It has been a few weeks since we lucked into some free apples and made apple butter, and I’m only just now getting around to writing about it. But, in my opinion, apple season extends all the way to Thanksgiving, which actually makes this post on the early side.
I’m not gonna turn my nose up at free apples, no matter how they look, but I was a little concerned at first that there were little black spots all over the fruit we picked.
After a little research, I learned that the spots are a common fungus, which is fortunately harmless and doesn’t affect the quality of the apple. The spots may be a sign of an aphid infestation, where “honeydew” (a sugary secretion excreted by the insects after they feast on nearby fruits) drops on the apples and encourages the growth of fungus on the spot. The spots scrub off pretty easily with a sponge or brush.
People I’ve talked to differ about whether you need to wash the skins before making apple butter, but since I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing with these apples, I went ahead an washed them.
Experienced apple butter makers have one of these handy food mills, also called a ricer. In fact, I used to have one that we picked up at a yard sale in Albuquerque but never used. I didn’t really know what it was for, and it collected dust for a couple of years before I re-sold it at our own yard sale just before moving to NC. Sense of humor, that universe.
Anyhow, since I no longer had the food mill, and didn’t want to buy one new (since it seemed good second-hand mills are all over the place – though I didn’t want to take the time to go looking for one), we just peeled and cored the apples.
With the mill the process is faster because you can simply chop the apples roughly and cook them, peels, cores, seeds and all. The mill removes all the unwanted stuff later in the process. I’d bet that the flavor and nutrition content is also better if you do the initial cooking with the peels too, but I don’t know that for sure.
Recipes for apple butter are actually quite simple. I got my recipe from an online pick-your-own farm guide. The first step is to make apple sauce, and I suppose if you want apple butter without all the trouble, you could simply use store bought apple sauce. I made my sauce with just apples and water, but next time I’m going to use cider for added flavor oomph. My neighbor Sharon just spent 3 days pressing a wheelbarrow full of apples into the most delicious cider. She has a gorgeous little old-fashioned press that looks a lot like this. I spent a couple of hours helping her, and got some mason jars of the slightly fizzy, gilded nectar in return.
Ahh. But I digress.
Step two of the recipe is to add a bunch of spices and cook the apple sauce down for several hours until it is thick and dark brown. I put mine in a crock pot and left it on low all night long. The next morning the whole house smelled like an apple pie.
The trickiest part is step three, the canning. Everything you read on the internet about canning says it is so simple that everyone can and should be doing it. But then you inevitably come across a list of dire warnings about botulism and other nasties if you don’t do things just so. The timing of things can be tricky: you want your jars and lids sterilized and not sitting around too long, you want your apple butter boiling hot at the time of canning, but not burnt, and you need a huge amount of boiling water or a pressure cooker heated up and ready to go.
It is a little intimidating for a beginner with a small electric stovetop that barely accommodates the canner and very little counter space. Fortunately, I had mom around, who, though also new to canning, provided much needed moral and practical support. Once I saw the hot and bubbly jars come out of the canner, my fears that everyone who ate the stuff would end up sick were (mostly) allayed.
I was also reassured by my trusty Joy of Cooking, which says that acidic foods (like fruits, tomatoes, and peppers) are much less likely to grow the nasties when canned. Corn and beans can be trickier, which is why many cooks just freeze these things for the winter.
It wasn’t the most flavorful apple butter I’ve ever had, but I felt pretty proud of it, and come January when I’m craving the taste of summer, I’m sure it will taste great.
(Thanks to Marnie and Kate for tips and advice on making and canning apple butter, and thanks to Joan for the extra pair of hands and encouragement!)