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Quince Jelly and Membrillo

Given our cultural predilection for breeding the most uniform, shelf stable, and prettiest fruits and vegetables, it's a wonder the quince has survived our agricultural fervor.

Quinces are knobby and irregular, like lumpy pears. They are a bit drab-looking and neglected and are prone to patches of rot. Their flesh is pale and grainy--much like the flesh of a pear, but far more pronounced. They do not soften as they ripen, and they cannot be eaten like an apple, for their flesh is highly astringent, making them unpleasant to eat out of hand.

Hearing all this, you may think, indeed, why has the quince, a highly inhospitable specimen, survived the quest for "ideal" fruit? I can only attribute the quince's staying power to the inexplicable inertia of longevity. The quince has played part in humankind's orchard for centuries at least. The quince was Paris's offering to Aphrodite, and Apicius's ancient Roman cookbook contains recipes for stewing quince with honey. If quinces have one thing going for them, it is time.

But in fact, quinces have quite a lot more than just time going for them. A bowl of quince can perfume a whole room with their delicate, floral scent. In Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, she even suggests placing some in the bedroom or living room, and states that in earlier times, quince were often stored with linens. Quince is doubtless a much finer scent than nose-numbing sachets of cinnamon potpourri.

This heady fragrance is not just skin deep. The flavor of cooked quince is much like a rose or violet. And indeed, along with apples and pears, quinces belong to the same horticultural family as the rose. To be perfectly honest, the proper words to describe the flavor of quince elude me. My first exploratory nibble of quince jelly flooded my tastebuds with aromatic notes of rose, and ripe apple and pear. Beyond that, there are ineffable aromas that perhaps only a parfumier could elucidate. But I think it is just that--the mysterious and subtle flavor of the quince--that so enthralls me.

Further, quince, not unlike the Horse of A Different Color from the land of Oz, changes color. Like cut apples or pears, quince will oxidize and brown once the flesh is exposed to the air, but as you cook quince--either by roasting, simmering, or stewing--its nondescript, cottony white interior turns pink. If you continue to cook quince past the pink stage, it attains an almost ruby red or magenta hue. It is, in a word, gorgeous.

Quince needs some coaxing to attain its full splendor, but it is more than worth the effort, as is the case with many stubborn but delicious foods (artichokes, I'm looking at you). There are many ways to cook quince. Most recently, I have seen recipes for Quince Tarte Tatin and a Quince-Apple Tart, but my favorite thing to do with special fruit is to preserve it.

I am not much of a jelly-maker. I have long preferred the chunky, rustic texture of preserves and compotes over strangely smooth jellies, but I do see their appeal. They are refined and feel a bit fancier than preserves. Indeed, they have an air of something fit for a formal tea service, although this is perhaps my own flight of fancy, having never been served formal tea before.

And quince jelly seems particularly suited for tea, owing to its delicate pink hue and subtle but distinct floral flavor. But I'll settle for simply spreading it on toast or serving it with soft cheeses. Quince jelly is a good one for beginners to make, as quinces are full of pectin, which means that it doesn't take long to reach the jelling point, and you don't have to worry about adding additional pectin.

What's more, making jelly means you have lots of fruit pulp leftover for making fruit butter, or in the case of quince, membrillo. Membrillo is a very thick paste traditionally served alongside cheese. You can purchase it at most upscale grocery stores. But while you're going to the trouble of making quince jelly, you may as well make membrillo, too, and it doesn't have to mean standing over a pot of bubbling, molten liquid for hours.

This project can easily be spread out over a span of days. On day one, boil the quinces to soften them and strain to get the juice for jelly-making. Run the pulp through a food mill and reserve. On day two, make the jelly and membrillo, or make the membrillo on day three.

Other articles you might enjoy: Canning and Preserving 101, Amy's Tomato Jam, Golden Cherry Tomato and Ginger Jam

Quince Jelly
Makes about 3 to 4 half-pints

Wash, remove stems and chop into 1/4-inch pieces:
            3 1/2 pounds quinces
Place in a large heavy saucepan with:
            7 cups water
Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, mashing and stirring frequently, until the fruit is thoroughly soft, about 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a jelly bag or a clean, doubled kitchen towel (I used a flour sack towel folded over on itself). Reserve the pulp to make membrillo, below.
For each 1 cup of clear juice, add:
            1 cup sugar
Stir in:
            2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
Boil rapidly, stirring frequently, to the jelling point*. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam. Pour the hot jelly into hot sterilized 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Process in a water bath for 5 minutes.

* Generally, the easiest way to tell you've reached the jelling point is when the liquid reaches 220˚F, but for quince, which contains a lot of pectin, you may want to remove it from the heat at about 218˚F. You can also use the quick-chill test. Put a plate in the freezer before you start making the jelly. As the liquid cooks and thickens, occasionally drop a small amount of the liquid onto the cold plate. Put the plate back in the freezer for a couple minutes. If, the liquid wrinkles when you run your finger through it, the liquid has reached the jelling point.

