I once held a tasting of my jams and marmalades at a gourmet food store in Los Angeles, and a skinny kid wearing a softball uniform walked in with his father. I asked the kid if he’d like to taste some apricot jam, and his father steered him away from me with a firm hand on his shoulder, saying, “Oh, no, he doesn’t eat that stuff. He only eats healthy.” The dad presumably meant that my jam — made with local, organic, heirloom Blenheim apricots — is unhealthy because it contains sugar, which is a bit like saying that a plate of prosciutto and melon is unhealthy because prosciutto contains salt.
As a preserver, cookbook author and teacher, I try to accommodate most points of view when it comes to food. Dietary choices are shaped by upbringing, by cultural bias, by the requirements of health and by the quirks of personal taste. But I have to admit that I get my hackles up when a sugar scold starts shaking his finger at my jars. That sort of prim judgment suggests to me a lack of basic perspective on eating and health, as well as an ignorance of the history and science of commonplace foods.
Sweetness and sugar are related, but they are not the same thing. Sweetness is a subjective measure; the correct amount is debatable. It is a sensation, a taste and often a pleasure, but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. Sweetness is a powerful inducement from our evolutionary past, and our biological selves respond to sweetness because it has been associated across the eons of human existence with sustenance and satisfaction.
Our first experience of sweetness comes with the natural sugars in mother’s milk, and sweetness cues us to crave fruit and certain vegetables in which sugars and essential nutrition coexist. (Blueberries and beets, both sweet in their way, are among the healthiest foods we can eat.) Sweetness is also an emotional treat, a reward, a satisfaction. It is a trigger for well-being, an on-switch for good memories and calming thoughts.
It is not too much to say that sweetness lies near to happiness in the realm of the senses and the imagination. Nature gives us sweetness in many forms, the most concentrated being in honey and fruit, but sweetness derives from natural plant sugars that occur in the complex ecosystems of the world’s great ecologies.
Sugar, as in granulated sugar, is an ingredient that is today often politicized, sometimes demonized, and not coincidentally everywhere consumed in vast quantities. Sugar also comes from a plant — a large grass, sugarcane — that concentrates sweetness in its sap, and the ancient Arabs discovered the technology for refining granules from sugarcane juice. Ever since, sugar has been a part of our omnivore’s diet, although until about 150 years ago, sugar was scarce, and sugary foods such as candied fruit, marmalade and preserves were delicacies for the rich.
Now sugar is an inexpensive kitchen staple and a cornerstone of the prepared food and fast-food industries. Supersized sugary drinks represent an unwise allotment of one’s daily caloric intake of sugar, but the ingredient itself — granules refined from the sap of a large grass — hasn’t essentially changed since the ancient Arabs. Along with alcohol, meat, salt and grains, sugar is a timeless food that has today been linked to modern health issues because it is commonly consumed in gross excess.
Preserving with Sugar
One remarkable characteristic of sugar that has been appreciated since ancient times is its preservative effect. Sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat. If you take a fresh pork leg and set it on the counter, it rots. But if you take that pork leg, rub it with salt, press it, and hang it to dry, what you get is prosciutto.
In a like manner, sugar preserves fruit. Cooking fruit and sugar together evaporates excess water; the result is a sweet preserve, and its many variations include jam, marmalade, chutney, jelly, candied fruit and syrups. In both prosciutto and sweet preserves, the salt and sugar play the same role. They lower so-called water activity by “locking up” water molecules and thereby preventing the growth of mold, bacteria and other spoilers that require “free” water for metabolic function.
Many or even most preserved foods are essentially condiments, used in small quantities for their deliciously intense flavors. Prosciutto, olives, pickles, relishes, fish sauce and cheese all have high salt levels, but then who ever ate an entire prosciutto at one sitting? The sweet preserves are no different. Half a cup of my jam, eight servings, has about the same amount of sugar as a can of soda, except that you’d probably eat the jam over the course of a week’s worth of breakfasts as a condiment for toast or yogurt. Incidentally, that same serving of jam has less sugar than many ostensibly healthy foods such as cereal, granola bars and bran muffins.
I’ll acknowledge that I do share one goal with the sugar scolds. I make an effort to reduce unwanted or unintentional sugar from my diet by avoiding all processed and pre-made foods and by skipping bottled soft drinks of every stripe. But it’s not because I think sugar is inherently bad. It’s because I want to eat it purposefully, in the form of local, organic fruit preserved from spoilage with the proper quantity of sugar. A serving of homemade sweet preserves is a joy to eat, and what the sugar scolds might well remember is that pleasure is also an essential part of any healthy diet.
Yields 2 pints
Sweetened with apple cider — no added sugar! — and very lightly spiced, this apple butter is mahogany brown and intensely flavored. I use a mixed bag of apples, a third of which are acidic varieties such as Granny Smith, to get the proper sweet-tart balance. The texture is better if you begin with sliced, unpeeled apples, and then allow the long cooking and frequent stirring to break them down naturally. Also unlike many apple butter recipes, this one has the spices added in tiny quantities toward the end of cooking. As I say elsewhere, you can always add more spice if you like, but you can’t take any out.
During cooking, the ingredients will reduce to about one-third of their initial volume. Stick a bamboo skewer straight down into the pot at the start of cooking to gauge the depth of the ingredients. Mark the level with a pencil, and keep the skewer handy as a guide. Given the hours-long cooking time, a slow cooker, its cover lifted by two chopsticks laid across the pot, would be convenient for this recipe.
5 pounds mixed apple varieties, including ⅓ tart
½ gallon unfiltered apple cider
2 allspice berries
20 fresh gratings of cinnamon
10 fresh gratings of nutmeg
1. Quarter and core the apples, then cut them into ⅝-inch slices. (Leave the peels on.) Put the slices in a deep ovenproof pot, and cover them with the apple cider. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for about 4 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
2. At the end of that time, most of the liquid will have evaporated, and the apples will look like chunky applesauce. Grind the allspice in a mortar and add it to the pot. Use a Microplane grater to rasp off the suggested amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg. Transfer the pot to a 300 F oven to finish reducing. Stir every 10 minutes. The butter is done when it’s stiff, mahogany brown, and reduced to about one-third of its initial volume, after about 90 minutes in the oven. In the cold-saucer test, a teaspoon chilled in the freezer for 1 minute shouldn’t leak liquid at the edges. Taste and adjust the flavor with more spice if you like.
3. Pack the hot apple butter into four prepared wide-mouth ½-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge to release any air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Note: Sealed jars will keep for a year, but because there is no added sugar, apple butter will mold fairly quickly once opened. Refrigerate open jars and plan to use them within 10 days.