Fruit trees are a blessing, especially the ones in my yard that some thoughtful soul planted decades ago so they could provide way too much fruit for me every year. I have three apples, two pears and two French plums (this is beginning to sound like a Christmas carol). They are mostly very considerate, producing their fruit at well-spaced intervals over the course of about three months in the fall, thanks to the planning of the aforementioned thoughtful soul.
Where I live, we have an Apple Festival every year. A couple of years ago the Festival offered the services of an expert apple identifier. This was great for me because I inherited my trees and didn’t know the varieties. It turns out one of them is a Bramley. This very old breed was brought to Canada from England, where it is a very popular cooking apple. You can read more about it in Wikipedia if you want to.
My Bramley apples posed a bit of a problem to me at first because its fruit is so tart as to be pretty much inedible raw. They get a little less puckery when you cook them, but they still need sweetening. They make great pies, cobblers, etc., but really how many of those can you eat? And I prefer to limit canning due to inherent laziness and lack of storage space.
So, what to do with all these tart apples?
Turns out Bramleys make THE BEST applesauce, since they sort of melt when you cook them and turn into a beautiful white fluff. But again, I don’t want to can a lot of applesauce. The solution? Apple leather, which is basically dried applesauce. It keeps forever without refrigeration, and I’ve yet to find anyone who doesn’t love it.
If you have a dehydrator, making apple leather is easy. Mine is a Home Harvest. Actually, I have two of them, one of which has lasted over 20 years! You can add up to 26 (!) more trays to the basic four that it comes with. I have eight for my newer one. It comes with one of the solid plastic trays you need for leather, but you can buy more and they are not expensive.
I don’t really have a recipe, although I do have some hints. I made the mistake at first of sweetening the applesauce (the Bramleys are REALLY tart) to taste. But I realized that drying concentrates the sugars, so now I leave the sauce tasting more sour than I would if I were going to can the sauce. I make the applesauce in BIG (3 gallon) pots, and I only put about a cup of sugar in the whole thing. Of course, this will vary with the kind of apples you use, so you’ll need to experiment.
I also cook the applesauce less than I did at first. I like the fresher taste.
I cook the quartered and cored apples (skin on) with about a quart of water until they’re soft enough to press through my conical food mill.Since I have two large pots, I cook the apples in one, then place the food mill over the other one and smush the apples through it using the included wooden mallet. My food mill has a handy-dandy hook on the side opposite the handle, so it can sit on the top of the pot. The applesauce, peels removed, falls through into the second pot. The leftover stuff in the cone of the food mill goes into the compost. Then I add the sugar and heat it just enough so I’m sure the sugar has all dissolved. I add a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon, and maybe some nutmeg. That helps sweeten the sauce as well as spice it up a little. Now it’s ready for the dehydrator.
My dehydrator came with one solid plastic sheet that is specifically made for fruit leather. I bought more of them, so now I have as many of them as I do trays for the dehydrators. The sheets fit perfectly on top of the regular mesh trays. Since I make the applesauce in such big batches, I need lots of dehydrator room for the leather.
I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary, but I oil the sheets before pouring the applesauce into them. I don’t want to be left with a sticky mess, so it seems prudent. I used to use non-stick spray, but it’s easier to just use a paper towel with a little taste-free oil (canola or whatever).
I ladle the slightly warm applesauce onto the sheet that’s already been set into a tray. Over time, I’ve figured out how many ladles (3 for my smaller dehydrator, 3-1/2 for the bigger one) will fill the tray once it’s spread thinly. My method for getting it spread evenly over the sheet is to hold it level and tap it gently on the counter. It helps if the sauce is fairly warm and not too thick.
Then, into the dehydrator for about 12 hours. This can vary a lot, so you need to check it by lifting up the edge of the leather in the top tray to check if there’s still wet applesauce on the underside. My bigger (newer) dehydrator has temperature control, which I set at about 130° F. But the smaller (older) one doesn’t and it still makes great leather.
NOTE: I have to warn you…
This year, I had a great crop of apples and my two dehydrators have been going pretty much non-stop for at least two months. The other day, I noticed a puddle of water on the floor in front of my couch. When I moved the couch, I saw that the wall behind it, which gets very little air circulation, was damp to the touch and even had a little patch of mold starting to grow on it. I hadn’t thought before about where all the moisture from the drying fruit was going. Obviously, into the air. So I advise leaving windows open or, if the weather precludes that, running a dehumidifier in the room where the dehydrator is.
Fruit leather is pretty forgiving. I’ve left it too long in the dehydrator, and all that happened was that it turned crispy and couldn’t be rolled without cracking. It had its own deliciousness, and I now do some of it that way on purpose.
Once the fruit leather is dry (it will still be a bit sticky), you can package it up for storage. I used to roll it up in wax paper, but I’ve given that up. I thought it would make it less messy to eat, but it really just added to the mess and didn’t really keep the stickiness off the eater’s hands. So now, I roll up the leather into a tight tube, cut it in half to make two approximately 6-inch tubes, and put it in ziploc medium sized freezer bags. I can fit 6 or seven rolls into one bag, depending on how tightly they’re rolled.
I’ve stored leather in a dry cupboard for at least two years without ill effect. But once your friends, neighbors and family know you’re making it, it won’t last that long!
What other ways of preserving fruit and vegies have you tried?