Saturday, October 22, 2011

Making Apple Butter

Last year, I made apple butter for the first time.  I'd never really had it before, but I came across a recipe that convinced me to try it.  I'm so glad that I did, because I think the apple butter is the main reason my husband remains married to me (other than his eternal love and our kids and all of that stuff).  We ran out of the last of the batch a month ago and I've endured mournful faces from Matt every morning that I've made biscuits since.

Well, this week, Publix had Honeycrisps on sale, so it was Apple Butter Making Time 2011.

We begin with 12 pounds of apples.  You can use whatever you like, but Honeycrisps are the best apple ever created.  Quarter them, core them, and plop them in a big stockpot.  Pour 3 quarts of apple juice or cider on top.  Last year, I used regular old apple juice, but this year I went for the Ziegler's Honeycrisp Blend apple cider (also at Publix).

As you can see, this process started around 0800.  In the picture to the right, the apples had been simmering for about 20 minutes.
When the apples started to get mushy, I took out my 7 quart cast iron Dutch oven and poured in 6 cups of sugar (use 7 for tart apples), 2 tablespoons of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of ground cloves, and just a touch of ground nutmeg.

The cast iron is well-suited for this, since it distributes the heat so evenly.  The apple/cider mixture starts out pretty soupy, but it's a thick and bubbly mess by the end that has to be stirred constantly.  Cast iron helps keep the butter from accumulating hot spots when you have to fill a sippy cup or change a diaper.

Here is the apple and cider mixture transferred to the Dutch oven.  As you can see, many of the apples are already falling apart.  If you like a chunky apple butter, you can just keep it as is.  The larger pieces will keep breaking up as you cook, but you still wind up with some bits in your final product.

You can see that the mixture fills the 7 quart pot to the brim.  A few inches of cider remained in the stockpot, but that's fine.  The point of this is to cook the liquid out anyway.

Since we prefer a smooth butter, I use a stick or immersion blender and puree everything right in the pot.  If you don't have an immersion blender (and you should, because they are so convenient!) and you like smooth butter, you can ladle the apple/cider mixture into a blender in batches.  Blend each portion, then add it to the pot with your sugar and spices.

Now begins the long, slow process of evaporating the water from the mixture.  This isn't something you can do haphazardly or inattentively.  Fortunately, my dear husband took the boys to an RC airfield for the morning to watch a mini airshow.  Jane was content playing and watching videos while I stirred.  And stirred.  And stirred.

You can see how much lower the mixture has gotten in the pot.  And this still wasn't done yet.

How do you know when it's done?

Well, some instructions say it's done when the mixture "mounds on a spoon."  I seek further clarification because maybe what somebody else sees as a mound, I see as a plateau.

So, instead I use the saucer test.  Plop some butter on a cold saucer.  If liquid pools, it's not done.  If it doesn't, it's good to go.

Not done

See?  Much easier to determine.

Once you get pretty close to done, fill your canning pot with water and start heating it to a boil.  Do yourself a big favor and run your tap until the water is hot before filling the pot.  You'll cut a good half hour off your wait time.
Wash your jars with hot soapy water and rinse well.  There's really no need to sterilize the jars since you're going to be filling them with apple butter that is the approximate temperature of molten lava.

If, by chance, some stray bacterium manages to survive the apple butter scalding and boiling water processing, well, I think it deserves to live.

Fill the jars almost to the top.  You need to leave 1/4" of headspace in order to get a good seal.  

After they're filled, take a clean, damp cloth and wipe the rim of each jar.  If there's any butter on them, the lids won't be able to seal properly.

Place your clean and unused lids on top and then lightly screw on the bands.  You should turn them just until you feel resistance.  Think benevolent dictator.  Firm, but not overbearing.

This allows the steam to exit the jars.  If the bands and lids are too tight, you won't get a seal because you won't create a big enough pressure difference.

When the water is boiling, use a jar lifter to place the jars in the rack in the pot.  Make sure they're standing up straight and covered by at least an inch of water.

The water will probably stop boiling when you add the jars in.  You need to process the butter for 20 minutes, so don't start your timer until the water begins boiling again.

This gives you plenty of time to scrub apple butter off your stove, counter tops, surrounding appliances, overhead vent grating, cabinets, and floor.

Also, scrub out your pots and ladles and spoons before the apple butter hardens.  Much easier that way.

Treat any burns received from spattering apple butter at this time, too.

In the end, it's all worth it.  Seven glorious pints of apple butter!  This should be enough to make it until next fall as long as my husband doesn't go crazy after a month of withdrawal.

These bad boys will sit out overnight to cool down.  I'll check the lids to make sure they all sealed in the morning.  They should be fine, though.  I counted seven audible pops as each lid vacuum-sealed.


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