They’re one of the glories of spring, those small, broad trees decked out in glorious blossom. Come winter, many of them enliven otherwise-bleak gardens with tiny fruits loved by overwintering birds. But few people bother to seek out crabapples for eating or make crabapple jelly anymore, and that’s a shame. The fruits can usually be had merely by knocking on doors—most people are only too happy to have their crabapples put to use.
Making crabapple jelly may be the furthest thing from your mind. But please consider the merits of the raw fruit itself. The Chestnut crab, a 1946 University of Minnesota cultivar, has the sweet, tangy flavor and crispness of the U’s more famous full-sized apples, and it makes a lovely fruit to present to children because it is scaled to their small hands and mouths. (Imagine someone presenting you with fruit the size of a kabocha squash for a dessert; that’s the dilemma that most apples present to children.)
Jelly has a reputation as iffy and difficult, if beautiful, among cooks new to preserving. If you’re one of these, please cast aside any assumptions about the difficulty of making crabapple jelly: nothing could be simpler—and preparing it is easier than prepping, say, strawberries or peaches for jamming.
Here’s the wonderful thing: crabapples are full of pectin, so you needn’t worry about the jelly setting. Quite the opposite: so pectin-laden are crabapples that wise preservers keep some crabapple liquid in reserve to use when other jams or jellies provide difficult to gel.
Transparent, shining crabapple jelly can easily be enlivened by inserting a single rose geranium leaf or a small stem of rosemary in the jar when you pour in the jelly. Or you can spice it up by adding a small piece of cinnamon or fresh slices of ginger in the jelly while it’s gelling, then remove them before jarring it. In short, you can have a lot of fun playing around with crabapple jelly.
Making jelly is a two-day operation. On the first day, you simmer the apples, skins, seeds, cores, and all, and then pile them into a fine-mesh sieve, a damp jelly bag, or four layers of damp cheesecloth over a big strainer, and allow them to drip overnight into a big glass measure. Jelly is an extravagant preserve, in the sense that it uses a lot of fruit for a small distillate of pleasure. You mustn’t squeeze the bag/cheesecloth or press the apples down in the sieve if you want clear, sparkling jelly—just allow the softened fruit to drip, drip, drip, and then accept the amount you find in the waiting glass measure the next morning.
On day two, you boil the juice with sugar and any flavorings until it gels, then pour it into glass jars and sterilize it in a boiling water-bath. The big challenge to cooks new to preserving is believing the evidence of your own eyes when it comes to the gel test. The jelly will still look liquid when it gels, so inexperienced preservers are likely to plow on, cooking the jelly down further in an effort to bring it to thickness before jarring it. Do that, and you’ll produce jelly you can stand on.
Believe your gel test! When the jelly has passed its initial big-bubble stage and settled down to small bubbles and a glossy, shiny look, you can start testing for gelling: first, take the pot off the heat, then put a speck of jelly onto a plate you’ve kept in the freezer. Don’t hold this plate over the boiling jelly; put it on the counter for about a minute and then tip it to see if the jelly mounds up and doesn’t run when the plate is tilted. If it does, your jelly has gelled. (If you don’t believe your eyes, take a spoon or two of the jelly, put it in a small glass dish like a custard cup, and put that someplace cool but within sight of the stove. Seeing that jelly thicken up should reassure you.) Gelled jelly will also develop a faint skin across the surface of the pot.
If the jelly still runs, put the pot back on the stove and keep boiling for another few minutes, then test again. Depending on the pectin content of your crabapples, this is likely to take anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes, so have several plates stowed in the freezer for gelling tests
Here’s how to make autumn crabapple jelly, step-by-step:
Use no more than 4 lbs. of fruit for a single batch; small-batch jelly is much more successful than big-batch. (Four pounds will yield 5–6 ½-pints.)
Depending on their size, quarter or halve the apples; they needn’t be peeled, seeded, or cored.
- Put the crabapples in a wide, heavy pot (not aluminum). Add only enough water so that you can see it peeking through the apple pieces (about ½ cup if you’re using 4 lbs. of crabapples; less if you’re using fewer).
- Cook, covered, until the fruit becomes soft; take it off the heat.
- Prepare to strain the fruit. I wet a muslin bag and arrange it in a big strainer, then put this over a 64-oz. glass measure. Any setup will do, but avoid using aluminum, because the apples are acidic.
- Pile the fruit into the straining apparatus; drain for at least 8 hours.
- Measure the volume of strained juice in the measure. You need to know the volume because you’ll be adding ¾ to 1 cup of sugar for each cup of juice, depending on how tart your crabapples are and how sweet you want your jelly to be.)
- Before you start boiling the juice, get your processing things ready: your canning kettle, glass jars, lids, bands, jar lifter—the works.
- Pour the juice into a wide, heavy pan, turn the heat to medium, and heat up the juice. If you’re adding ginger, cinnamon, or something else, put it in now. When the liquid becomes warm, start adding sugar, stirring steadily to dissolve it before adding more.
- Once all the sugar is dissolved, turn the heat to medium-high and allow the juice to boil. Don’t stir; doing so lowers the temperature at the surface, so the reduction you’re aiming for takes longer! When you see the bubbles settle down, the jelly darken, and the look change from bubbling fruit juice to elegant, glossy, thin syrup, remove the pan from the heat and do your first gel test.
- Keep boiling and testing until your jelly gels.
- Pour the jelly into ½- or ¼- pint jars (don’t use pint jars, because their volume can delay full gelling), leaving ¼-inch headroom, wipe the lips of the jars clean, attach heated lids and bands, and waterbath-process for 10 minutes.
- Put the processed jars someplace where they can stand undisturbed for 2 days; jellies sometimes take a couple of days to fully gel.