise you to keep it for other uses. For example, reduce it to a syrup and add a little to sparkling wine, or to sparkling water for a homemade quince soda, or try it in a cocktail. Drizzle it on yogurt or baked treats. (An olive oil cake soaked in quince syrup? Swoon.)
Make your call and do what you have to do before transferring your processed quince to a freezer-safe bag. Remove as much air as possible, and freeze. It’ll keep for up to a year.
How to Preserve
Quinces are high in pectin and easily make jams and compotes that are perfect for canning.
In ancient Greece and Rome, whole quinces were preserved in honey. Attempting something along these lines is, to me, a very good idea. Imagine the aroma every time you open the jar. Gloriously decadent!