In recent years, hard ciders have become easy to find with more brands making their way to the shelves of bottle shops and liquor stores. As it turns out, fermenting cider at home is a fairly easy process. Once you learn the basics, you can create all sorts of variations that include spices, fruits and other juices. Contributor Melissa Clark talked with Emma Christensen, author of the new book, Modern Cider. Christensen discusses how to make your own hard cider, and ways to use it in the kitchen. Try her recipes for Basic Apple Cider and Apple Scrap Cider Vinegar.

Melissa Clark: There’s been an explosion in the number of ciders on the market and also in cidermaking. Why is that?

Emma Christensen: I give a lot of the credit to the gluten-free movement. We had the craft beer movement that swept across the nation five or ten years ago. All of our gluten-free friends were kind of left out of that. The craft makers and homebrewers started to realize there is another amazing beverage they can make so everybody can come to the party.

Emma Christensen (Photo: Danielle Tsi)

MC: Can you walk us through the difference between sweet cider, hard cider and apple juice?

EC: Here in the States, our language about it is confusing. The best way to think about it is that apple juice is what you see when you walk into the grocery store, and you see those jugs of clear brown juice on the shelves. It’s pasteurized, processed apple juice.

Cider – or what I would call sweet cider – is more like fresh pressed apple juice. It's unfiltered. Sometimes it’s not pasteurized, sometimes it is; but it tends to be minimally processed.

Hard cider – or what the rest of the world just calls “cider” – is fermented apple juice. It’s gone through the whole process where yeast have eaten the sugar and made alcohol, and you have hard cider.

MC: You write that cidermaking is the gateway into homebrewing and winemaking.

EC: Yes. I think that making cider is so easy. I talk to some of my friends who are really excited about getting into fermentation; they want to brew a batch of beer, they want to brew something. I steer them towards trying cider first. Beer brewing is fairly complicated and requires a lot of equipment. For cider, you need a jug of apple juice, some yeast, and a few extra things. It’s a great way to learn the process of how fermentation happens and to get a feel for the equipment needed – how to use the equipment, how to keep it clean and sanitized. You basically learn the ropes making cider – making good cider, too, I might add. There's no shame in it. It's a great beverage.

MC: It seems like apple juice just wants to ferment. I know that when I buy apple cider – even if I leave it in the fridge – after a week or so, it’s starting to fizz. Take us through the steps of making a super easy beginner's cider. What do I need to do?

EC: First, you need a couple pieces of equipment, all of which is easy to get online or at a local homebrewing store. This includes something to hold the cider – a bucket or a jug – that’s a contained system. You'll need something called an airlock, which helps keep out the dust and gnats – all the stuff you don't want in your cider. You need a couple other little tubes and things like that, nothing too complicated. All told, a kit for making cider costs maybe 30 dollars or so.

In terms of ingredients, you need apple juice. You can get your apple juice any number of ways. If you have access to an orchard, by all means, go pick apples and press them yourselves. You can also buy your apple juice from the farmer's market, a local farm, or you can go the grocery store and buy the best apple juice you can find. You'll need some yeast, which again, you can pick up at the homebrewing shop. There are a couple other ingredients that help move things along, like yeast nutrients and acid blend – if your cider ends up being on the sweet side, you can add a little acid to help balance it out. That’s basically it. That’ll get you started.

MC: Once you have your things gathered, then what do you do?

EC: Sanitize your bucket or your jug – whatever you're going to put your juice into – add the yeast, close it up, let it sit.

MC: That's it?

EC: That's it. It's literally that easy. Put it somewhere out of the way – at room temperature – and let it sit. It’ll take about a week of active fermentation; that’s where the yeast eat up all of the sugars that are in the juice. Then you'll notice it start to slow down; the party starts to fade out. You want to let it sit for a little while longer, so any sediment can fall down to the bottom, and the yeast can eat up the last of the sugars. You just want to give it some chill time. Once that passes, bottle it, and you're good to go. You're ready to drink, basically.

Modern Cider by Emma Christensen

MC: What if I want to flavor it? Say I want to make spiced cider or ginger cider. What are some good ways to change it up?

EC: I love adding spices, fruits, fruit juice. I like making a chai spice cider, where you add in cinnamon, cardamom, fruit, and a bit of honey. You can also use other juice. There is a recipe for cherry pomegranate cider – literally taking cherry juice and pomegranate juice, and adding them to the cider.

MC: You probably have a lot of cider sitting around your house. What do you do with it aside from drinking it? Do you use it in cooking? Is there a good way to put it in recipes?

EC: Number one, drink it. It will stay shelf-stable for a long time. I have ciders on my shelf from when I very first started experimenting – they’re at least five or six years old now – and they're even better now. They just get better and better.

But if you do want to cook with cider, I love using it to deglaze a pan, like you would use white wine or even a bottle of beer. The way you’d use beer in chili, you could add cider instead. You can also turn it into vinegar, which is what I do if I get a bum batch of cider. Maybe I'm not happy with the flavor or something just seems a little off – it’s not wrong or infected or anything like that, but it just is not very exciting – I turn it into vinegar. You get a lot of apple cider vinegar, and that makes great gifts. It's great for cooking with.

MC: I love the idea that I can make apple cider vinegar at home. That's thrilling. Emma, thank you so much.

EC: Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

Melissa Clark
Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.