Fall in a Jar: How To Make Apple Butter Without Killing Anybody

Learn how to make the perfect homemade gift for Thanksgiving—with absolutely zero risk of giving its recipient botulism.

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“Putting by” the fruits of your own, or a local orchard’s, labors has become much easier as the jars with self-sealing vacuum lids have become available to the average person who wants to make a few jars of jam, chutney, jelly, or fruit butter for family or friends. In the fall, fruit butters come into their own, with apple butter right at the top of the list. It’s not hard to make and while Ball brand jars with two-part lids are in order for pickling and low-acid vegetables, which must have a hot water bath to ensure their sterility, high acid fruits—like apples—are easier to preserve than you think. With modern methods, you can skip the time-consuming, steamy step that requires a canning kettle and its accoutrements. No more iffy seals or dealing with hot melting sealing wax and wax burns! Instead, you use plastisol one-piece “hot fill” lids, which you order to match up with pretty jar shapes—a far cry from “Grandma” jars.

When I was processing Paumanok Preserves, an artisan company specializing in high-end sweets and savories, I ordered my jars and lids by the pallet-load from a huge company with large minimum orders. You can order a few or a lot of attractive jars and lids from online companies like Fillmore or Cape Cod Glass or their ilk, which don’t require a massive minimum and will UPS or FedEx the jars to your doorstep. These companies are also not so large that they don’t have time to talk to you about their products, make recommendations, and even help guide you through processing like this one little item of importance: ask the interior width of the jar mouth, so you can buy a wide-mouth funnel that fits exactly inside. Unless your product is liquid enough to pour from a bowl with a lip and handle, you will be ladling it into the jars. The funnel is all that stands between you and a sticky slopped-up jar (that won’t seal properly) and countertop.

As long as you work with high-acid fruits, you don’t need to worry about the ph level- the acid balance- of the end product. Please stick with those or you could be asking for trouble. Botulism is not a game you want to play. Apples are ideal for Fall canning! This is why I’m suggesting you make apple butter, as opposed to pumpkin butter, for instance. It’s almost impossible to miscalculate the acidity of apple butter, whereas pumpkins will assume an evil Halloween grin at your efforts to reach an unassailable acidity. Leave pumpkins to the pros, with their expensive but necessary pH meters.

I’m sharing here my original recipe for the spiced apple butter that helped my little company become well known. It was my Number One best seller from September through the winter. It’s a delicious holiday gift—a hostess gift for Thanksgiving or Rosh Hashanah (outstanding with latkes!), in a Christmas gift basket, as a contribution to a raffle. Kids are enthralled that it’s called “butter” despite having no fat content, and once they learn why, get a kick out of sharing the difference between apple butter and applesauce and dairy butter.

Your friends are going to ask you where on earth you got this recipe. Tell 'em a blue ribbon winner gave it to you.

Your friends are going to ask you where you got this recipe. Tell ’em a blue ribbon winner gave it to you.

Apple butter is named for its slick likeness to creamery butter. It slides across the tongue. The puree is cooked slowly down for a long time. The Pennsylvania Dutch are known for it. On top of the stove, the kettle is settled on diffusers, over low heat, and stirred constantly so it doesn’t scorch. There’s a better way. But first you have to make the puree.

You’ll need a peck (32 fruits or 10-12 pounds) of apples: a mix of Granny Smiths and Greenings, plus Galas, Yellow Delicious, Empires—cooking apples, like you’d use for pie.

In deep pots (stock pots work well), pile in the apples and add a few inches of apple cider. Cover loosely and place on the stove, preferably on diffusers* if you have them. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Cook until the apples collapse. Cool.

Place a large food mill over a deep bowl or pot. If you have an electric mill, either one for seeding tomatoes or one that attaches to your electric mixer, that’s even better. Put the apples through the mill to separate the ‘meat’ of the fruit from the seeds, core, and peel. Discard the debris and measure the puree by the quart about halfway up the sides of a large brazier.** If necessary, use two of the deep ovenproof pans.

For each quart of puree, add 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 rounded teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/4 heaping teaspoon ground cloves. Stir well until all the ingredients are smoothly incorporated. Be sure there’s no sugar stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the brazier in the center of your oven. Roast, stirring occasionally, until the puree is very, very thick and about half its original volume. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, if you wish. Test for doneness by putting a teaspoon of the puree on a cold plate. It should form a mound with almost all the liquid evaporated. A tiny bit of liquid may seep out.

Just before the butter is done, put your jars through the short cycle of your dishwasher and drain them, but keep them hot until ready to fill. If necessary, reheat in the hot rinse cycle. Rinse the lids in warm, not hot, water.

Alternately, sterilize the jars in your microwave. Rinse them in hot water and drain all but a few drops of water from them. Pack onto the microwave carousel Microwave about 4 minutes on high, until hot. Use a dry linen towel or tongs to handle the hot jars. Tip out any excess water. Rinse the lids in warm, not hot, water. Do not microwave only two or three jars this long. They can get hot enough to start a fire. I did this just once when I first started: grabbed a paper towel instead of a cotton towel to take one jar from my commercial microwave. It set fire to the paper towel, I dropped it, stamped out the flaming paper. Meanwhile, the jar burned the vinyl flooring. I kicked it out the kitchen door onto the brick walk, where it eventually cooled. The jar never broke, but for a few minutes, I was shattered!

processing-spiced-plum-5-1-06-117When you are ready to fill the jars, lift the brazier onto a flat countertop and line up the jars next to the brazier. Ideally, you can set the brazier on diffusers next to the countertop. If the butter cools too much, you can put the burner underneath on simmer, to maintain the temperature. The puree needs to be very hot so the jars seal. Using the fitted wide-mouth funnel for these jars, ladle the hot fruit butter into the jars to about one-eighth inch from the top. Then tap each jar on the counter to eliminate air bubbles. (Use a heat-proof glove or small folded dry towel.) Wipe the jar rims with a moist cloth if necessary. You do not want bacteria to sneak into a jar that seals improperly. Cap the jars as you normally would any lid on any jar (don’t overdo it!), and turn the jars upside-down. As they cool, they will seal themselves. You will see that the lids have become slightly concave. When they are nearly cooled, turn them right-side-up, tap on the counter again so the filling is evenly distributed, and let them get cold. They will keep for a long time. This recipe makes about twelve 12-ounce jars.

*You can buy diffusers at any restaurant or cooking supplies store. To make your own, you need the empty tin cans from large coffee cans or wherever you can find them. Strip off any paper. Remove the lid and bottom with a can opener, so you have a metal tube. On a hard surface, place the tube on its side and stamp on it until it’s flat Boors are excellent for this maneuver. The flattened tin is now a diffuser that you can use on your stove burner to spread the heat evenly and prevent the hot spots on the bottom of pots causing burnt food.

**I love my 25-quart stainless steel brazier. It cooks massive amounts of anything I want to make in quantity, like soups, four or five chickens, a vat of chili, quarts of tomato sauce, whatever I’m making that will also go into the freezer for future meals. They come with tight lids, so you can simmer pot roasts for hours.

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Joan Bernstein lives in Manorville on land that has belonged to her family for over 100 years, but she grew up on the water in Center Moriches. As a youngster, clamming, crabbing off the dock, snapper fishing and power boating kept her busy when she didn't have her nose in a book. She has bred pedigree Tonkinese cats for the past 40 years. "Eat locally" is her byword whether she's at home or in Russia.