Crabapples: more than just jelly!
Crabapples are often overlooked as a food source for rural and suburban homesteaders. Now treated primarily as ornamentals, these trees have a usefulness that goes far beyond being pretty or being used as a source of crabapple jelly Henry David Thoreau did them disservice when he described them in his "Wild Apples" essay as being "unexpectedly crude--sour enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream."
Why use crabapples?
Despite Mr. Thoreau, this ubiquitous tree of suburbia can be useful to homesteaders and locavores (those who try to eat a local diet). Crabapples originated in the mountains of ancient Kazakhstan and somehow made it to North America where several species are considered "native." Of the Rosaceae, or rose, family and belonging to the same malus genus as apples, these trees are tough and adaptable. Plant them in soil with pH ranges from 5.0 to 7.5 and they produce as long as they have sun, well drained soil and are in USD A zones 4 to 7. They do need some pruning, but we've found that we get an excellent crop of apples each year with minimal work and no spraying.
As my husband and I worked to get more of our diet from local resources, either on our land or foraging with permission on other land in our community, a visit to a historic home got me thinking. Our ancestors were very much aware of getting the maximum return from anything they brought to "the new world" or allowed to grow on their homestead. What was their reasoning--besides beauty and fragence--for crabapple trees? A quick look at a nutrition database gave me the answer. Although not the powerhouse of some fruits, crabapples provide nutrients our bodies need and they could be used as a susbstitute for cranberries. Plus, they are easy to grow, local and free!
Tips for easy harvesting and processing
Since crabapples are ready during late summer when we are busy harvesting and preserving many crops, we had to develop some short cuts for dealing with them. The size of crabapples means that it takes a long time to fill a five-gallon pail. Instead of harvesting by hand, we cover the ground beneath the tree with tarps, throw a few ropes over the branches and gently shake. It soon begins to rain crabapples. One or two people working with a tarp and ropes can harvest a tree very quickly!
To prepare apples for the recipes discussed later in this article, we also developed quick work methods for cleaning and cooking. Fill a sink or large basin half full with water. Add crabapples until there's about one inch of water covering them. Leaves and bad apples quickly become apparent. Using both hands wash the crabapples by rolling them in your hands with the same motion you would use to roll marbles in the palms of your hand. Once clean, it's a quick grab, twist and drop process to remove the stems. We don't bother cutting off the blossom ends.
For easy cooking put your turkey roasting pan into service or use any other large covered pan that can go in an oven. Add two inches of water to the pan and then fill it half to three-quarters full with crabapples. Cover with the lid and place in the oven. We're usually cooking other items at the same time, so the temperature we cook the crabapples at varies, but it's usually 325[degrees] to 425[degrees]F. After 45 minutes, check the crabapples every 10 to 15 minutes giving them a quick stir. When all of the apples have "popped," remove the pan from the oven.
We've learned from experience that maximum juice extraction occurs when the crabapple "mush" is still quite hot. Using a soup ladle, put the mush into a jelly bag and let it drain without pressing for clear jelly. Then remove the bowl with the clear liquid and place a new container under it. Using kitchen tongs, twist the bag to extract the maximum juice. Don't worry that it's cloudy! Once most of the juice is extracted, dump the contents of the bag into another container for use later. Continue with the juice extraction until all the "mush" has been worked.
After you've extracted all the juice and the turkey pan is empty, it's time to start working with the remains of the mash. Although other methods can be used, we find an old-style hand cranked ricer makes quick work of extracting crabapple sauce. These can often be found at yard sales or rummage sales for less than $2.
Uses for juice, jelly and sauce
Now that you've extracted the clear juice, the cloudy juice and the crabapple sauce, the fun begins--deciding how you'll use it! Here are our favorite ways:
Uses for cloudy juice
Measure the cloudy juice into 1 cup portions and freeze. When you need juice in the winter, simply defrost, add cold water and sweetener in the proportions you like. If you don't have children gobbling it up, make individual juice portions by freezing the cloudy juice in ice cube containers and then storing the cubes for individual servings. This juice concentrate also makes a wonderful punch base or the cubes make colorful and tasty ice cubes for ice tea or water.
Uses for crabapple jelly
Yes, we use the clear juice for jelly The surprise is that it goes far beyond using it only on toast. Crabapple jelly works well as a glaze on poultry, ham or pork roasts. It also makes a good "relish" for leftover meats of many types.
For on-the-go muffins, put 1 tablespoon of muffin batter in a muffin cup, followed by 1 teaspoon of jelly, followed by 1 tablespoon of batter. Any muffin recipe works, but our favorite is cornmeal muffins with jelly filling. Also try using the crabapple jelly as a filling between two cake layers. This is a big hit when we bring it to church suppers.
Crabapple jelly is easy to make since it's loaded with pectin. We use equal portions of sugar and clear crabapple juice and cook to the jellying point.
Be sure to consult your Ball Blue Book or similar recipe source for the correct processing time for your altitude.
Crabapple sauce: Squirrel pies and more
We use the crabapple "sauce" in several different ways. We freeze it or can it unsweetened to serve as a "relish" with meat or as a spread for leftover meatloaf sandwiches. We also sweeten some of it, then can it or freeze it and use it as a substitute for apple butter.
One of our favorite ways to use the sauce is for "squirrel pies," named in honor of of Mr. Thoreau's comments. Spread sweetened or unsweetened sauce between two pancakes and eat as if it was a whoopie pie. These can be frozen for future use. They are good additions to lunches for a less sugary dessert or snack.
Using our trusty dehydrator, we dehydrate unsweeteded sauce until it has the consistency of soft fruit leather. We then tightly roll the large sheet and cut it into 1/4inch bits. These are used in place of cranberries in cranberry cakes, salad or with our morning granola or oatmeal. They're also good as a topping for cooked winter squash or sweet potatoes.
For great pocket snacks and a good candy substitute, we always reserve some of the sauce and sweeten it with honey. How much honey depends on whether you like tart or sweet, but we like 1/3 cup honey to approxmiately 2 cups sauce. Spread this mixture on sheets and place in a dehydrator until it it becomes leathery and fairly dry. Cut this leather into 1" by 2" strips, roll it and then wrap it in wax paper and store for future snacking.
Other ways to use crabapples
Although we haven't used them, there are many recipes on the Internet and in older cookbooks for various relishes, pickled crabapples and even various liquors.
So the next time you notice a crabapple tree, don't just admire it for its beauty. Enjoy what it can do for you as a food source. Mr. Thoreau just didn't know how to eat crabapples properly!