Membrillo Paste
Makes about one 8x12x3/8-inch slab

Run the pulp from jelly-making, above, through a food mill and discard the solids remaining in the food mill. Add to the pulp:
           3 cups sugar, or to taste
Preheat the oven to 200˚F. Spread the pulp in an ovenproof dish and bake, stirring every 30 minutes or so, for about 5 hours or until the pulp is very, very thick and a deep reddish color. Spread the pulp evenly in an 8x12-inch sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Let the pulp cool to room temperature, then refrigerate, uncovered for several days until the membrillo can be cut with a knife. Cut into squares and wrap individually in parchment or plastic wrap and store in an airtight container.


Tina S.'s picture

I love the heady smell of ripe quince. I was able to find some locally last year, and made membrillo. It was delicious. I didn't add very much sugar so it had a nice tart flavor.
meg's picture

I was completely bowled over by the fragrance of ripe quince. Until last year, I had never even seen quince, so I went a bit overboard. We're still enjoying the quince jelly, though, and I'm excited to try more quince recipes this fall. Such a dreamy fruit.
Shirley's picture

I feel the same as I have just discovered the real thing and feel sort of obsessed by all the marvels of this ancient fruit -- the change from raw to cooked took me by surprise and I am so delighted with every aspect.
Leslie Newcomer's picture

I'm guessing that you meant to write 218 not 118 for your temperature for gelling, might want to fix that for novices who might take you too literally.
meg's picture

Yes! Thank you for pointing that out!
Laura coria's picture

I have quince trees n get about 7 00 lbs I go to the farmer's market n sell it in jam jars I love it
Janet Erwin's picture

When we bought our house, there was a tree stump in one corner. I was truly dismayed to be told by our new neighbor that it had been a quince tree. She said she had begged them to leave it, that it wasn't a weird apple or distorted pear, but a unique fruit. I am happy now that a friend has a tree and is not interested in the fruit but happy to gift them to me. My pulp is dripping right now and I will have jars of quince jelly tomorrow!
Susan Martel's picture

I love quince and medlar but this year have a glut of both. Two questions: can you freeze whole quinces and if you do, do you have to remove the seeds prior to cooking to make jelly? Do you know a good recipe that uses medlars? Thank you
john's picture

I've never tried freezing quince, but I imagine they would hold up like an apple, perhaps better. I wouldn't bother peeling them, but coring and slicing them would probably be a good idea as they will fit in a bag much better. If you want, you can add a sugar syrup to the bag, but I don't think it would be necessary. We have no personal experience with medlars either. Like quince, they apparently make a nice jelly. There are also recipes out there for medlar jam, "cheese" (like membrillo), and fruit butter. Infusing vodka and making a liqueur might be a nice option too!
Michele Shugg's picture

I froze heaps of quinces this year because I just didn't have time to do anything with them. I am currently making Quince Jelly, Membrillo, Quince and Lemon Marmalade and Pickled Quinces! They held up well, just put into plastic bags and frozen whole.
john's picture

Nice! Never heard of pickling quince, but it sounds delicious.
Susan Buckalew's picture

Do you water bath can the quince jelly just like any other jam/jelly?
john's picture

Yes Susan, 10 minutes for 1/2 pint jars.
Bil's picture

OK. I used a Mehu Liisa to steam the washed and quartered golden quinces. Much more than your recipe called for. I've got just under two quarts of clear juice that I've poured into two hot quart canning jars with lids which I've set out on the back porch to cool over night. There's a large bowl of finely "riced" pulp (pretty clean) that's in frig waiting to made into membrillo tomorrow. The pulp is a little dry. Should I add some juice to water it down before I add the sugar and the spices that I want to add? Or should I just mix it all together as is and hope for the best? Any advice, at this point is very welcome. Thanks!
john's picture

Hello Bil, sorry for the delayed response!. A little juice would probably be a good idea. Having said that, we have yet to use a steam juicer, so our advice here might be limited.
Søren Mckenzie's picture

We have two quince trees which were in the garden when we bought our house and we've ended up with between 15-20kgs of quinces of varying quality. And therein lies my question. A lot of the quinces have rotten bits, some small, some big. Can I still use them for making jam if I cut away the brown parts? Even when I open some of the quinces with no rotten parts, the flesh looks like it has the first signs of rot, in other words a bit or a browning colour. Is this normal or are they just no good?
john's picture

Sorry for the delayed response Søren. If you aggressively trim the ones that have brown spots and avoid those with soft flesh, things should be fine... sounds like you have plenty to choose from!

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