You might think, since applesauce is such a simple, time honored, traditional part of our culinary repertoire, that a recipe hardly seems necessary. It has long served as a dessert, often accompanied by cheese, or as a side dish for meats or poultry, especially pork, duck or goose. Nevertheless, there are tricks to the trade…
o First is the choice of apple. Macintosh are a favorite for applesauce because, while tart, they are not too sour. Braeburn, Cortland, Gala, Golden Delicious and Rome also are popular, and they may be combined with Granny Smiths or Macouns to provide added kick. Other fruits, like pears, and even cranberries can be added. And clearly, fruit fresh from the orchard will taste better than that found in the supermarket, which often has been held in cold storage for an extended period.
o Should you leave the skins on or take them off? Mimi Sheraton, in The German Cookbook, says that skins add color, flavor and vitamins (the color of the skins leech out into the compote as it cooks, so use red apples if you’re leaving the skins on). Others complain that the skins leave tough, fibrous bits. If you do leave them on, you might consider processing the sauce through a foodmill to catch the skins.
o What about cores and seeds, must they be removed? Most recipes call for removing cores and seeds, arguing that the seeds contain tannin and will render your sauce bitter. But you will find recipes that tell you to simply boil quartered apples, skins, cores and seeds intact, and then push them through a foodmill.
o Size matters. Cut apple pieces of uniform size so they cook at the same rate – 1 to 2 inches is usual. If your pieces are too big, they will take longer to cook and you risk scorching the sauce. It should take less than an hour to break down apples for a sauce. If it takes longer, your apples pieces are too big.
o How about adding liquid? Most add a small amount of liquid to the apples as they simmer, usually water, but sometimes cider, white wine or another liquid, just enough to create steam to cook the apples. That’s usually about 1/2 cup liquid for 1-1/2 pounds fruit.
o Simmer applesauce at medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. There also are recipes for baking, rather than simmering, applesauce.
o Many applesauce recipes call for white granulated sugar, but some cooks prefer brown sugar, turbinado or demerara for their caramel notes. Err on the side of not so sweet. In fact, in American Cookery, James Beard suggests adding no sugar at all until the applesauce is complete, “Apples vary so much in sugar content that it is folly to sweeten them before they are cooked.”
o When are the apples done? While you want your apples to be soft, not crunchy, for applesauce, they will lose flavor rapidly if overcooked. Once they mash easily with a fork or are squishy to the tooth, they’re done.
o Flavoring for applesauce varies. Spices can include nutmeg, cinnamon (some prefer stick cinnamon — remove it before processing — while others use ground), cloves, mace or ginger. Minced herbs, like rosemary, can be added. Lemon or orange juice, horseradish, or vanilla sometimes are incorporated, and raisins or currants are occasionally added to the hot, cooked sauce. Some add butter to applesauce for a silky texture or sheen, but the fat in butter dulls the tartness of the apples. If you buy commercial applesauce, you can add flavorings as described above.
o Finished applesauce can be roughly mashed with a fork or potato masher and served chunky, or it can be pureed through a sieve or food mill for a smoother texture (in Germany, where applesauce is integral to many menus, the chunky variety is called apfelbrei, and the puree apfelmus).