Sunday, September 12, 2010

Apple Butter & the Economics of Canning

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.

The Break-Down

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. 

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 on the bottom during it's 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


  1. well, one way to save more money is to PYO, hit the farmers market at the end of the day, offer the farmer a lower price per pound if you buy 10+ pounds at a time, and actually go to the farm and ask for seconds. never pay full price. i got two bushels (thats 104 pounds) of sauce tomatoes for thirty dollars. thats 30 quarts deseeded and canned.

  2. I use roughly the same recipe, I sub 1 cup of the sugar for brown, to get a caramel sort of taste to it, (slight) and I also add 1/2 a tsp of ground brings out the spices deliciously. I also make this in my crock pot/slowcooker, then let it go all day or night....makes a wonderful Christmas gift...and decadent on homemade bagels.

  3. Also, during canning season, my electric bill jumps substantially from canning on an electric stove. Homemade still tastes better than what we buy at a regular grocery store so I try not to think too much about the cost.

  4. So true about foraging! I'm trying hard to find some local apples because I want to make apple cider this year. Watching craigslist carefully.

    I wanted to point out that it's not recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation to reuse commercial jars for home-canning. Some jars, like mayonnaise jars, will fit a Ball 2-part lid and, in general, will be OK. But you'll notice that commercial pasta & other jars are quite a bit thinner than a mason jar, which is made to withstand multiple heating/cooling cycles. Commercial jars are more prone to breaking and poor seals. That said, I do reserve a small stash for the times when I have leftover jam (or soup, or whatever) that doesn't fit into the canning jars.
    I refer to this website regularly for canning guidance, even though I consider myself an experienced canner. It's especially useful when I'm thinking about canning recipes I've found online, as it sets forth scientifically tested times for home-canned products. In the case of apple butter, you only need 5 mins for pints - woo hoo! :)

    Happy canning!
    Pint-sized Pioneering

  5. I really want to know about using old jars from salsa, etc. I save them for when I have an odd leftover amount of jam or fruit butter and can't can it. I put it in a used jar in the fridge. Are you saying you re-can in used jars? Do you use the original lids? I was under the impression that those could not be re-used. Do tell!! :)

  6. I don't really tally exact amounts of dollars spent vs saved when it comes to canning. I know I should, but I tell myself that the money I am spending now is money I won't spend later cause I'll have the food right there in jars in my cupboard. Not that I'm spending tons of money on canning, I just love doing. Its definitely not a cute hobby, I can't quite explain why I find it so fun and satisfying.

  7. I'm with Stella and Jenn. It's not okay to re-use your lids, and using one-part lids not specifically designed for canning is a really, really bad idea. The lids usually cost somewhere between $2-$3 per dozen, so it's not a significant part of the cost.

    And be careful with non-Mason jars. Mason jars are manufactured specifically to withstand the temperature and pressure changes of canning processes. Your non-Mason jars *will* break sooner than Mason jars. If you absolutely insist on using non-Mason jars, at least confine them to things with a very quick processing time in a water-bath, like cucumber pickles, or better yet, reserve them for refrigerator storage. Do not attempt to use them in pressure canning.

    And, of course, canning isn't really about the money. I live in the Northeast. We can't get local tomatoes, peaches, etc., in winter. If I want to eat them, I either have to can them, dehydrate them, or freeze them. I choose to can them.

  8. regarding the first comment to this post: wouldn't you be insulted if someone came to you and offered you less for your goods than you were asking?

    why do ppl disrespect the ppl who grow our food? they deserve a living wage.

    i almost subscribed, but if that first comment is indicative of the mentality, no thanks.

  9. A great place to find cheap Mason jars is at garage sales, and sometimes even estate sales. I have boxes and boxes of them in my dining room right now, and I estimate having spent only around 20 dollars, most of them having been sold for 50 cents and less a piece.

  10. Wow, I go away for a backpacking trip and find so many comments when I return! Thanks for the input, everyone. I was taught that reusing commercial glass jars & lids was possible if you check that the lids have no scratches or dents and I've had no problem using them with hot water bath canning over the past several years. However, I researched it after your posts and have decided it's time to make the transition to only using Mason jars with 2-part lids. I was excited to see the new reusable BPA-free Tattler lids and I will try them soon, despite the questionable aesthetics!