This Spring brought bad news from apple farmers. The early weather caused trees to bloom ahead of schedule and then a late frost killed the flowers and young fruit. The wild trees I usually forage apples from were bare. Our best source, actually, has been Not Far From the Tree picks from which we’ve brought home more than fifty pounds of apples. Needless to say, that’s more than two people can eat before they go bad and one of the ways we dealt with the surplus was by making apple butter.
I’m always a little surprised when people have never heard of apple butter and I like to deal with their curiosity by describing it as applesauce’s amped up cousin. Apple butter is a bit sweeter, usually more heavily spiced, and (most of all) much more concentrated than applesauce. It’s that concentration that holds much of the attraction for me. There’s really no point in canning applesauce in jars smaller than pints–if not full litres–and that takes up a lot of space. We put the apple butter into pint and half-pint jars and that will make it easier to store and more convenient to give as a gift.
To make apple butter you need to core, chop, and weigh your apples. (Some recipes ask that you also peel them but it seems much easier to strain the skins out partway through the process.) Add a bit of water and cook over medium heat for fifteen minutes and you have a softened apple pulp that with a few teaspoons of spice could be a serviceable applesauce.
If you continue down the road to apple butter your path forks in three here. You could:
Cook the apple mash on the stove in a very large pot, over very low heat for several hours. You must stir this cauldron frequently and thoroughly or the bits near the bottom of the pot will burn and make the whole batch taste acrid. We used this method with friends for the larger part of our apple haul and it does a very good job of handling a large batch but it does require a long stretch of somewhat careful attention.
Or, pull your slow cooker down from its place at the top and back of a remote cupboard This is the method Chef Thomas Keller calls for in his cookbook Ad Hoc at Home and I’ve had success with it. It’s a long, mainly inactive process that if you follow the recipe to the letter will take up to fifteen hours. It maxes out with the capacity of your slow cooker but really produces the most consistent product of the three paths.
The third option that I came across and tried for the first time this year uses the microwave. The chopped apples, sugar, water, acid, and spices are combined in a microwavable container, loosely covered, and cooked on high for twenty minutes. This method is the most hands-off and is very quickly finished but also can only handle a small-medium batch size depending on your microwave.
Regardless of method, for every two pounds of apples you want a cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of vinegar (apple cider or champagne, or the juice and zest of one lemon), 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of cloves, and a 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger.
The water is added to keep the apples from burning before they start to exude their own juices and your goal will be to cook it away eventually but a cup of water for every two pounds of apples sounds about right.
Under the conditions listed for each method the recipe scales up easily but I wouldn’t bother making any less than two pounds worth.
At some point, roughly a third to halfway into the process each method asks that you do something to the apple pulp to make it smoother. A food processor needs the least amount of elbow grease but the best it can expect to do is pulverize skins to a size small enough that they will be less noticeable. A rotary food mill will remove the skins (and seeds) but clogs after a while and can be difficult to work with if you don’t know your model’s particular idiosyncrasies. Best of all is the type of food mill that clamps onto a table, has a feed tube and crank on one end and passes the pulp through a conical strainer on the other while the skins and seeds are ejected out the end.
The critical question: “How do I know when I’ve passed from applesauce to apple butter?” Well, it’s partly colour; as the sauce thickens it will darken but the cinnamon will also do that in a way that will depend on the type and amount you use. Keller says you want a product that is ”thicker than applesauce but not as thick as a jam.” The Ball Blue Book of Preserving has the slightly more exact answer that apple butter should stand up on a spoon.
Whatever method you use apple butter is a delicious product and a convenient, easy (it’s great for canning beginners) way to preserve this year’s (limited) apple bounty.