Attractive color with fullest flavor
As I began this project, I was often asked the question “Do adults actually eat applesauce?” My response: If they don’t, they should, because applesauce is easy to make and it packs all the sweet‑tart character of orchard-fresh apples into a deliciously concentrated format. Spooned warm and fragrant from a bowl, it’s a cozy treat on its own, but it also makes a great accompaniment to roasted meat or potato pancakes. Don’t let memories of that vaguely apple-flavored beige stuff from the supermarket turn you against applesauce. As a discerning adult, you deserve the real thing.
The traditional method for making applesauce is simple: Cut unpeeled apples into chunks; throw them into a saucepan with some water, a bit of sugar, and maybe a pinch of salt; and bring it all to a boil. Cover and simmer until the apples are soft, and then transfer everything to a food mill and crank away. As the blade smears the apples along the perforated floor of the mill, the flesh passes into the bowl below while the tough skins and seeds remain in the hopper. But I don’t own a food mill, and a lot of other folks don’t either, so I wanted to see if I could make equally flavorful applesauce without one.
I started with 3 pounds of McIntosh apples, which I chose for their balance of sweetness and acidity. It’s a good middle-of-the-road variety, neither too tart nor too sweet, neither too firm nor too tender. Because I wouldn’t have a food mill to filter out the undesirable bits, I first peeled and cored the apples before cutting them into big chunks. I cooked them in a saucepan with ¼ cup of sugar, a pinch of salt, and 1½ cups of water until they were soft, about 20 minutes. As I mashed them with a potato masher, I noticed an advantage to a food mill–free recipe: I could leave my sauce as chunky as I liked.
But irregular texture wasn’t enough to redeem this sauce. Its pale appearance and bland, flat flavor made it nearly indistinguishable from the jarred stuff.
More Than a Peeling
The only difference between applesauce made with a food mill and my sad sauce was those discarded peels. Research revealed that the peels are the source of a lot of distinctive apple aromas (see “Apple A-peel”), so it made sense that the flavor of a sauce made without them was comparatively insipid. And there’s another benefit to using the peels if they’re red: The pigments transfer into the sauce during cooking, giving it a charming pink blush.
A Tedious Task
For my next batch, I cut the unpeeled apples in quarters and removed the cores from each wedge. I put them into a saucepan with sugar, water, and salt and stirred occasionally over medium-high heat.
After painstakingly fishing out the skins and mashing the apples, I was disappointed to find that this sauce wasn’t a huge improvement. The flavor was lackluster, and I could barely make out a hint of pink. Clearly I wasn’t making the most of the peels. I started my next batch the same way, but instead of picking out the skins after cooking, I transferred everything to a blender and let it rip. When the peels were reduced to mere specks and the sauce had taken on a rosy hue, I took a taste. Those specks of skin, so tiny in the blender, felt huge on my tongue, and the rest of sauce was unnaturally smooth and uniform, with an odd stickiness.
Here’s what went wrong: The cells of an apple are held together by pectin, a complex polysaccharide that acts as a sort of glue. When you mash cooked apples or pass them through a food mill, you break apart some of those clusters of cells, freeing the pectin that holds them together, but you leave a lot intact. That’s why applesauce has a pleasantly nubbly texture. When I pureed the apples in a blender, I obliterated more of the cells, which released a lot more pectin into the mix. It gelled with the water in the sauce, giving it an unpleasantly sticky texture. But, texture aside, the flavor was fantastic: sweet and a bit tart, with just a touch of cleansing astringency. It must have come from the peels.
I was stuck. The gentle mashing approach yielded applesauce that was anemic in flavor and appearance, while the blender produced great flavor but the texture suffered. What about a hybrid approach?
I peeled and cored another batch of apples, but this time I put the skins in a separate saucepan with a cup of water. (I also added the cores to the pot along with the skins. After all, the cores have plenty of flesh on them to contribute flavor and pulp, so why throw them away?) I then quartered the apples and put them in another saucepan with ½ cup of water and some sugar and salt. I brought both saucepans to a simmer and let them cook for about 15 minutes. I periodically mashed the cores and peels and was gratified to see them turn pulpy and plum-colored. I mashed the softened apples and then placed a fine‑mesh strainer over the saucepan. I poured the peel-and-core mush into the strainer and scraped it along the mesh with my spatula. Flesh from the cores and many of the flavor- and color-rich compounds from the peels passed through, and the tough stuff (including any seeds or seed pods) was left behind.
This batch had all the hallmarks of a great applesauce: rosy color, pleasantly chunky texture, and true, clear apple flavor. And it was just as good with a wide variety of apples. It’s truly an applesauce anyone can make and everyone will love—adults included.
(Almost) No Bad Apples
Our method works with just about any apple, even those that may have turned a little mushy. Keep in mind: Crisp, dense apples take longer to break down, and green or yellow apples make a beige sauce.
Keys to Success
Attractive color with fullest flavorBecause much of the aroma and color of apples is found in the peels, including them in our sauce was a must. Mashing them as they cook and pressing them through a strainer extracts as much color and flavor as a food mill would.
Rustic textureWe eschew aggressive tools such as the blender and food processor in favor of a potato masher to ensure that we rupture a minimal number of cells, which gives our sauce a pleasantly bumpy texture.