I learned how to do some home canning several years ago when I lived in south Georgia and had access to what is, I suppose, the breadbasket of the state. There were a plethora of you-pick farms within a 30 minute drive of where we lived, and I spent the summers that we lived there knee-deep in produce.
Canning, or bottling if you live in the western US, is not something that I grew up doing. My first experience with it was as a young Army wife stationed at Ft. Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. I had four small kids in tow, and not a lot of budget, but a whole lot of a sense of adventure. I had always loved blackberries and remembered picking them with my mom in Georgia when I was young, but the blackberries I saw in Washington were about three times the size of the ones I remembered, and were not only delightful, but incredibly prolific. They grew wild everywhere, and it made me nuts to think of all that fabulous fruit going to waste. So, I learned how to make blackberry jam. By the time we moved from Washington to south Georgia, I had been bitten hard, and I wanted to can just about any fresh produce I could get my hot little hands on.
But these days I’ve learned that our family doesn’t really eat jams or jellies, so it’s not worth the time and money to make them. Pickles are more difficult to get right than one would think, so we just eat all the cucumbers out of our garden. Freezing things like beans and peas is just as good as canning, and really much easier. However, I am a stickler for bottled tomatoes, peaches and apples. I am really picky about how ripe the tomatoes and peaches are when they are picked for canning, and it makes a big difference in the final product.
I’m also particular about apples, but it has less to do with ripeness and more to do with variety. I like variety. I like how mixing different types of apples gives even applesauce a little bit of complexity. The funny part about buying apples in Georgia is that at the time we moved to Washington, I really didn’t know that there were apple farms in Georgia. In fact, I was really excited to take the kids to show them where all their apples came from in the grocery store. Of course, I didn’t realize that the apple orchards were quite a trip east from Tacoma, and we never did get to go and see them. But, as they say, all’s well that ends well.
This year I wanted to do a little shopping to see what the price difference really was between buying at the local markets and driving up to north Georgia to the apple houses. In the photo on the left above with the red apples, you see what a box of Zestar apples from Your Dekalb Farmers Market looks like. They cost $46, and are from Minnesota. They are also absolutely delightful, and might be my favorite. The apples on the right with the mix of red and green are from some of the north Georgia apple houses. There is a mix of Arkansas Black, Pippin and Braeburn. Of these, I like Arkansas Black the best to eat raw. But the Pippin is a nice, firm, tart apple, and is good for baking. The Braeburn is a smaller, softer, sweeter apple, and adds nice balance to the mix. The basket on the right cost about $17, and is probably about 1/2 to 2/3 the number of apples on the left. At the apple houses in fall of 2017, the apples ran about $6 per 1/2 peck, $11 per peck, and $17 per half bushel.
I generally preserve apples just two ways. One is to bottle pie apples using a recipe in the Heritage Cookbook, which is a community cookbook my sister-in-law gave me about 11 years ago. It’s a fat little thing full of input from residents of Parowan, Utah, and the recipe for Apple Pie Filling is the one Judy used for the apples that grew on their property in Parowan, and the one two of my stepdaughters helped her to bottle.
I have plenty of pie apples on hand from past years, so this year I bottled just enough to send some to each of our kids as part of a November care package. Conveniently, there are 7 kids, the recipe worked for 7 jars, and the canner fit 7 jars in a single swoop. Done.
Apple Pie Filling
- 4 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 cup corn starch
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 10 cups water
Mix together dry ingredients in large cooking pot and add 10 cups of water; cook and stir until thick and bubbly. Slice tart apples and pack into quart jars. Leave 1 inch head space. Fill jars with hot syrup. Process in water bath 30 minutes.
Other fruits and berries can be used in like manner, but when using peaches, add 1/4 cup more cornstarch.
The other thing I do with apples is to make unsweetened applesauce. In past years I have made a lot of different kinds of applesauce and have tried lots of recipes. However, I find that I like to preserve food as plainly as possible so that I have more options down the road. If I want cinnamon applesauce, I can for sure add cinnamon to it after it’s been made. Heat it up on the stove even. But once it’s in there, it’s in there, and you got what you got. Plain, unsweetened applesauce is a reasonable snack, is easy to dress up, and can sometimes act as a replacement for oil or eggs in baking recipes.
I set things up pretty much the same every time I bottle something. Some of the tools are different based on the produce, but basically, the kitchen always looks the same. In the fall I don’t mind working a little later in the day, but in the summer, I’m usually at work canning by about 6:30 am before it gets very warm.
I know, there are lots of cool gadgets out there for peeling and coring apples, but for some reason, I still prefer to just use a simple vegetable peeler and an apple cutter. Half of the time I don’t use the cutter- I just cut the apples in quarters, set them on a flat side and slice out the core of each quarter. I also make sure I have some form or another of citric acid on hand to help keep the applesauce from turning brown too quickly. As far as I know, turning brown doesn’t have a huge affect taste or nutrition, but it just doesn’t look very appetizing.
The beauty of making applesauce is the ease of the process. Really, all I do is peel, cut, drop in a large cooking pot, and mix in some citric acid. When my pot is almost full of apples, I add about 2 -3 cups of water and set them to boil. It is important to watch them and stir them often for a couple of reasons. One is they have a tendency sometimes to boil out of the top of the pot. The other is they can burn on the bottom while the ones on the top haven’t even softened up yet. Once I can see that they have started to boil, I turn them down to medium heat and cover, still stirring often, until the apples soften and simply begin to break down into applesauce. I am happy with it at this point, but it is also possible to put them through a food mill for an even smoother product.
I like to bottle applesauce in single serving sizes, and it’s how I use up all those jelly jars that I don’t use for jelly anymore. They stack very differently in the canner than their older cousins the pint and quart jars, so I have to make sure that when they are submerged in the water bath that the water covers the jars completely. Also, while you can’t see it in the photo, the jar I am holding in my hand is chipped along the lower rim. It went straight to the recycling bin as that one chip could cut someone pretty badly, and even if it didn’t, I worry that the chip could affect the integrity of the jar.
When my kids were younger, I used to make Red Hot Applesauce. We would get Red Hot candies at the store, put a few in the bottom of the jar, then fill it with applesauce and process in the water bath. The candies would melt up into the applesauce, and it had kind of a cool effect. Plus, it added just a little something to an afternoon snack. I tried to find Red Hots this year, just for nostalgia, but all I could find were Hot Tamales. I figured they would probably work, and it was worth the try.
It worked exactly as I remembered. Now I am all stocked up on applesauce for the season, and gratefully so. If you would like to try to bottle your own applesauce, be sure to check out guides from places such as your local extension office, or booklets such as the Ball Blue Book of Canning. The Ball Blue Book is where I started my canning journey, and I feel confident it will help you along the way, too.