By Sharon Biggs Waller
Learn to make homemade apple juice and apple leather, no apple press needed. Simple old fashioned method for all-natural tasty apple products!
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:
What Does “As American As Apple Pie” Really Mean?
American Cakes: Cider Cake
What Lincoln Ate: Apple Bread Pudding
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