There’s no grocery list this week, because I’m away visiting some friends over my university’s fall break. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to write up the results of my big apple butter experiment. And because I did so much research, reading, and batch-testing, I’m declaring this The Only Post You Need to Read, because I’ll tell you all about what I learned reading everyone else’s :)How big, you ask? Well, this is a picture of the apples I brought home from the farmer’s market:
The egg carton is for scale. That’s a half-bushel of apples, which is, uh, a lot of apples. Many, many, many apples. The thing is, the entire bag cost me $6 — yes, six American dollars — and it was perfect for making butter: it was a mixed lot, and it was full of seconds, which are apples that are totally fine except they have some minor cosmetic flaw or else are a little bruised. As long as you cut out the bruised parts, they’re totally great for cooking.
It’s possible I overdid it just a touch 🙂 I spent about three days making apple butter, although most of that time is passive — you just let it simmer away for hours. It was actually a very productive long weekend, and I got a lot done around the house. Anyway, because I made six batches, you now get the benefit of my experience, since I tried out some variations in both ingredients and technique.
The Basic Recipe
This is based on the recipe Kim Boyce gives in Good to the Grain (which is a great cookbook for those interested in cooking with whole grain flours, plus some lovely jam and condiment recipes.) As she wrote it, it makes a rich, thick, sophisticated apple butter; I started to play with the recipe here already, and give advice and variations below.
4 lbs apples (see below)
1-3 cups liquid (see below)
1 orange, peeled
1/4 c dark brown sugar
spices (see below)
1) Core, possibly peel (see below), and roughly chop your apples; put them in a 7-8 quart pot or dutch oven (they will nearly fill it, but don’t worry, they’ll collapse and leave plenty of room.) Scatter the brown sugar over them, pour in your liquid, and in a piece of cheesecloth, tie up the orange peel, possibly the apple cores (see below), and any whole spices (=cinnamon sticks, cloves, allspice berries, star anise, peppercorns, ginger, whatever) you might be using. Put the cheesecloth parcel into the pot too, but don’t worry about submerging it in the liquid. That will happen quickly as the apples release their juice.
2) Cover your pot and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and let it simmer, still covered, for an hour. During this time the apples will give up most of their juice. After an hour remove the cheesecloth parcel, squeezing any juice back into the pot, and add any ground spices you’re using. Cover the pot again and let it simmer for another hour.
3) Remove the lid, stir, and let it keep simmering for anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours (see below). After about an hour, you can (optionally) pause the cooking in order to use an immersion blender or put the sauce through a food mill (see below); then return the sauce to the heat and keep going until it’s as thick as you want. If you are not using peels or cores, and don’t mind a slightly chunky end result, you may not have to puree at all. Taste for sweetness and spice levels. If you’re not canning, you may want to add a bit of lemon juice for balance. The apple butter is done when it’s thickened enough to be spreadable. Don’t stop too soon. If you do, you’ll have a rich applesauce, but not apple butter!
4) If you’re not canning, you’re done at this point. It will keep in the fridge for a while, or in freezer-safe jars for probably about a year. If you are canning, add 2 tbsp of lemon juice to the pot and stir. Ladle the butter into clean, hot 1/2 pint or 1-pint jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace, and stir around with a wooden chopstick to release air bubbles. (A single batch should make approximately 3 pints, but it will depend on your apples and also on how long you reduce; you could get as many as 4 pints or as little as 2.5.) Process in boiling water for 15 minutes. If you end up with a truly excessive amount of apple butter, have fifteen kids, or work on a farm or something, you can can it in quart jars, but process for 20 minutes in that case.
Advice and Options
- Type of apples. This is partly a taste thing. Do you like it sweet or tart? Really, you can use almost anything you have; the end result will just vary. I like to use a mix so that I get a variety of different flavors.
- Coring and peeling? The problem with peeling and even coring, both of which Boyce’s recipe started with: they’re a lot of work, and you lose nutrients, color, and much of the apples’ natural pectin. Plus, this series is called Zero Food Waste, and ditching both peels and cores ends up wasting a lot of perfectly good apple. If you are going to use a food mill later on, you don’t have to do either; just roughly chop the apples whole and throw them in the pot. The mill will take care of straining out lingering solids (seeds, skins.) I don’t have a food mill, and I also don’t care about getting a completely smooth butter, so my compromise was to leave the apple peels on, knowing that some of them would make it through the process intact, and to put the cores into the cheesecloth bundle with the orange peel and the spices. That way, I released the pectin into the butter during the first hour of simmering. As for the peels, most of them disappeared when I used my immersion blender towards the end of the cooking time, but if you want a totally smooth butter you’ll want to peel.
- Liquid options. This partly depends on your apples. If you have big and therefore watery apples, you don’t need to use as much liquid as you do with smaller, drier apples. If you have tart apples (Granny Smith, etc) you will probably want to balance that out by using sweet apple juice as a component of your liquid. The recipe I started from, Kim Boyce’s, called for 3 cups of apple juice to 4 lbs of apples. It made a sweet, complex butter with a lot of depth — and that was after I cut 2 cups of juice with 1 of water, because my juice was on the dark/rich side, partway to being cidery. It also was more expensive because I had to buy juice, and it took longer to finish cooking down because I started out by adding 3 cups of liquid to apples that were about to release a lot of their own. Since I had so many apples, I made other batches with just a cup of water and felt they were totally fine. The juice added a nice note (especially since I like my butter on the sweet side) but wasn’t necessary. I will definitely use it again in the future because I liked the rounded sweetness, but you don’t have to. End advice: use 1-3 cups of some mix of water and apple juice, depending on what apples you have and on your tolerance for long simmering.
- Spices? Kim Boyce’s recipe called for three cinnamon sticks, six cloves, six allspice berries. I liked that mix a lot and have kept using it. You can, of course, use ground spices. You can also subtract or add to taste. Black peppercorns, star anise, and ginger all come to mind as interesting options.
- Acidity? OK, here’s the deal: apples in good condition do not need additional acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to safely can. However! Bruised or windfall or extra-ripe apples can be higher in pH, and better safe than sorry. Also, a bit of acid helps preserve color and brighten flavor. So I suggest adding 2 tbsp lemon juice per 4 pounds of apples, which is actually a bit more than the Ball Blue Book calls for (they want 4 tbsp per 12 lbs.) I did try a batch with apple cider vinegar, which is often called for in apple butter recipes, and hated it. I put in 3/4 c of vinegar along with 3/4 c of water for that batch and it was just too strong for me. I might try a much smaller amount next year, maybe a couple of tablespoons.
- Cooking Time. At the end of the recipe up there I say you might have to simmer anywhere from 3.5 hours to 5.5 hours, all told. That’s a lot of variation. But time is going to depend on a lot of variables, primarily, how much liquid ends up in the pot, between your apples and whatever you add? Also, how much pectin ends up in there? Do you like your butter just barely spreadable, or really caramelized and thick? Is your pot wide and low (more surface area=faster evaporation) or deep and narrow? Did you double the recipe (that’ll take longer) or halve it (shorter!) I recommend just making this an all-day project and getting other stuff done while it simmers away. You don’t want to rush it, basically, because you really do want it to cook down as low as it needs to go, without scorching.
- What about slow-cooker apple butter? OK, for that you do need to read another post, because I don’t have a slow cooker so I didn’t try that out. 🙂 I gather it works well.