A fruit that's in season from October through January, quinces belong to the rose family, as do apples, pears, and peaches. They grow on small, shrub-like trees that flower and later produce the fist-size, lumpy, often fuzzy fruit. Native to the Middle East, quinces were introduced to the New World by Europeans in the 17th century.
Today, the most popular varieties in the United States are the Pineapple and the Champion. Cultivated in southern California, the Pineapple quince is bright yellow when ripe and has distinct notes of its namesake. The larger Champion grows predominantly in the cooler climes of the Northeast and Northwest and ripens to a gold or khaki color, with a more typical flavor of apple, pear, spice, and citrus.
The heady aroma of a golden quince is spicy and complex, with hints of apple, pear, and citrus. When cooked—and its hard, tart flesh must be cooked—a quince becomes soft and dense and develops a sweet, slightly piquant flavor and an even richer perfume.
Quinces are especially known for turning a a jewel-like rose when cooked. The tannin concentration in a quince, which varies depending on where it’s grown, determines this color: Heat causes tannins to release a red pigment called anthocyanin. Quinces that are rich in tannins become dark rose; those with fewer tannins may remain creamy white or turn light pink. Cooking in aluminum, which reacts to tannic acid, tends to produce darker results.
Quince’s assertive flavor and floral aroma go well with a variety of ingredients; pair them with cinnamon, vanilla, almonds, cream, and salty cheeses and meats like Stilton, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and prosciutto.
Ripe quinces should smell fruity and floral, be firm to the touch, and have yellow skin. If your fruit has a greenish hue, it may be underripe; keep it on the counter until completely yellow and very fragrant.
Rich in tannins, which make them astringent, and pectin, which makes them hard, quinces must be cooked before they’re eaten. Slow-cooking methods like poaching and roasting work best to break down the fruit’s flesh, making it tender, less tart, and delicious in both sweet and savory dishes.
Poach quinces in water with simple flavors like honey and lemon and use them to add a touch of sweetness to a savory salad, or try poaching them with bolder flavors like red wine, orange, star anise, and sugar to serve warm over vanilla ice cream. Roast them with honey, balsamic vinegar, and orange juice and serve alongside rich meats, duck, or goose. Like apples, quinces can be baked (peel and hollow them out and then fill with sugar, cream, and butter) or used in tarte Tatin and cakes.
With their high pectin content, quinces are a natural in jams, jellies, and chutneys. An iconic quince preparation is Spanish membrillo (mem-bree-yoh), a thick, jam-like paste that’s delicious with Manchego cheese or Serrano ham.
Ripe quinces can be stored at room temperature for up to one week or in the refrigerator in a loosely sealed plastic bag for up to two weeks.