Preserved: What's the Deal With Fruit Butters?
Preserves go by many names: jams, jellies, conserves, marmalades, and so forth, and each requires a different level of fussiness. Conserves technically contain a mixture of fresh and dried fruits, similar to chutney but on the sweet side of the spectrum. Marmalades always contain both the flesh and the rind of citrus fruits. Proper jellies are crystal clear and strained through a jelly bag to remove all fruit solids. Jams and preserves are similar, both being mixtures of fruit and sugar, cooked and often set with pectin.
And then there are fruit butters. A category all their own, fruit butters can be made with nearly any kind of fruit, slow cooked for a long time to evaporate moisture and caramelize sugars. When finished, they're dense and smooth with the spreadable texture of room temperature butter, for which they are named.
As far as preserving goes, fruit butters are an ideal place for a beginner to start. They require no fussy or preserving-specific equipment, besides a splatter shield, and there's no guesswork of whether they've reached a set or not. You'll see them made with cherries, peaches, pumpkin, pears, plums, asian pears, nectarines, and even berries, but the be-all of fruit butters is apple.
Apple butter is essentially apple sauce reduced again by half. If you're not planning to can it, you don't even really need a recipe. Chop up some apples into chunks and simmer with a little liquid, apple cider or water, until they're falling apart. Put them through a food mill or immersion blend them, then add spices and as much sugar, honey, or maple syrup as you like. Continue to cook until they're a deep caramel color and a velvety texture and that's it. Because of their long, slow cooking time, making fruit butter is ideally suited to the slow cooker. They're a great preserve to start in the morning on a day when you'll be home working, house cleaning, or party-prepping as they require little besides the occasional stir.
This basic recipe to can a batch of apple butter will work for any of the pome (apple, pear, asian pear) or stone fruits (peach, plum, nectarine, apricot) but, unfortunately, homemade pumpkin or winter squash butter is not recommended for home canning. It's true that you'll see it on grocery store and farmstand shelves, industrially canned, but the National Center for Home Food Preservation cautions home cooks against it. The reason has to do with the acidity of the produce item relative to the density of the finished product. Whereas apples, peaches, and berries all have a high inherent acidity, pumpkin and squash is already a low-acid food, requiring pressure canning to preserve it at all. Plus, when cooked to a puree, pumpkin and squash can become so dense that there is some concern of whether or not even in a pressure canner all points in the interior of the jar reach a sufficiently high temperature for a long enough time to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. If pumpkin butter is your absolute favorite, definitely still make it, but store it in the freezer instead of attempting to can it.
Like any preserve, fruit butters are great stirred into plain or vanilla yogurt. They're awesome on pancakes and they make a great base for cake. Even if you're not crazy about the idea of them, try a jar or two. I'm sure that they'll make their way onto a slice of toast, alongside some crackers with cheese, or into a soup in need of sweetness and body.