Today I learned that fresh apples can be stored for up to a year without going bad, which seems insane to me because I can barely keep cactuses alive for longer than a week. But as Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, "apples may keep for nearly a year if the storage atmosphere is also controlled." And it turns out that storing fresh apples for a year isn't part of some weird, random science experiment. There's actually a pretty good chance that the fresh apples you bought at the store this week are at least six months old, if not coming up on their first birthday—and as many as half of all apples sold in the United Kingdom are about a year-old, according to the Daily Mail.
These year-old apples aren't some special breed. Any and all apple varieties can be kept fresh for a year, as long as the apple producer or grower uses the right technique and is able to control the atmosphere in which the fruit is stored. That's why this common commercial technique that extends the shelf-life of apples is called "controlled atmosphere" or CA storage.
As Frank Witsil writes for the Detroit Free Press, "some farmers describe as 'putting the apples to sleep' until the fruit is ready to be sold." And the reason they go through all this hassle is to make sure consumers have access to fresh apples throughout the year, not just in the autumn when they're harvested.
So how does CA storage work? According to experts at the United States Department of Agriculture, the first step of CA storage is to spray the freshly picked apples with 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), a gas that prevents the production of ethylene, which is the hormone that speeds up ripening of produce. The apples that aren't going directly to market are then placed in a specially-designed, low-temperature chamber that's low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide. This atmospheric mix helps further prevent ripening, as well as the growth of mold or fungus.
If the whole process of putting apples to sleep until their ready for market freaks you out, unfortunately, there's not much you can do to avoid it, short of growing and harvesting your own apples. That's because even smaller, independent farmers are getting CA. In New York, for instance, some farmers are even considering banding together to form a coop in order to share the costs of a CA storage room. And it's ultimately a good thing for these smaller farmers to have access to the technology, so that they can sell product even during winter. It's also ostensibly a good thing for consumers—who, thanks to technology, are able to get their hands on fresh, year-old apples whenever they want.