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Preserving the Harvest: Local Apples

I love summer. I’m one of those rare people who thrives in the hottest, most humid Wisconsin days, when I can practically live on fresh local tomatoes, basil, fresh Mozzarella, and ripe summer peaches. All throughout August and September I lament the fact that the seasonal steamy jungle we call summertime will turn into the cold tundra once again.

Yet every year, there comes a point when I find myself finally accepting and even welcoming the fact that summer has come to an end. This is usually the same moment that I taste my first really good local apple of the season. Sweet, juicy, crunchy, sometimes a little spicy, sometimes a little tart…a really good fresh local apple is one of the most satisfying flavors I know.

October is the height of apple season here in Wisconsin. Though availability begins in late August and extends into November and December, this is the month that they’re at their most abundant and delicious.

As the weather gets cooler and the apples get tastier, in my kitchen it’s time to preserve some of that October flavor for year-round eating. Apple butter and applesauce are two easy and delicious ways to do it.

First steps
The first step in making both apple sauce and apple butter is to procure your apples. You can use whatever local apples are available to you; the varieties I like the best are Macintosh, Cortland, and Golden Delicious. These varieties have great flavor, but can turn mushy if you try to keep them into the Winter months. Their soft consistency, however, lends itself very well to apple sauce or butter.

Of course you can buy premium local apples for preservation, but if you’re on a budget you can also use “seconds” or apples with slight blemishes. I make an annual trip to a pick-your-own farm where I can pick up “windfalls” (apples that have been blown off the tree) for a discounted price. This allows me to get lots of apples for very little money. Yes, they’re a bit bruised, but if you’re processing them into applesauce and apple butter no one will ever know the difference.

I usually start off with at least 20 pounds of fresh local apples. This may seem like a lot, but once you remove the peels and cores and cook them down, they become much more manageable.

Both apple sauce and apple butter are made using the same simple method: apples are slowly cooked, allowing excess moisture to evaporate. Less water means that the flavors are condensed. Apple butter is simply apple sauce that is cooked further until it reaches a thick spreadable consistency and a wonderfully intense apple flavor.

If you’re planning to make enough apple sauce or apple butter to last through the winter, I highly recommend buying a food mill. These ingenious contraptions are inexpensive and save a ton of time. All you have to do is quarter your apples (core, skin, and all), and cook them down until they turn saucy in consistency. At this point, you can run them through a food mill, which takes out all of the peel, seeds, and rough bits of core.

If you’re making apple sauce, you’re done as soon as the apples are cooked into the right consistency. If your aim is apple butter, you can return the sauce to a thick-bottomed pot or crockpot and cook it very, very slowly until it’s quite thick. Remember to stir often and use very low heat, otherwise you may burn the bottom. This cooking process can take hours, but it’s worth the wait. I always try to cook my apples on an especially chilly October day; there’s nothing that makes the house seem cozier than the warm smell of apples cooking.

I like to add a little lemon juice, brown sugar, and cinnamon to my apple butter. It’s not necessary, but it adds an extra sweet and spicy flavor. I often finish my apple butter by processing it for a minute in my food processor. This adds an extra step to the process, but also helps it attain an extra creamy, spreadable texture.

From here, the apple sauce or apple butter can be canned using a hot water bath or pressure canner. Canned goods keep for up to a year, providing the flavor of local apples long after we’ve worked through our farmers’ autumn storage crop. If you end up with more than you can use, these canned goods also make excellent holiday presents!

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