Homemade applesauce is the best, isn’t it? Once you’ve had it, you don’t ever want to go back to the store-bought kind. Whether you make it up fresh or with apples that have been sitting around a little too long (did you perhaps overdo it when you went apple picking? I’ve been known to), it’s a fall and winter staple which is almost universally liked. Besides, most of the commercial products are sweetened with corn syrup – blech – or if you buy “natural” unsweetened applesauce, it’s often watery.
Have you ever just left the sugar out? I don’t use any unless the apples are blah. If you’ve used the right kinds of apples – Macintosh, Macoun, and Jonathan are among the best choices – you may find you don’t need sugar, either.
Apples contain a lot of natural sugar, and here’s how to bring out their own sweetness. First, if you’re using organic apples, cook them with the skins on. It will enhance the flavor and add a tinge of pink to your applesauce; and the skins can be strained out with a food mill. If they’re not organic, I recommend peeling and coring them prior to cooking; this also eliminates the straining step.
Add an absolute minimum of water, or better yet, apple cider or apple juice, to the bottom of the pan to keep the fruit from sticking as it begins to cook. And be sure to put in a pinch of salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer, and it works on sweet dishes as well as savory ones. Once the apples begin to break down and exude their own juices, stir them up with a wooden spoon and lower the heat.
While a lot of recipes say you’re done at this point, I disagree. I like to continue cooking until the apples are really soft and all the extra liquid is evaporated. This concentrates the flavor and the sweetness. At this point, taste and really consider whether any additional sweetening is needed.
If you think so, as little as a quarter of a cup can be used, depending on how much sauce you’ve made. That’s really not so much. You can also use honey, although it has its own flavor which can easily detract from the apple flavor. If you do, be sure to use a very light honey; and remember that because it’s sweeter than sugar, you’ll need less of it.
Are you familiar with stevia? It’s a sweetener extracted from the leaf of the stevia plant which is 300 times sweeter than sugar and contains no calories. While the leaf has a strong licorice flavor, the refined extract of rebaudiana made from it does not when used in just the right amount. It is very easy to over-do it, so be careful. I have no experience with Truvia, which is readily available on supermarket shelves; so using that, you’d have to follow the package directions. I buy the pure extract at the health food store, and less than an ounce lasts me for months. Add the tiniest amount, mix it in well, and taste as you go. Add when the cooking is finished.
Cinnamon is a spice which contributes to the perception of sweetness in the finished product. Either simmer a cinnamon stick or two with the applesauce and remove it before mashing, or season with a little ground cinnamon at the end of cooking.
If you feel adventuresome, you could cook your apples with some dried fruit like apricots or raisins. They’ll plump up during the cooking and flavor and sweeten things up, too. My uncle’s neighbor would cook her apples with those little cinnamon-flavored red hot candies. They melt during cooking, and turn the applesauce the prettiest shade of pink. I’m not sure about the quality of the ingredients, not having looked at a package of red hots in years, but it’s a fond memory.
Bottom line, choose the right apples, cook in a bare minimum of added liquid, add a touch of salt, and cook past the just-done stage. I’ll bet you find you can do without any added sweetener whatsoever.