Fall is the perfect time for one of these naturally sweet drinks—here’s how to tell the difference between the two.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Apple juice. Apple cider. These beverages might come from the same source, but the end result is quite different.

“The cider versus juice question is quite common,” says Brian Smith, owner of Solebury Orchards in New Hope, PA.

While some states have regulations on what can be called “cider” and “juice,” many do not. The processes could also differ slightly.

Cider is the closest thing you can come to eating apples right off the tree. They’re chopped, mashed, and pressed to extract their liquid. This liquid is then sometimes pasteurized before being bottled, sometimes not. The result is a cloudy, caramel-colored drink that’s complex in flavor with both sweet and tart notes. Cider that’s unpasteurized should be kept cold and drunk within a week or two, or else it will start to ferment…becoming more like hard cider, rather than kombucha.

Juice, on the other hand, is “basically cider that is heated to 190°F and bottled hot in glass containers,” says Smith. “The high temperature causes changes in the raw cider that change the texture, flavor, and color.” The result is the clear, amber drink you can find on store shelves. It’s often (though not always) strained to remove minute particles of apple pulp. Plus, it’s always pasteurized and frequently has preservatives such as potassium sorbate added, which slightly alter the flavor. It might also have a sweetener added to boost the apple taste.

Of course, you’ll find products labeled “cider” on the shelf with potassium sorbate added. You’ll also find juice that’s actually just juice. For drinking, what it really comes down to is a matter of preference. Here in Pennsylvania, I start scanning country roadsides for stands selling homemade cider well before the leaves begin to turn color. We also snag a gallon or two whenever we pick apples, as well as a couple gallons of juice for once the cider’s gone.

For cooking, cider is your better bet because it lacks the added sweeteners and preservatives. It also contains pectin, a natural thickener that makes jams “gel”. And it adds a nice body and gloss to sauces. Other authorities will tell you not to use juice in a recipe that calls for cider. It’s true that cider will have more nuanced flavor, but I am all about not stressing out over missing ingredients. In a pinch, substitute apple juice if it’s unsweetened.

Either way, fall is definitely apple-drinking season. Get your cider (or juice), and enjoy it cold or hot tonight.