Quince: The Tough Fall Fruit With a Secret Reward

Ingredient Intelligence

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Around this time of year I feel like it is both my duty and my pleasure to write a missive on quince. Do you know quince? It's a fall fruit that grows in a manner quite like apples and pears — but its similarities end there.

Quince is a tough fruit, not well known, and often hard to come by. But it has the most amazing sweet and secret reward. Here's how to get at it.

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The Challenges of Quince

Quince is an ancient fruit, found in Roman cooking and grown across Turkey and southeast Asia. It grows on small trees and is closely related to apples and pears, but it lacks their immediate edibility and appeal.

The fruit is knobbly and ugly, with an irregular shape and often a gray fuzz — especially when the fruit has been picked underripe. The ripest, nicest quince will have a golden tone and smooth skin like pictured directly above. But even ripe quince doesn't taste very good raw.

Quince may be the most difficult, yet consequently rewarding, fruit I have ever encountered. It's completely inedible when raw, which puts it even above the Hachiya persimmon in unapproachable astringency. (At least the persimmon will ripen, eventually, into edible sweetness.)

It also has an extremely tough and spongy flesh, which is difficult to cut up; I fear for my fingers every time I attack the woody, oddly spongy yet unyielding interior of a quince.

So why even bother with these fruits? You can't eat them raw, and they're not even tasty? That's where the surprise comes in .

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The Secret Rewards of Quince

The first clue that quince hides something special is its aroma. If you leave a quince on a sunny windowsill it will slowly release a delicate fragrance of vanilla, citrus, and apple into your kitchen. It's a heady, perfumed scent that is completely at odds with its appearance.

And then, if you peel a quince and hack it up, then cook it, those scents blossom into an indescribably wonderful perfume, and the fruit itself magically turns from yellowed white to a deep rosy pink.

When you stew quince in sugar and a little water or wine, it becomes not just edible but delicious — sweet, delicate, fragrant. See how to cook it here:

→ Our guide to cooking quince: How To Cook Quince

What to Do With Cooked Quince

Once the quince is cooked, it's soft and tender, usually with a really lovely syrup from the cooking process. You eat the fruit straight like this, or pour it over yogurt, or bake it into a tart. You can make a sweet, spicy paste out of it (known as membrillo in Spain) that is magnificent with cheese. I love making sorbet and other desserts with it too.

Why Don't We Eat More Quince?

Quince are not nearly as popular as apples and pears, of course, and the work of cooking them is part of this. I wonder if this has protected them, however, from the mass production and flattening of taste that afflicts so many popular fruits today. I was amazed in France at how delicious the local grapes were — but they were full of seeds. The process that breeds the seeds out of grapes seems to inevitably take the taste away.

But we've chosen convenience over flavor in our fruit, so in that sense I am glad that quince are still semi-forgotten and unpopular. If they were bred to be more consumer-friendly I wonder if that wonderful aroma would be dulled or lost. If it means keeping that astonishing flavor I am happy to peel, chop, simmer, and work hard to transform them from ugly stepsister to belle of the ball.

The Pleasure of Transformation

And perhaps this magical transformation, in the end, is what makes quince so appealing. It's like a magic trick, a miracle of water into wine: take an inedible, ugly fruit, and produce something delicious. Add in the fact that quince are often hard to find (that element of the hunt, you know), and you can see how I've become more than a little obsessed.

Where to Find Quince

Quince are often hard to find, but I have good luck at the produce section at Whole Foods. Also ask around at the farmers market; often an orchard will have just one or two quince trees someone's grandfather planted 50 years ago.

Do you ever cook quince? What do you do with it?

Updated from post originally published January 2009.

(Image credits: Faith Durand; Emily Han)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.