A half-bushel of greenish Macintosh apples cools in my basement, fruits of the first visit of the season to Everett Orchards’ farm stand in Plattsburgh. Later on in the fall I’ll be stopping by again for fresh eating apples- especially the wondrously complex Honey Crisps – but tart, crunchy Macs are perfect for making apple butter.
I make a variety of jams for my farmers’ market stand using the fruits that come ripe throughout the growing season. Strawberry-rhubarb jam gives way to raspberry-blackcurrant, and then to cantaloupe-peach. The process for most of these is fairly simple, but apple butter boasts the shortest ingredient list: apples and sugar (with a touch of cinnamon.)
The reason for this is that apples, especially underripe ones, contain high amounts of pectin, a carbohydrate found in plant cell walls. When cooked apples are heated and combined with sugar, the pectin causes the mixture to thicken up into a spreadable consistency. In fact, commercially available powdered pectin is sometimes extracted from apple pomace, or pulp.
Making apple butter is a 3 step process (not including canning in a boiling water bath.) Chunks of apple are cooked with a small amount of liquid – water, cider or cider vinegar – until soft. The cooked fruit is put through a food mill or sieve; fruit sauce and sugar go in a large pan in a roughly 2:1 ratio with a sprinkling of cinnamon, which is then cooked on low heat until thickened. (Searching the internet for apple butter recipes, I was surprised to find that many call for long cooking periods, either in a crockpot, baked in an oven, or on the stove. Perhaps my apple butter is not as thick as that featured in the recipes, but my batches cook down in 30 minutes or so.)
Though the quality and convenience of orchard grown apples gives them an edge, in my opinion jams made with wild apples have an extra punch of flavor. In the next few weeks I’ll be scouting along our roadsides for likely trees, hoping to beat the deer to the least blemished fruit. And who cares what they look like after they cook down into that sweet treat?