Ingredient Intelligence

Can You Eat Crab Apples? Everything You Need to Know About the Unique Fruit.

published Oct 14, 2022
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Bucket of freshly picked crab apples
Credit: Jon Spalding/Shutterstock

When apple season rolls around, the possibilities are truly endless. Easy apple strudel, stuffed apple pie scones, and apple cider doughnut cake are just a few of the many ways to usher in the start of all things autumn. Although there are many varieties of apples out there, the one lesser-known cousin of the Granny Smiths and McIntoshes of the world is the crab apple. The questions on everyone’s mind: What exactly are crab apples and can you eat them? Read on to learn more about this interesting tart fruit.

What Are Crab Apples?

Crab apples, which are also sometimes simply called “crabs,” are related to the domestic apple, as they both belong to the genus Malus. Crab apples are native to North America and Asia and, like the domestic apple, come in a few different shades, although most crab apples have a bright crimson color with some yellow and light green splotches around them.

Agriculturally, crabapples are treated differently than the domestic apple. “The difference with crab apples, is that they are most often grown for their flowers in the landscape rather than their fruit,” explains Professor Susan K. Brown, an instructor of integrative plant science at Cornell University, which has one of the most distinguished apple breeding programs in the world. Brown is one of several experts that lead this program. Brown notes that some varieties of ornamental crab apple tree do not bear fruit and are grown just for their flowers.

Crab apples have a more sour taste than common apples, too. “[Crab apples] are more acidic and astringent than the domestic apple,” Brown notes. 

Can You Eat Crab Apples?

Yes, you can definitely eat crab apples. Although crab apples are not poisonous and can be safely eaten raw, many people often prefer to cook them. On their own, crab apples tend to have a very sour flavor that isn’t for everyone. Crab apples are commonly turned into a jam or preserves, similar to apple jam or apple butter. Alternatively, you can treat them similarly to apples, which means they’re great in pies, crisps, crumbles, strudels, and in the form of crab apple sauce. You could even make a sweet appetizer like these wine-poached crab apples for holiday gatherings. 

Are Crab Apples Poisonous?

Nope! Crab apples are not poisonous. As noted above, crab apples are perfectly safe to eat, even off the branch. As with all varieties of apples, however, you should avoid eating or chewing crab apple seeds. The seeds from apples and crab apples are toxic and if consumed, can metabolize into a poisonous cyanide compound, notes Brown.

Although, it is OK if you accidentally eat a few of the seeds — there would need to be a large quantity of seeds (150 to thousands, according to Brittanica) and they’d need to be broken up or crushed for there to be potential for serious harm. In other words, it’s highly unlikely you’d get sick at all from eating the seeds.

If you want to eat or cook with crabapples, you can buy them from a grower or pick them out of your own yard or in the wild. However, Brown notes that if you are picking from a crab apple tree that has not been sprayed with pesticides, you should examine the fruit for worms. “[This is] often evident as a mass called ‘frass’ near the bottom of the apple,” she says. Additionally, you should always wash your crabapples regardless of how you got them — a simple water rinse works just fine, notes Brown.

How Are Crab Apples Different from Apples?

Size is the most prominent difference between crab apples and the common apple. If you’ve ever seen crab apples in person or eaten them, then you know that they’re relatively small, typically only growing around two inches in diameter, which is slightly larger than a cherry. The average domestic apple usually grows to be around four inches in diameter. And, of course, as previously noted, crab apples also taste different than most domestic apples — they are significantly tart in flavor with a bit of sweetness. In fact, some people might find them to be too sour to truly enjoy as is.