In the autumn, jugs full of fresh-pressed apple cider adorn supermarket produce sections and farmer’s market tables. Hot, spiced, or cold, cider is as welcoming to the palate on a crisp fall morning as lemonade is on a hot summer’s day. When I was a park ranger at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, we held a harvest festival each year. One of the highlights was a demonstration of cider pressing. We used a 19th century hand-cranked cider press to crush antique apples from the historic farm’s old orchard. The resulting cider was like nothing I had ever tasted: sweet and fresh with a bright acidic finish.
The apple (Malus domestica) is a native of the mountains of Kazakhstan. Romans cultivated apples and brought them to England, and early settlers brought them to America. These apple trees, challenged by the new surroundings and crossbred with native crabapples, went through many changes and became uniquely American varieties.
Up until Prohibition, the word cider referred to alcohol made from apples, and indeed hard cider outside of America is still called cider. Until the 1930’s, the apple’s primary use was for hard cider. Cider was an important beverage for the new frontier because it was safe to drink (the alcohol made it sterile) and easy to make. Thanks to an itinerant vegetarian and Swedenborgian preacher named John Chapman (Sept. 26th 1774-March 11, 1845), also known as Johnny Appleseed, pioneers moving into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in the early 1800s were able to purchase young trees from one of his many nurseries and plant them on their newly claimed land. A government mandate, in fact, required settlers to plant apple and pear orchards on these lands.
Chapman’s apples were not the sorts you’d want to bite into. These were cider apples. Nearly inedible, these “spitters” were used to make cider or the more alcoholic by-product called applejack. Spitters made the best cider because the flesh had more fiber, which made for better juice extraction. The juice also had that sharp/sweet taste that provided a unique cider flavor. These attributes are still beloved in cider apple varieties today. Hard cider declined in popularity between 1845 and 1918 when Temperance teetotalers’ influence led farmers to abandon or chop down their cider orchards. By 1933, few people quaffed hard cider. But thankfully for us, apples were able to shake off their “evil” past and become a wholesome food, as American as…well…apple pie!
Today, sweet cider is made with freshly pressed juice. Clear sweet cider is made by leaving the juice to ferment at 72 degrees for three to four days. Sediments are then “racked off” (separated) from the clear juice, which is then pasteurized by heating it to 160 degrees.
We planted our own orchard here on Comfort Farm five years ago, and thanks to our pollinating bees we had our first crop this year. Not enough to invest in a fruit press (fingers crossed for next year), but we did make an easier version of apple cider: homemade apple juice. You don’t need to have an apple press to make juice. A few simple kitchen utensils are all that’s required. The leftover pulp (also called the “cheese”) can be turned into fruit leather. I’ve outlined the process below.
More on Apples from The History Kitchen:
Apple Juice Ingredients
- 2 lbs unblemished apples, mix varieties for best flavor
Apple Leather Ingredients
- 4 cups leftover apple pulp
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Sweetener such as maple syrup, honey, or granulated sugar (optional)
- Spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pumpkin pie blend
For juice you will also need
- large pot, potato masher (or spoon), cheesecloth, large bowl, colander (optional)
For apple leather you will also need
- food mill or fine mesh strainer, baking sheet, parchment or silicone mat
- Wash and quarter apples (no need to peel or core) and toss them into a large pot. Note: If you have your own orchard, do not use windfalls for juice. Damaged windfalls can be contaminated by wild animal droppings. Pour in enough water to cover the apples. Careful not to use too much water or the juice will be over-diluted.
- Bring the apples and water to the boil and cook until the fruit becomes soft (about 15 minutes). Mash the apples with a potato masher or the back of a spoon and leave to cool completely.
- Ladle the pulp into cheesecloth and hang over a large bowl to drain. Alternatively you can set the cheesecloth into a colander and place it over a bowl.
- Allow the juice to drain for several hours.
- Chill and enjoy! You can also freeze the juice for later use.
- To make fruit leather with leftover apple pulp, heat your oven to its lowest setting, no higher than 170 degrees.
- Press the apple pulp through a food mill or mesh strainer to remove the seeds and skin. To the strained pulp, add half the lemon juice and sweetener if desired. If using granulated sugar you’ll need to heat it together with the apple pulp in a saucepan till dissolved. Add desired spices and taste. Adjust the flavoring if needed.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat. Place the puree on the baking sheet and smooth out to about ¼ inch. Heat in the low-heat oven until thoroughly dried (about 12 hours).
- Place the fruit leather on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll. Store in the fridge or freezer.
Pollan, Michael (2001). The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World. Random House.
Traverso, Amy (2011). The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. W.W. Norton & Company.
Consumer’s Guide: Making Apple Cider by University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service