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Some years ago, a friend asked me if I would show her how to make applesauce, one of the simplest and safest home canning projects. Before we knew it, there were seven of us spending a series of autumn days in canning parties that inspire intense devotion among the participants. None of us really has the time to allot to it and yet we all do, like religion, week after week in the fall. We meet about half a dozen times during peak apple time. This is our seventh season.
I’m pretty confident that we’re not saving money by making our own applesauce. I’m absolutely certain that we’re not saving time. But homemade applesauce makes snobs of everyone who tries it, and a lot of problems get solved at my kitchen table that have nothing to do with the free market prices of labor or applesauce.
I’ve been asked if we listen to music while we work, but what we listen to is each other. There is so much talking. We swap home contractors and health care providers, we cover school troubles (“my son hit that same slump in fourth grade!”) and health issues (“we tried everything under the sun for that and it was acupuncture that finally addressed it”). We chew over the challenges of balancing work and family, family and parents, success and peace of mind. We chop and measure and taste and adjust for spice and sweetness. Everything gets balanced at that table, and while we all slink in feeling like we can’t spare the hours, we pirouette out completely energized.
It helps that we are spending what feels like epic 'me’ time engaged in making food that we feed our families all winter. That sssukpop of the lids as they are opened brings us back from deep February to the memory of early fall afternoons and long conversations. They say firewood warms you twice, so I hardly know how to calculate the nourishing properties of applesauce made in a group by friends and divvied among their homes. We all confess to many minutes of winter meditation spent admiring the jars on the shelves before we dive in, and next year’s occasions are ever-present in our minds as we track what flavor got eaten first, what was enjoyed most deeply, and what’s still untouched.
All of the people who participate are aces in the kitchen, which definitely elevates the potluck snacks, but most of them never canned or preserved much before this group came together. We take some gorgeous detours into jams and chutneys and butters now that we have our chops down as a group, but the backbone of the operation continues to be applesauce, which is such a basic, safe item to play with that you should feel no trepidation about jumping in as a novice canner.
We’re fortunate to live in a very well-appled part of New England, where pick-your-own farms are as abundant as apple trees in yards, so sourcing fruit is usually the easy part. And it’s likely that working as a group and enjoying the flavors and scents of your shared labors might well translate to what’s abundant in your neck of the woods.
If it’s apples where you are, too, and you want to start your own home canning parties this apple(sauce) season, keep these tips in mind. And then read through my own tried-and-true method to see if it's right for your own group.
- Get familiar: Before you begin, read up on canning methods and think about your workspace and tools
- Be tactical: First, we pick a day on which we can all devote about 4 hours to this project. After the scheduling is handled, we use the same email or text thread to claim responsibility for the things on the list: apples, lemons, various sweeteners, jars and lids. Depending on the tools in the host’s kitchen, it may be useful for each participant to bring along a cutting board, knives, or other tools to supplement.
- Have a plan: Lay out more or less what will happen where in your workspace, the order of steps, and who will mastermind what. Now that we have multiple recipes going at once, one of us acts as chief for each pot, tracking what’s needed, and then we work as handmaidens interchangeably for each other as time permits; anyone unoccupied puts in a minute staying on top of the dishwashing.
- Mix it up: Apples vary in terms of sweetness, water content, and flavor, so use a variety of apple types and taste as you go.
- Keep it hot: Cooling off at any stage once you’ve begun cooking causes liquid and solids to separate later inside the jar, which increases the volume and may result in a counter sullied by hot, spewing applesauce. My group has tried it all—food mills, peeling, not peeling, mincing, mashing—and our solution for producing volumes of applesauce with great texture, that retains the color and nutrients of the peels, and stays in the jar, is a two-pot method, outlined below.
- Cool before moving: To preserve a good seal, let jars cool completely before moving them any distance; in our case, canners return the next day to retrieve their haul. A Sharpie is a great tool for marking lids: Once jars are cool, note the flavor, if you’ve added any, and mark with an X any jars that have failed to seal. These should be refrigerated and eaten right away.
- Ditch the band: Once your jars cool, always remove bands and clean the threads of the jars before you put them in storage. Any bit that may have escaped during processing can get stuck there and fester. Store jars without bands, as it makes it easier to spot a failed seal.
- Let it happen (and take good notes): Even the best-laid plans can get sticky in the middle; just press on and adjust next time for what you learned.
- 2 to 3 bushels of apples (see note)
- Lemons, honey, sugar and/or maple syrup
- Spices & additions for variations below
- Snacks! The potluck repast that fuels our labors is a good portion of our fun and happiness.
Note: A full size canning pot holds 7 quart jars, which will require about 21 pounds of apples. A bushel of apples weighs in around 48 pounds. In my kitchen, we have determined that 5 people (the optimal number for the space; more is definitely not better) can process, from raw fruit to hot jars lined proudly across the counter, 2 to 3 bushels of apples in about 4 hours, pausing occasionally for sustenance and self-congratulation.
- Quart and pint jars, lids & bands
- Canning pot, jar funnel, lid magnet, and jar lifter
- Two large stockpots (at least)
- 1 paring knife and cutting board per person
- Potato masher
- Immersion blender
- Citrus juicer
- A Sharpie, to identify the different flavors on the jar lids (and to mark any failed seals with an X)
- For each batch of sauce, peel about a third of the apples and cut them into 1 to 2-inch chunks. Leave the remainder of the apples with their skins-on and just cut the apples’ cheeks from their cores (leave the core as a columnar middle and discard—or turn them into tea!).
Fill big pot #1 to within a few inches of the rim with apple cheeks. Fill the second with peeled chunks. To each pot, add water to come about 1/3 of the way up the side. Place both over medium-low heat and cover.
Stir both pots often to ensure even cooking and prevent scorching—hot spots develop very easily even in high-quality pots, are IMPOSSIBLE to scour off, and make the applesauce taste funny.
When the apples are tender in pot #1, the skins sprung from the meat, attack the pot with the immersion blender until the contents are utterly smooth with no evidence of peel. Work quickly to retain heat, then return pot to a low flame and stir often.
Over in pot #2, once the chunks are tender, use the potato masher to break up the chunks into a rough purée. Now combine the contents of both pots in one (or redistribute among two).
Taste for a balance of sweetness and tartness, and adjust as desired by beginning with a tablespoon each of lemon juice and sweetener until the flavor is just right—or try one of the flavor variations below.
Flavor variations (all additions per 4 quarts, roughly):
Added after blending and combining, except where noted.
1) Lemon Ginger
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger (or to taste)
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- A scratch of lemon zest
2) Vanilla Caramel
Add 1 to 2 inches of vanilla bean to the pot with the raw, peeled apples. Once it’s soft, split and scrape the bean, discarding the pod, and mash the scrapings with the apples. Cook 1 cup of sugar in a small, heavy pan, until you have a richly brown caramel syrup. Carefully (as in, face averted) stir this into the pot of hot, milled applesauce. It will crackle and hiss, form a solid, and then dissolve. Fresh ginger gilds the lily nicely here.
- 1/4 teaspoon cardamom seed, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger or 1 t grated fresh ginger root
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- A pinch of food-grade dried rose petals, crushed
- 1/2 cup honey
What do you cook from scratch even though you know it doesn't save time or money? Tell us in the comments!