Preserving Apples

by Gary Allen

The Hudson Valley is apple country, and has been since the Dutch settled here early in the seventeenth century. The huge seasonal bounty of apples was an important part of the survival strategy before the advent of artificial refrigeration. There was, of course, plenty of natural refrigeration available.

We call it “winter” — and folks made use of winter’s cold in various ways.

One of the main reasons people grew apples was to produce cheap alcohol. Cider, left on own, turns hard; airborne yeasts that cling to the surface of the fruit (that hazy surface you rub off when polishing an apple is mostly yeast) will quickly convert the juice’s sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. That conversion occurs so easily that deer sometimes become drunk from eating the “drops” in orchards. Old-​​timers found that, if they left barrels of cider out in the cold, the water would freeze but the alcohol would not. In effect, it was a kind of distillation that required no heat, yet turned hard cider into the more potent applejack.

They also dried apples for use during the rest of the year, but they had another trick that has fallen out of use, partly because it’s no longer possible.

Naturalist, and Hudson Valley resident, John Burroughs wrote nostalgically — about a century ago — about the apples of his childhood. He lamented the loss of varieties that had already disappeared. Orchards used to provide many types of apples for properties that are no longer important, such as how long they could be stored. Every autumn, farmers dug deep pits and filled them with layers of apples, separating each variety with layers of straw. The varieties that kept longest were buried deepest so, through the following months, people could gradually eat their way through the previous fall’s bounty.

Burroughs was troubled by the same thing that bothers today’s foodies: the irrevocable loss of flavors that accompany the purge of no-​​longer-​​needed diversity. He missed the taste and crunch of apples that would never be bitten into again. In his day, the technology that made such apple varieties obsolete was refrigeration. Today, it is marketability. The majority of today’s shoppers won’t buy an apple unless it’s an example of some kind of idealized shiny red globe, devoid of any kind of perceived imperfection. While there have been hundreds of varieties of apples grown over the years, markets now sell a dozen or less. Apples, originally, had patches (or even entire skins) that were rough, dry-​​looking, and brown. This entirely natural characteristic has been carefully eliminated from the few types we’re likely to find in our markets, because customers would consider it to be a blemish. Along the way, many of the different flavors, textures, and aromas that apple diversity provided have been lost.

Aside from a few orchards (such as Milton’s Prospect Hill Orchards, Staatsburg’s Breezy Hill Orchard, and Tivoli’s Migliorelli Farm) that are trying to rescue wonderful varieties that would otherwise vanish, we can’t do anything to preserve these pommes perdú. We can, however use another century-​​old technology to preserve some of our current bounty. Home-​​canning lets us prepare for ourselves some of the old-​​fashioned apple items that we can’t get at the supermarket.

One of these is real, unadulterated applesauce. The recipe I use comes from food historian Anne Mendelson, and it is simplicity itself (and no peeling is required). Wash, core and quarter whatever apples you have on hand (a mix of varieties is good — and allows you to develop, over time, your family’s own personal applesauce, customized to your taste). Put them in a heavy non-​​reactive pot with a cup or two of cider or water; bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer, covered. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching, and to bring the already softened apples to the top. When all the apples are soft, put the sauce through a strainer or food mill. That’s all there is to it. The sauce can be conventionally canned or frozen (in tapered, freezer-​​safe containers), as is, or used to make other apple-​​y treats — like applesauce cake or the old-​​time favorite, apple butter.

This recipe comes from an old edition (1975) of Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Early editions were filled with wonderful items that are rarely made anymore, especially preserved and home-​​canned foods. Anne Mendelson, by the way, wrote the definitive history of Rombauer’s book —it’s called Stand Facing the Stove.

Apple Butter
This is another simple, yet satisfying old-​​timey preserve. For each cup of applesauce, add

  • 1/​2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/​2 tsp. cloves
  • 1/​4 tsp. allspice

Cook over low heat, stirring often, until it’s so thick, as Rombauer wrote, “You can…place a small quantity on a plate… [and] no rim of liquid separates around the edge…”. Rombauer doesn’t say this, but using freshly-​​ground spices makes a big difference in the flavor of the apple butter.

If you only make a pint or so, just keep it in the refrigerator. Otherwise can or freeze in sterilized freezer-​​safe jars.

I no longer remember where I found the following recipe (so I can’t give credit where it’s due), but I know I’ve tinkered with it over the years — so, in some sense, it’s mine now:

Hot Apple Chutney
Combine all ingredients; simmer until thick in a non-​​reactive pot (about 1 hour and 15 minutes), stirring from the bottom, frequently, to prevent sticking. Can in the usual manner, process in boiling water bath for ten minutes.

    • 9 tart apples, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
    • 1/​2 Cup onions, chopped
    • 1 clove garlic, crushed
    • 2 sweet red peppers, chopped
    • 1 lb. seedless raisins
    • 2 Cups packed brown sugar
2 Cups cider vinegar
    • 5 fresh jalapeño peppers, chopped
    • 3 fresh cayenne peppers, chopped
    • 2 Tbsp. brown mustard seed
    • 3 Tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. salt
    • 1 tsp. whole allspice berries, crushed

Yield:  about 5 pints.

Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website:  onthetable​.us 

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