Apple butter is one of my favorite spreads. My paternal grandmother, who lived with us, ate it on rice cakes, and I remember joining her in enjoying that snack. Aside from my emotional associations with this, it’s simply delicious. The darker and richer it is, the more I like it, and I think this method really helps to concentrate the flavor. I made a point of making some to can last year, and I did it again this year, and I think I perfected my method.
My starting point is this recipe from Coconut and Lime, which uses a slow cooker rather than requiring hours over the stove. However, I just use whatever apples I can get my hands on, cheap, at the farmer’s market. (Here in Baltimore, at the Waverly Market, there’s an orchard that sells “seconds” — fruit that’s not quite pretty enough for them to sell but that works just fine if you don’t care what it looks like whole. If I’m buying fruit to cook, can or bake with, I get seconds from them.) The key thing to know here is that this recipe is written for Stayman-Winesap apples, which are extremely firm baking apples that take a long time to cook down. So for other types of apples, you’ll need to adjust. Here’s what I did this year, which worked out very well.
First, get yourself some crock pot liners. These are exactly the types of things that I scoff at for everyday use, but in this case they’re a lifesaver. Last year I spent more time than I care to admit trying to scrub a layer of apple char off of the hot spot in my slow cooker. This year? I lifted out the liner and washed the pot. Done.
I use about three pounds of apples – weighed after coring, slicing and taking out any bad spots. As far as I can tell, this is roughly equivalent to the amount called for in the recipe. This amount of apples fills my 5.5 quart slow cooker. Keep the skins on, they’ll disappear once you blend it, and you need the pectin in them to help the apple butter come together.
I follow the rest of her measurements as written (roughly, it’s not an exact science like baking) and cook the apples on low, covered, for 10-12 hours. Do it in the morning and go about your day, do it overnight – whatever works.
At this point I diverge from her instructions. First, I stir things up and poke around and see how much liquid there is. Then, I do one of two things. If I’m going to be home and awake for the next several hours, I set things up as she instructs, but I check on the apple butter every 2-3 hours, more frequently as time goes on. I’m looking for it to get to a very thick consistency, thought with a tiny bit of liquid so it’ll blend, and once it does I move on to the next step. If I’m not going to be home or awake, I set the crock pot for 2- or 3-hour intervals and when I am able, I take a look and reset it. I do this because I found last year that the liquid in my apples evaporated much faster than I anticipated (hence the char).
Once it looks like it’s ready, I hit it with my immersion blender until it’s smooth. (You can also use a regular blender or a food processor, though you’ll want to let it cool so it doesn’t explode on you.) There will be a few tiny pieces of skin the mix, but I don’t think they detract at all. At this step, you should wind up with about 1/3 of the volume you started with.
This year I repeated this process three times, until I ran out of apples. I stored previous batches tightly covered in the fridge, and the day I planned to do the canning, I put it all back in the slow cooker (filled it!) and heated it back up. Worked like a charm. I wound up with about 5.5 pints, which sounds like a lot, but which I will go through quickly – it’s fabulous stirred into oatmeal, which I eat nearly every day. It’s also great on greek yogurt, and of course, toast.