Saturday, November 10, 2012

Yes we can

A former roommate of mine got married this fall and for her wedding favors gave out homemade peach jam lovingly canned in her kitchen in Brooklyn. I enjoyed reading about the process on her blog but hadn't really thought about it much beyond that. That is until, when beginning planning my own wedding (which I assure you will not become the primary topic of this blog, so bear with me) I visited the venue and saw little jars of jam being used as place cards. It fit so nicely, and quickly got me thinking "how hard could it be?"

After getting some advice from the roommate and a little free shipping from an Amazon Prime trial, I was soon outfitted with everything the modern canner needs to create delicious preserved fruit products for her friends and loved ones that won't give them botulism. (I'll admit, the primary reason for this post is to share the re-surging art of home canning, but the not-so-subtle secondary goal is for those readers who will be receiving said wedding favor to know that they probably won't be fatal.) After some serious research, I decided my fruit of choice would be apples (being the only thing really in season significantly before the wedding date), and my chosen spread would be apple butter. This was something of a relief as apple butter is a fairly forgiving concoction. You don't need to worry about pectin or anything having to thicken or gel. In fact, if you have a slow cooker, all you really have to worry about is peeling and coring the apples, and the rest of the work is done for you.

I've done my first two batches now (and learned conclusively that 6 pounds of apples yields 18 4-oz jars of butter), so I'm ready to post about what I've learned. My first batch was something of a learning process, and I'm still a little amazed that after following all the directions, my jars actually did seal properly. In the second batch, all but one of the 18 jars sealed properly, but that's actually something of a good thing because it means I get to eat the failed jar (which I've discovered is excellent on cornbread). I also learned the amazing utility of an apple corer. How have I never owned one before?

At any rate, without further ado, here is how you make and can apple butter:

The blurry ingredients. Rest assured, this is the only cell phone photo in the batch. For those who can't distinguish ingredients other than the apples, there is also: sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. 
The first step after gathering your ingredients is to prepare the apples. This is the most time consuming part, especially when you only have one decent peeler. My lovely assistant and I created an assembly line or coring, peeling, and chopping that generally made fast work of it. It almost makes me want to make some kind of hackneyed metaphor for how the teamwork required to make apple butter could equate to marriage, but this really isn't that kind of blog.

The apples once cored, diced, and cut into 1-inch pieces.
Once the real work is done, you just put the apples in a large pan on the stove (very important that it's at least 8 quarts for 6 pounds of apples...something I learned the hard way in the first batch) with 5 cups of water (or 2 cups of cider and 3 cups of water). Boil, stirring occasionally, until the apples are broken down (about a half hour).
I thought this would look more artsy and dream-like than it turned out looking.
Once the apples are broken down, puree with an immersion blender (or wait for them to cool a bit and throw them in a regular blender) and transfer the puree to a slow cooker. Add a cup of sugar, a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of both cloves and allspice.

Normally, I eschew attempts by my photographer to include candid photos, but I want to document that this is in fact homemade lovingly by us.
Mix the ingredients together. Now the real work is truly over (for the apple butter making...not the canning). Just switch the slower cooker on low, leave the lid somewhat askew so that liquid can evaporate, and cook on low for 12-14 hours. You're supposed to stir it occasionally, but I did this step overnight, so my stirring was very occasional and it still turned out fine.

The home canner's tool kit.
Above you can see the cleaned and sanitized jars ready to go on their clean and sanitized work space. One thing about home canning is that it would be made that much simpler for those with a dishwasher. You can just run the jars on hot and then leave them in there until you're read to use them. Not having a dish washer, I had to boil all of the jars first just to make sure they were sterile. Also in the picture above you can see some of the tools that came with my 7-piece Presto canning kit. The funnel and jar-lifter are self explanatory, but the little green stick thing is pretty cool. It has a magnet on it so you can lift the jar lids out of the bowl of boiling water (they're in the upper left corner) without burning your fingers. Ingenious!
Filled and ready to be lowered!
About 30 minutes before you want to start canning fill your dry bath canning pot with enough water that will cover your jars by at least an inch. (It takes a long time for all that water to boil.) Meanwhile, turn the slow cooker up to high so that your apple butter will also boil. Once both are boiling. Fill each jar with apple butter until about 1/2" from the top. Wipe the edges with a moist paper towel and apply lids and screw caps. Lower the filled jars into the water bath and boil for ten minutes to process. Remove all jars and leave untouched on a clean dish towel. After an hour, check to make sure the lids have sealed by pressing down on the center. If you can depress the center of the lid, it hasn't sealed. Remove any unsealed jars to the refrigerator and eat within a month. Those jars that have properly sealed should remain untouched for 24 hours and then can be moved to a cool dry place for storage where they will keep unopened for up to a year.

I've discovered I really enjoy the process of canning. It makes me feel very self-reliant. Like some combination of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Laura Engalls Wilder, and maybe a little Ted Kaczynski. The book I got on canning for the modern kitchen has seasonal recipes, and I'm really looking forward to the farm share starting up next year, so I can try some out. After all, in the summer certain vegetables are in abundance, and I get pretty sick of them. And yet now, in the harsh reality of winter, I could really go for some tomatoes (or, I guess, preserving limitations being what they are: tomato sauce) or eggplant and wonder how I could have so taken them for granted during the times of plenty.

Don't worry, friends and loved ones, my canning energy is currently engaged in all of this apple butter making, so you don't have to worry about getting overenthusiastic offerings like jars of pickled turnips for Christmas this year. But know this: by next May, there may just a jar of upstate New York orchards' finest at your place.


  1. Looks like a lot of work. I'm glad you're enjoying it. Why don't your spring for a good pealer? You both deserve it!

  2. Well, we do have one good peeler, but I suppose we could always spring for a second one. Or at the very least throw away our bad peeler...

  3. Congrats on the first batch! We ended up using ours as place cards (of sorts - in that there was a placecard and a jar at each seat - thank god for the groomsmen!).

  4. Thanks! The wedding we saw had names actually on the jars of jam, but I think your way makes more sense. It's kind of weird to have a jar of jam with your name on it just sitting in your refrigerator at home.

  5. Is that an election pun? Awesome! I personally think more wedding talk would be a great topic for the blog. I'm not sure if you're taking suggestions, but adorable animals videos are also always a crowd pleaser. I'm definitely going to make this apple butter, I have a pile of apples I really need to use.

  6. Do you watch Portlandia? The first episode of season two has a funny sketch called "We Can Pickle That" which you might find inspiring.

    My grandmother (Murschall grandmother, not Teague) used to do a lot of canning. When I read your post I was picturing her pantry filled with big jars of canned pears. She would always put a cinnamon stick inside.

  7. The only full Portlandia episodes I've seen were the ones at your house, but I think I caught that sketch floating around the internet. My problem is that I like the idea of cans of preserved things in the cabinet...but I don't really like pickled things. Sam likes them though, so I guess I could just preserve stuff for him.