Down & Dirty: Quince

February  1, 2013

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

It seems so obvious that quinces are close cousins to apples and pears -- that is, until you bite into one. Astringent and sweetly bitter (very similar to persimmons, in fact), they're not easy to love. But with proper handling, some seed-saving, and the right recipes, you'll be stocking up on quinces all winter long.

1. A Quince by Any Other Name: Knobbly and gorgeously yellow-green, quinces look like they belong in still life paintings. They're indigenous to the Middle East (Turkey and Iran, particularly) although the biggest grower of quinces these days is China. Quince trees look just like stocky, shorter apple or pear trees -- in fact, you can graft pear stock onto them for a sturdier crop. Although most quinces you'll find in stores and at farmers' market are basically apple-shaped, there are pyriform varieties as well -- and quinces are more fragrant than apples and pears combined, with a bitter cardamom-like twang to their their intensely sweet aroma.

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2. To Eat, or Not to Eat: Despite what you may have read or heard, quinces are perfectly edible when raw. The trick is eliminating their astringency: like persimmons, they must ripen far beyond your normal comfort zone to develop sweetness. Don't have time to wait? In Iran, quinces are put into a sturdy bag and then rapped with a mallet until they're soft all over. This bursts cells in the quinces' flesh, releasing their sweet juices to counteract the bitter flavors. (You could do this yourself by chewing a piece for a very long time, but it's much more fun with a blunt object.)

If you prefer your quinces cooked, you can skip those steps -- when exposed to heat, quince flesh goes soft, sweet, and pink. Membrillo, a quince jelly, is perhaps the most popular recipe to make with the fruit, because of the massive amounts of pectin in quince seeds. (Indeed, marmalade comes from the word for quince in various European languages.) Quinces also make a grand addition to any apple or pear baked good -- just a little bit boosts flavor, making the fruits taste even more like themselves. But quinces aren't relegated to desserts: there are many Middle Eastern dishes that pair the fruit with beef, lamb, and warm spices -- find one at the bottom of the page here. Because quince flesh doesn't fall apart during cooking, it's the ideal pair for long-simmered stews. And one more tip: if your recipe calls for peeled quince, save the skins. Simmered with equal parts sugar and water, they make a pale-pink syrup perfect for lemonades and cocktails.

3. Save those Seeds: Like their Rosaceae family cousins the apple and pear, quinces have five-petaled flowers that grow into five-chambered seed pods, yielding about a dozen seeds per fruit. Hold on to those seeds! Next time you make jam, toss them in for a pectin boost. Or you can soak a tablespoon of seeds in a half cup or so of water -- left overnight, the seeds develop a thick, mucilaginous liquid that is a traditional Middle Eastern palliative for sore throats (the mucilage, as it's called, coats the throat and relieves coughing). The gooey liquid may have even bigger possibilities -- there are scientific studies on its healing properties.

On a lighter note, quince mucilage can be mixed with cologne to make, of all things, a natural hair gel. For you Gone with the Wind fans: at one point in the book, Scarlett O'Hara asks Mammy to wash her hair then get her "a jar of quince seed jelly to make it lie down flat." If the effects of quince seed jelly worked on Rhett Butler…!

No matter how you prepare your quinces -- roasted with root vegetables, in a soup with celeriac, stuffed into adorable pastries, or rubbed into your hair -- you're now equipped to make the most of them. Have you ever cooked with quince?

Pomegranate & Quince Lamb


Fig & Quince Flaugnarde

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


beejay45 October 21, 2015
My mom always made quince and orange marmalade. It was one of several of her specialties that everyone clamored for. We're in the California wine country north of San Francisco, and the drought has killed so many of our older smaller trees, including the quince and Fuyu persimmon. So sad. But if we're lucky and have some wet this winter, maybe they'll come back. Sigh. Droughts are no fun.
JanieMac February 10, 2013
So glad to see this piece on quince, I had a little quince love-in a couple years ago in Andalucia, it appeared in many places in many ways and I brought home boxes of membrillo dulce to keep me happy. In desperations I have used the fruits of the flowery version of quince, Chaenomales japonica. They are smaller and very hard, but have the same flavour and fragrance. Very hard work though to do much with them. I still use them mixed with apples in apple pies for depth and interest and I let the extra fruit dry in a bowl in the house just for the scent. Thanks so much for the information!
artemise L. February 4, 2013
In regards to "Membrillo," I need to make a clarification. Membrillo is the Spanish name for quince, not the paste shown on the picture. What you are showing is a paste called "Ate." Ate signifies a dry jelly made of quince, peach or guava, like the one on your picture. So please, when introducing a new food, use the right term, otherwise people new to the jelly paste will forever think that Ate paste is called membrillo, we already know that that is wrong.

Also, membrillos can be found in Latin American, Persian or Middle Eastern stores during fall. Maybe even during spring if they are imported from the south hemisphere of the glove. Ask your store vendor for information about their imports.
nmueller89 February 5, 2013
While it's true that membrillo is the name of the fruit in Spanish, it's also the name of the paste, also called "carne de membrillo" or "dulce de membrillo", and sold thus in stores.
Hélia G. November 4, 2019
Membrillo IS quince in Spanish (Castilian). I suppose that in some Central and South American countries the name for quince paste (quince cheese, quince dry jelly, etc.) may be membrillo as a short form for "dulce de membrillo" or "carne de membrillo".
What is not true however is that "marmalade comes from the word for quince in various European languages". To my knowledge there are only two European languages (that some scholars even state as being the same language) that have the word "marmelo" for quince: Portuguese and Galician. And quince paste is obviously called marmelada in Portugal.
bonbonmarie February 2, 2013
I made a beautiful membrillo last fall with quince harvested from a friend's quince hedge. (HEDGE!!! How envious am I?) The membrillo made marvelous holiday gifts together with a piece of the traditional Manchego pairing, and also with creamy-crumbly Manouri. Mmmm!
Silvia February 1, 2013
where I can find quince? is a popular fruit in South America, and every year since I moved to US I'm trying to do my grandma's jam but never find a supplier! is any online shop to buy it when in season?
Valhalla February 1, 2013
Love it, and it makes the easiest jam ever, but the midAtlantic crop was wiped out last year--I am missing that jam this winter!