Apple Cider vs Apple Juice — Is There a Difference?

As you can imagine, my email inbox is full of food/cooking related emails. My husband, on the other hand, gets his share of gardening emails. Once in a while there is an email that interests both of us. That happened with a recent email concerning apples and apple cider. Thus, this Cooking Tip was born.

What is the difference between apple cider and apple juice? The truth is – not too much. There is no federal legal standard although some states do try to make a distinction.  

I bought a bottle of apple cider from a Colorado producer – “Talbott’s Premium High Country Apple Cider”. It says it is 100% juice, freshly pressed, not from concentrate. That sounds good but when you look at the ingredient label, it says “apple juice” along with some preservatives. If you look on Talbott’s website, you will see two varieties of this product. Both are under the heading “Apple Juice & Cider” but the only two products are labeled on the front as “cider” and on the back as “juice”.

Another popular brand, Martinelli’s writes this on their website “Martinelli’s apple juice and cider are the same; the only difference is the label. Both are 100% juice from U.S. grown fresh apples. We continue to offer the cider label since some consumers simply prefer the traditional name for apple juice.”

For those people who try to distinguish between the two terms, it basically comes down to filtration. They define cider as being unfiltered and thus has more pulp or sediment. Juice is filtered to remove the sediment to enhance shelf life. In appearance, the cider will have a more cloudy look whereas juice will be clear. In flavor, the juice product is generally sweeter while cider is tarter with a more complex flavor. Cider may or may not be pasteurized, but if not, the FDA requires a warning label.

Although you can make apple cider/juice from any apple, there are certain varieties that are preferred for making this product. Some sources will divide apples into three categories:

  • Cider apples – these are very acidic and not great as an eating apple. There is a resurgence in interest in cider apples and specialist nurseries are now offering many varieties.
  • Eating apples – this is most of what you find in the stores and are more balanced between sweet and tart.
  • Cooking apples – these are very tart if eaten raw. That does not mean they are the only apple you can use for cooking. For another Tip I wrote on this, see this link.

There is one distinction of which you should be aware. Outside of the US, Cider is usually fermented, making it alcoholic. In the US, such a product will be labeled as “Hard Cider”.  Hard cider used to be very popular in the early years of the US but its popularity waned due to various reasons, including Prohibition. Today, there is a resurgence in interest and is said to be one of the fastest growing segments of the liquor industry.

Cooks Illustrated put these two products to the test. They took recipes for pork chops and glazed ham that called for apple cider and substituted unsweetened apple juice. Their tasters did not find this successful and said that the dishes made with the juice were too sweet. They felt that the “filtration process used in making juice removes some of the complex, tart, and bitter flavors that are still present in cider.” If you can’t find cider, they recommend substituting a mixture of ¾ cup apple juice and ¼ cup unsweetened applesauce for each cup of cider.

You may not know that both apple cider and apple juice can be made either from fresh apples or from concentrate. The label should specify this. Because the apples are inherently sweet, most will not contain added sugar but, again, look at the label. This does not mean they are low in sugar. In fact, most bottles will have over 25 grams of sugar per serving. Apple cider does not contain less sugar per serving than apple juice. However, it is more acidic and has a taste that is less sweet.

It is becoming more and more common to see companies trying to distinguish themselves by listing the variety of apple on the label. A look at my market advertised “Honeycrisp Cider”, “Cosmic Crisp Cider”, “Gala Apple Cider” as well as more generic apple ciders.

Do you have a favorite recipe that uses apple cider or juice? A classic use is for a pan sauce to serve with pork. It can also be used to make a wonderful vinaigrette. Apple cider caramels is one of my favorite recipes!  What about you? Let me know.