Apples and time

I spent half the weekend making apple butter. Twenty-two half-pint jars of apple butter, from a half-bushel of apples, a completely unnecessary quantity that will be foisted off on unsuspecting friends come Christmas. In the meantime it occurs to me that this is the twentieth consecutive year (!) I’ve made apple butter, and so I ought to know something about it by now. Yet what I know isn’t anything I can reduce to a recipe. Apple butter is a pure expression of the apple’s essence, an exercise in simplicity; easy to make, impossible to perfect. It has, after all, only two ingredients: apples and time, both of which can seem to have minds of their own. Here’s what I know about each.

Apples

apple crate label

Image by Flickr user chicks57.

Making apple butter does two things: it concentrates the flavor of the apples, and then it buries that flavor under layers of sweetness. Any apple will give you a thick, sweet butter, but not every apple will give you a butter you can savor. In fact I haven’t found any one variety of apple that makes great apple butter on its own; most years I use a blend of at least three varieties.

  1. First, you need a tart variety to keep the butter from being cloying. Avoid Granny Smiths, though, because they take forever to break down; Macintosh work well.
  2. Second, you need something with complex flavor — something a little spicy, maybe. Sample your options. Remember you’re going to need a lot of flavor to cut through all the sweetness. Get something you like.
  3. And third, because you’ll be cooking the apples first with their skins on, you want something with a dark red skin for color. Green skins will give you almost an ochre color — not unpleasant, but not as attractive as a rosy brown. Rome is a good standby. (Don’t use Red Delicious, which have no flavor at all.)

My blend varies from year to year, depending in part on when I can get to the State Farmers Market in Raleigh — the available varieties change through the season. This year, I bought a mixed half-bushel of six varieties. One foothills orchard grows varieties they call simply “rustic red” and “rustic gold,” names probably chosen to evoke red and golden delicious. Both are firm, sweet apples, not particularly tart, but with real apple flavor, some spicy notes, and mottled skins. I used some of each (but mostly the red), plus a lot of Romes, some Winesap, a few Macintosh, and some Mutsus.

Whatever you use, when you taste them fresh, you should not think “oh, that’s sort of sweet and tangy, how nice.” You should think apple. You should feel apple in the depths of your fruit-eating soul.

Time

Apple butter has to simmer slowly for a long, long time. Its dark brown color develops as the sugars in the apples caramelize — slowly, repeatedly, making all sorts of new flavors as they go. Did I mention slowly? You can help matters along by not adding any more liquid to the apples than is absolutely necessary; once the apples break down, that’s just more liquid that has to boil off. But for the most part, how long this all takes depends on how much apple butter you’re making.

To process a half-bushel of apples I filled a sixteen-quart stockpot (seriously). The apples needed two hours to break down so that I could strain them, and then I simmered them for about eight hours — which took me to bedtime, and it wasn’t thick enough yet, so I poured the reduced applesauce into a smaller (eight-quart) stockpot, made room in the refrigerator, and put it back on the stove the next morning. Let it simmer another eight hours, and then it was ready to put in jars. If I hadn’t needed to warm it back up the second day I could have cut a couple of hours off the cooking time, but still, that’s two hours of initial cooking and fourteen hours of reducing.

You can also cut down on cooking time if you raise the heat and stir almost constantly to keep the butter from burning, but even if I could cut the cooking time in half, that still leaves me standing there stirring for eight hours, and I really don’t have that kind of time. Traditionally, this process would involve an enormous copper kettle, an open fire, at least a half-dozen women to take turns stirring, and a whole lot of gossip, but all I’ve got is a seven year-old with a short attention span and an eager basset hound who can’t reach the stove. So it’s a weekend project, but it’s worth it.

That said, you do not have to undertake apple butter on the scale of the D-Day invasion. A small pot reduces more quickly. You can buy a nice half-peck bag of good, fresh apples (Stayman Winesap, maybe), let them simmer while you do the housework or grade papers, and have a couple of pints for the fridge. That’s the way to start. Just don’t start when you’re in a hurry. Apple butter isn’t a hurrying kind of food.

The procedure

Once you’ve got your apples and your time, here’s what you do. If you don’t have a food mill, you can peel and core the apples before cooking them, but that’s more work, and the peels and seeds add not only color but pectin, which makes the apple butter mound up better.

Wash and quarter the apples — don’t core or peel — and put them in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot. Add an inch or two of fresh cider, just enough to keep the apples from burning before they start to collapse and give up their juice. Set the pot over low heat, cover loosely, and bring to a simmer. Cook for about two hours, pushing the apples around occasionally to get the firmer ones on top down nearer the heat, until all the apples have collapsed into applesauce. Then strain it: ladle a couple of cups at a time into a food mill and process to remove the skins and seeds. Return the purée to the pot and simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for twelve hours. Stir more frequently as the butter thickens and darkens to prevent burning. When the apple butter is dark brown — almost the color of milk chocolate — and very thick, it’s ready to put in jars. And to eat, though you could let it cool first.

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