I have what's probably an embarrassingly simple question. (I fancy myself to be fairly experienced in the garden but am still a bit of a novice when it comes to fruittrees.) My wife and I are renting an old farmhouse with some overgrown apple trees that we have pruned back into vitality. They are loaded with apples, but are dropping apples all over the place. Yet the apples still in the trees don't seem quite ripe. What is the best strategy for picking apples at a good level of ripeness? All at once, or in stages? We've also heard a lot of cautions about using apples from the ground for cider-making, but it seems unfortunate for so many to go to waste.
I have the same problem with pears -- an old homestead tree that's loaded, dropping many, and all still seemingly a fair ways from ripe. So I'm interested to see the advice you get.
As for apples on the ground, I can understand why the potential for odd yeasts and bacteria that might mess up cider would be a problem. But why not use them for a cooked product, like apple butter? Whenever I've got apples of dubious quality, I like to cook them into a compote with spices and raisins; it makes a good dessert, side dish, or meat topping.
Yet the apples still in the trees don't seem quite ripe.
In what way?
For eating, cut an apple open and look at the pips. If the pips are dark in colour then the apple is ready to eat. Pips change colour as the apple ripens, so there will be a gradual process of the pip going from light to dark and you can decide at which point they suit your palate. I think this is true for pears too.
I also take my cues from how easy it is to pluck the apple from the tree. If it comes off easily, I take it as ripe. If it needs some effort, it's probably not there yet. But if they are dropping off by themselves, it's a good sign to start picking (unless there is another reason for them dropping).
If you are making cider, does it matter when you pick them? Not green obviously, but if you get them a bit underripe they should still be ok shouldn't they?
Once the seeds are brown, the apple could be called ripe. The best thing to do is check a few by cutting them open. Then taste a few and see what you think. Of course this is a matter of taste. Some people like them a little tart and other people like them damn near mushy.
I'm in the same boat of having a lot of old homestead apple trees that drop tons (it could literally be tons) of fruit through the season. Here's how I manage them:
Early drops that are not at all ripe go directly to the pigs.
Fruit with damage from falling thirty feet out of a tree (and hitting all the branches on the way down) is also given to the pigs. I'm talking seriously bruised or cracked skins, anything with big bug, bird or mammal damage.
Fruit that is pest free and without major damage is eaten fresh by the whole family. Leftovers go to the pigs
Fruit that is ripe or past ripe and with minimal damage is used is sauces, jams, butters and juices.
Leftovers from cooking, peeling, coring etc all goes to the pigs.
Since my trees are so huge I can barely reach any of the fruit. I just wait til the apples drop off for the most part. If I were picking them off the tree I would just aim to pick the ones that most resemble the ones I've tested and liked. My apples tend to ripen over the course of a few weeks so I pick the best ones daily and allow the others to stay on til I need them.
So... eat what you can. Preserve what you can't eat fresh and feed the rest to the pigs.
Along with a gentle twist to removing the fruit from the tree method you can also use iodine as a test for starch, if the idoine turns blue/black its not ready. Downside to the iodine test is you wont want to eat it but atleast you know for next year.
For perry pears which are no good for eating some come off the trees rock hard so I store them and once I can indent my finger nail into them slightly they are ready to go into the mill.
With regards to apples from the floor for cider (which i assume is American 'sweet cider') it's not a problem here in the U.K. I am assuming the warning comes from grazing sheep etc in the orchards. However if I know there were animals doing thier business in the area I would sulphite the wash water to kill off any bacteria, bad yeasts etc. I would use this to make what you call hard cider as nothing bad would survive the fermentation process.
Using underipe 'windfall' fruit would be different, if it's too underipe it may not ripen properly you dont really want to make cider / hard cider with that if you can.
You can also feed the pomace you have from pressing to the pigs. If you do a second pressing after resoaking the pulp over night in water you can make a lighter 'ciderkin' from the pomace. This can be sometimes as strong as 4-5% abv if you have a sugary apple/pear variety. This will also make the pomace less likely to ferment preventing your pigs falling over!