How are Michigan apples crisp and tasty in February?

In the Midwest, many have memories of picking apples or going straight to the orchard to pick up bags of freshly picked apples and drink just-pressed apple cider. But that’s fall. How can apples from the supermarket taste just as crunchy and freshly picked months later in cold, dreary winter months?

The secret lies in how the apples are stored.

The sealed door to a controlled atmosphere room.

The sealed door to a controlled atmosphere room.

If proper storage techniques are handled in a timely mattered soon after picking, some varieties can last in storage for a year.

First, at Riveridge, we test blocks of apples to test their durability for storage. Weather can play a role in how an apple will keep. And that weather can vary by orchard and even different areas of the orchard. We check pressures, test starches and all the quality checks we do for every pack at the packing facility. Documenting each block, we can estimate when each should be packed. (Separate article to come on this process.)

Those apple blocks that score well head to a controlled atmosphere room which is basically a very large refrigerator with special monitoring capabilities. Apples are stored at 32 to 34 degrees, oxygen is pulled from the room and carbon dioxide is scrubbed from the room (either by old-fashioned lime or carbon dioxide air scrubbing machines). The apples are now ready for hibernation.

Lastly, the rooms are monitored by computers that can send alerts to the phones of growers when there is a change in temperature or an increase in oxygen or carbon dioxide.

Once these rooms are opened, the race is on. The apples are now awake, breathing oxygen, and it’s time to get them to the store shelves and to the refrigerators (and ultimately the stomachs) of consumers. Each room is usually packed and on the road within a week.

Controlled Atmosphere room in summer; Turned off with empty bins.

Controlled Atmosphere room in summer; Turned off with empty bins.

Certain varieties naturally have the genetics to store longer. A firmer, thicker skin often means better storage. This means varieties like Red Delicious, Rome, McIntosh, Gala and Fuji just have it in their DNA to keep longer. But as storage handling improves, so will the shelf life of other softer-skinned varieties.

Cold Storage vs Controlled Atmosphere

You may have heard of cold storage but it is very different. Cold storage is basically putting the apples in the cellar like the olden days – but in larger, refrigerated rooms. The difference between cold storage and controlled atmosphere rooms is just that – there is no controlling the atmosphere in cold storage. Apples are kept this way early in the season when they will be turned quickly. These blocks are headed right to store shelves so there is no need to put the apples to sleep.

By using controlled atmosphere rooms, we are able to suspend the apple in time. Therefore, when a consumer purchases and consumes the apple in winter, it’s as if the apple was recently picked from the tree!