The World’s Second-Best Apple Pickles

IN BETWEEN serving apple pies and crisp, pouring fresh cider and making apple pie smoothies, artist Jan Ruby-Crystal of Northampton, Massachusetts, found time to paint these beautiful apples while volunteering in the New England Apples booth in the Massachusetts Building at the Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) last week. New England’s largest fair continues through this Sunday, September 29; hours in the Massachusetts Building are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. If you’d like to volunteer to promote New England apples, send us an email or give us a call.
The trees are loaded with apples at Clarkdale Fruit Farms, Deerfield, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell)

WE HAD NEVER HEARD of apple pickles before Jim Bair, president and CEO of USApple, casually mentioned them at dinner one night. They were an annual delicacy of his Midwest childhood. 

As Jim tells it, “My grandma Elsie Johnson Bair was born in 1895, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. In her late teens she got a job as a cook at the Adams Ranch, the largest farm in Iowa. The farm was 13 square fields, one mile-by-one mile each, comprising more than 8,000 acres and all farmed with mules and a bunkhouse of more than 80 men. 

“Peeling enough potatoes and baking enough bread every day for that many hungry farmhands was an epic task. But she sure learned how to cook.

“She married my grandpa, Warren Bair, and they had four children, but cooking for a family of six plus a farmhand or two and the annual threshing crew was a stroll in the park for her compared to her days as a young, single woman. 

“She lived in the same house for nearly 70 years, and although she was mostly blind toward the end, she knew exactly where her canisters, knives, and pots were. She never measured an ingredient, creating everything by feel.

Pick-your-own customers enjoy bucolic scenes like this riding through the orchard at Pine Hill Orchards, Colrain, Massachusetts. (Russell Steven Powell)

ONE OF MY FAVORITES was her apple pickles. They were served as a relish, and were on the table at every meal. I just assumed that everyone everywhere had apple pickles on the table, but I’ve learned they’re more obscure than I imagined. 

“A few years ago USApple commissioned chef Dave Martin to create some special apple recipes for people in various stages of life.  As a takeoff on the common craving of pregnant women for pickles, he created this recipe for apple pickles. 

“I was skeptical they would measure up to Elsie’s, but I have to admit that with this recipe he nailed it. These are the World’s Second Best Apple Pickles. I think you can guess who I hail as the Apple Pickle Champion.

Chef Martin used Pink Lady apples, Jim says, for their beautiful color. “But of course you can use any firm apple that will stand up to the process without turning to mush.”  

USApple, a nonprofit, member-based association based in Falls Church, Virginia, serves as the national voice and resource center for the American apple industry. Visit to learn more.

Sweet and Sassy Apple Pickles
Sweet and Sassy Apple Pickles

Sweet and Sassy Pickled Apples

4 firm New England apples, cored, sliced into 8 pieces (leave peel on)

2 c apple cider vinegar

1/2 c brown sugar

1/2 c granulated sugar

1/2 T sea salt or kosher salt

2 cinnamon sticks

3 star anise, whole

1/2 t vanilla extract

3/4 t whole black peppercorns

1/2 c dried cherries


In a medium saucepan, bring vinegar, sugars, salt, cinnamon sticks, star anise, vanilla and peppercorns to a boil. Stir until sugar dissolves.


Add apples, return to boil.


Turn to low heat and simmer for 6-8 minutes, until a paring knife inserted in center of apple

meets slight resistance.


Stir in dried cherries. Transfer to bowl and let cool.


Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. Makes 8-12 servings.


Serve pickled apples cold or at room temperature.


Try pairing them with ricotta cheese.


Pickled apples can be stored for up to one month in refrigerator.