Yummy applesauce by Jess Watson
Friends are pressing apples for cider this weekend, and I was served a slice of birthday apple pie last night, so apples must be in season. No one in my Homesteading Circle has an apple tree, but several of us have very particular taste memories of apple butter, and we wanted to try making some. We decided to turn to the Bay Area Homestead Hookup to help us make it happen.
Are you part of the Bay Area Homestead Hookup* yet? It's a listserv put together to link people who share interests in homesteading locally. A friend put out a request on the email list for extra fruit, and got back an offer of ripe apples on a tree in South Berkeley.
I have been trying hard to forage my fruit – from trees in the yards of neighbors or trees planted in medians and abandoned lots. Why? Partially because it kills me to see good fruit go to waste. But I also forage because of the economics of homesteading.
Canning is hot these days, right? Putting up preserves is as popular as it's been since the Great Depression. Although the trend is undoubtedly inspired in part by our current recession, it's not necessarily a good way to save money – unless you're smart about it.
Tally it up: If you buy six 8-oz canning jars (about $1/jar) and eight lbs organic fruit to fill them at the Berkeley Farmer's Market ($3/lb), that's $30 total so far, not counting pectin, sugar or spices, and of course not counting your labor. So it's at least $5/jar. That's a steal if you compare it to artisanal jams like Blue Chair at $12 for a 6 oz jar, but at the supermarket you can get pretty good jam for $3.50.
I don't think canning, or homesteading in general, has to be merely the domain of hipsters with a bad case of rural nostalgia. I think having the skills to preserve your harvest is an important part of food security, and can actually save you money, if you do it right. I don't want canning to be just a cute, expensive hobby.
So I started to forage. Farmers will sometimes give you crazy deals at the end of Farmer's Markets, or you can also go to Pick-Your-Own farms. But foraging is clearly best. Plus the thrill of adventure you get on a good foraging run is priceless – and by that I mean meeting your neighbors, using wasted resources, and being in marginal spaces. No need to break the law for this, folks.
The other way to make it affordable is in the jars; I save all my jars, and my friends collect them for me, too. Jars don't need to have the special 2-part canning lid, either. All sorts of glass jars, from tomato and salsa containers, are just fine. They just need a lid with a depressable center tab, and a raised rubber ring underneath. Almost any jar you buy from the store will have both.
Back to the apple butter, please
Of course, there are lots of other reasons to can. I take pleasure in knowing the particular tree which made the apples that cooked down into that delicious applesauce I'm eating tonight. I love the whole house suddenly smelling like fall as the cinnamon & fresh nutmeg cook down with the apples into thick, spreadable fruit butter. I love the social relationships that deepen as the bowls of skins and cores rise higher, little by little. I appreciate being able to give that moment of the season, preserved in glass, as gifts to people I love.
Here's the recipe. A warning: apple butter cooks for an incredibly long time – like five hours, no way to get around it. So start early if you don't want to be up all night (or just go to bed and finish it in the morning, which is what I did).
Traditional Apple Butter
adapted from Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving
6 lbs apples
3 c. water
3 c sugar
2+ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Quarter the apples. No need to peel or core if you have a food mill because you'll essentially strain them out later. If no food mill in sight, commit to the peeling & coring.
Place the apples and water into a stainless steel saucepan, and bring to a boil. It's important that the pan has a thick bottom because you don't want the fruit to burn during its long simmer time. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring occasionally, until apples are soft, about 30 minutes.
Transfer to the food mill in batches, moving the hand crank around and around until you've sifted out all the peels and seeds (I love food mills. So pleasingly low-tech). Or if you've cored and peeled the apples and are using a food processor, puree lightly just until a uniform texture is achieved (don't blast it out of existence).
Wash the original saucepan before adding the resulting puree, or just use a new one (remember, sticking can be a problem, so you want a clean pot). Stir in sugar and spices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens and “holds its shape on a spoon.” Which basically means, it doesn't slide right off, and it looks and tastes like apple butter. Like I said, this can take forever.
Then, the canning! If you're new at this, it's good to watch a video online or take a class (they have relatively inexpensive ones at the Institute of Urban Homesteading). I won't give all the exciting details here, but it's basically to boil the jars and lids, ladle the apple butter in, seal them, then boil the filled jars for another 10 minutes. Not at all hard once you've gotten the hang of it.
*To subscribe to the Bay Area Homestead Hookup, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read earlier Foraging Report stories: