Westend61/Getty Images

Apple season is approaching. As stores, menus, and Pinterest-worthy tablescapes start filling up with fall's favorite fruit, you may find yourself pondering one of the season's perennial questions: What exactly is the difference between apple cider and apple juice?

The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, a state that knows a few things about autumn weather, officially defines cider as "raw apple juice that has not undergone a filtration process to remove coarse particles of pulp or sediment." Traditionally, that means picking apples, giving them a good wash, cutting them into pieces, and grinding them into an "apple mash" that looks a lot like applesauce. The mash is then wrapped in cloth and pressed into that dark brown juice that fills farm stands in the fall.

The resulting liquid is sometimes pasteurized before being bottled, sometimes not. Either way, the result is a cloudy, caramel-colored liquid with a complex sweet, tart flavor. It is perfect for drinking straight out of the bottle or for pairing with cinnamon to create a warming drink or for baking into a doughnut. Cider that's unpasteurized should be kept cold and finished off within a week or two.

If you want to make apple juice, take that same apple mash, filter and strain it multiple times to remove all pulp, and then cook it to at least 190°F. That high temperature changes the texture, flavor, and color of the cider, resulting in a clear juice, which some people add sugar or other sweetener to in order to heighten the apple flavor. If it's been pasteurized, bottled in glass, and vacuum sealed, it can stay fresh on a shelf for a long time. Generally, apple juice is lighter, clearer, and sweeter than cider.

While most people consider that to be the difference between cider and juice, not every company agrees. For example, apple drink maker Martinelli's use the terms interchangeably as a way to sell its product to cider lovers and juice drinkers. It explains on its website that in their opinion "the only difference is the label".

If you can't keep it straight, try this handy rhyme from The Simpsons' next door neighbor Ned Flanders, "If it's clear and yella', you got juice there, fella'. If it's tangy and brown, you're in cider town."

WATCH: Buxton Hall Ultimate Apple Pie

One final word of caution, outside of the United States, cider usually refers to an apple-based alcoholic beverage, or what Americans call hard cider. In short, if you're traveling in Ireland, do not order your child a cider at lunch.

Advertisement