Apple butter made from crab apples is tangy, sweet, thick and delicious. One of the best crab apple recipes I know, this is inspired by Sam Thayer's maple-apple spread. More than fancy apple sauce, this is a 100% foraged confection of wild apples and maple syrup. Today I'll walk you through the process of making and canning crab apple butter, from tree, to jar.
When to Harvest Crabapples
Just like regular apples, late summer is the time to harvest crabapples. But, crab apple trees may ripen at different times, and the flavor of crab apple varieties varies from tree to tree. You'll know larger apples are ripe when a few have started to fall.
Small red varieties like pectin-rich dolgo crabapples should be picked from the tree. They have a tart taste and will add a beautiful red color to the apple sauce. The centennial crab apples (pictured below) are mild, low-sugar, and make a good blank canvas.
Small ornamental crabapples (pictured below) are very tart, have little flesh, and are best used as a seasoning in small amounts.
When in doubt, taste an apple from the tree to see if you like it. I recommend starting with ⅔ mild apples and ⅓ tart crab apples which will give it a red hue. Fresh apples don't need to be refrigerated and can keep in a cool dark place for a week or more.
Avoid damaged or soft apples when picking or save those for apple juice or cider. If you're allergic to bee stings avoid trees with piles of apples underneath as the fermenting fruit attracts wasps and hornets.
How to Make Crab Apple Sauce
First the apples are harvested and washed if needed. Cut them into evenly-sized pieces if some are larger than the others, then put them in a pot or slow cooker with a little water and cook until they fall apart.
As the apples cook I mash them with a potato masher. Make sure to stir the mashed apples to prevent scorching.
When the apples have broken down, the mixture is put through an apple sauce maker or a food mill.
For large batches, I use an apple sauce maker made specifically for apples and tomatoes, shown in the picture below. It's worth the small investment ($70) if you process your own apples and tomatoes. I bought mine at a farm supply store.
The leftover skins and seeds make great homemade apple vinegar.
How to Make Crabapple Butter
Once the apple sauce is made it's mixed with maple syrup, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. While some recipes can be made in a slow-cooker, I recommend a wide baking tray, pan, or deep baking dish.
Bake the mixture at 325 F for 2.5 hours, whisking every 30 minutes or so, until very thick. You can use the baking method for any fruit butter recipe.
For large batches, a shallow pan increases the surface area that's exposed to heat. This concentrates the flavor, allowing for faster evaporation of water you won't get from a crock pot. The images below show the transformation over a few hours of baking.
When you move a spoon through the butter and you can see the pan, it's close. It should be thick, and no water should separate from it.
Then there's what I call the gravity test. It should stay put if held upside down and a spoon should stand straight up in the jar.
How to Can Crabapple Butter
Once the butter is finished it's put into clean canning jars. The lids are screwed on and the jars are processed for 10 minutes in a water bath.
Once processing is done, the jars are allowed to cool and can be stored in a pantry where they'll last for years. I like pint mason jars, but 8 oz jars can make a nice, small gift.
Apple Butter Uses
If you can resist eating the entire jar off a spoon it's great on buttered toast, but there's many other things you can do.
It can be used in all kinds of recipes. Here's a few ideas and variations.
- Try it with yogurt and granola for breakfast.
- The butter can be spun as-is to make an apple sorbet.
- Use in any recipe that calls for fruit jam, like thumbprint cookies.
- Use in place of apple sauce in baking recipes or in place of oil.
- Add additional fruit, such as aronia, wild cherries, or wild plums.
- Save a jar to add to a batch of venison liver pate.
- Turnovers with cream cheese.
- The most refined recipe I know is a tarta marmellata where fruit butter or apple preserves are baked in a thin pastry crust.
More Crab Apple Recipes
Maple Crab Apple Butter
- large pot (50 qt capacity or large enough to hold your apples).
- Food mill or apple sauce maker
- Slow cooker, wide baking sheets or pans.
- Potato masher
- Canning jars (optional)
- 8 lbs mixed, wild sweet crab apples or ½ gallon of apple sauce, see note
- 1 cup maple syrup or brown sugar
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Wash the apples if needed. Cut larger apples into pieces so they're the same size as the crab apples.
- Put the apples into a pot with 4 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Cover, stirring occasionally, cooking the apples until tender and mashing until they're completely broken down, about 20 minutes, depending on the size of your pot.
- Make sure to stir down to the bottom and don't be afraid to add a few additional cups of water to prevent scorching.
- Pass the apple mixture through an apple sauce maker or food mill. You should have about 2 quarts.
- Combine the apple sauce, cinnamon, salt and maple syrup and pour into a long, shallow baking dish or combination of smaller pots.
- Bake the mixture for roughly 2-2.5 hours at 325 F, whisking every 30 minutes or so. Alternately you can cook it in a slow cooker on low heat, stirring occasionally for about 8-12 hours. You may need to remove the lid to get the water to evaporate and thicken.
- The apple butter is finished when you can see the bottom of the pan when a spoon is dragged through it and the mixture doesn't weep water. It should be reduced in volume by about half. When chilled, it should hold in place when held upside down, and a spoon should stand straight up in it.
- Transfer the apple butter to canning jars. Put the jars in a water bath, bring to pot to a rolling boil. When the pot comes to a boil, set a timer for ten minutes.
- After ten minutes, remove the jars and allow to cool, then label, date, and store in a pantry.
- Small, red crab apples are usually very tart. Larger apples can be tart, sweet, or mild flavored. I recommend using 3 parts sweet apples to tart crabapples as a starting point if you want to cook with them.
- 1 gallon of prepared apple sauce can be substituted for the raw apples.
- 15-20 lbs of apples will give you about 1 gallon of finished apple sauce.
- Some recipes will add lemon juice at the end before canning, this is unnecessary, the maple syrup and apples cooked down for so long are very stable.
- You can also add a splash of wild vanilla extract to this as it cooks.