Sunday, January 12, 2014

Canned Apple Pie Filling Without ClearJel

This year has been a bit anachronistic for us, since we didn't plant a real garden this summer amidst the flurry of moving activity.  That is to say, we didn't really get our fix of putting up food during the normal summer months.  But we've been making up for it this fall and winter, with squash butter, marmalade, and now, apple pie filling.  One of the best Christmas gifts we got this year was a bushel of apples from Jake's parents, which we've been working on converting into various forms of preserved goods before they become unpreserved bads.

One thing we were keen on trying was apple pie filling. We like to make our own pie filling prior to making a pie or apple crisp because it helps make sure the end product isn't runny or overly dry, which can be kind of a guessing game depending on the juiciness of the apples.  But making the pie filling at pie-making time is kind of tedious, and we have the fresh apples now, not a couple months from now.  So we started asking the great googley moogley about pie filling recipes, and found out that when making canned pie filling, regular corn starch or tapioca won't work because the thickener starts to break down during the extended processing at high temperature (although we haven't verified that ourselves).  As a result, almost all canned pie filling recipes call for a commercial product called ClearJel, which is a corn starch derivative.  Not wanting to use a nebulously-described product like that (and more importantly, not having any on hand), we looked for other options, and found a tip in an gardenweb forum that canned pie filling can be made with pectin, just using less than would be required for a fully set jam or jelly.  Now we were in business!  We've got plenty of pectin.  And, it turns out, the Pomona's Pectin website even has a recipe for apple pie filling! (The recipe isn't on the chart that comes with the pectin.  Also, while we're on the subject of Pomona's pectin, why do they give you way more CaCl2 than you need to make the amount of calcium water required for the packet of pectin in the box?  We're accumulating quite a bit of the salt, which we will probably start storing in the car as an emergency ice-melting kit.)

Anyway, time to give the pectin pie filling a try!

We started by converting the apples into spot- and core-free apple chunks, and then slices.
The fastest way we've found to fillet apples is shown in progression here, from left (whole apple) to right (cleaned apple).  Good apples have four fillets, which can be removed in just four cuts, each starting near the stem, curving the knife around the core, and finishing near the flower petal end.  Compare that to eight cuts when the first cut is to slice the apple in half!  The control with this method is way better than with those eight-section apple corer things, which usually get some part of the core in the apple sections or waste a lot of good material unless the apples are almost perfectly symmetrical.  In our experience, very few homegrown apples are that symmetrical.
In our two-gallon pot, we could triple the recipe from the Pomona's website without much trouble.  In went 15 cups of apple slices, a varying amount of water depending on the juiciness of the apples, lemon juice, calcium water, and spices.  They cooked until almost soft.
Then we added the pectin-sugar mixture and returned to a boil...
...then put everything in jars.  Our triple recipe only yielded a little more than double what the original recipe claimed for yield, but two triple batches gave us about nine pint jars.  We sealed eight and processed in a boiling water bath like the recipe says.  The ninth we kept for a test apple crisp to see how this pie filling would compare to our usual recipe.
Since it had been a while since we made apple crisp, we figured it would be a good idea to make one with our old recipe, too, um, as a control.  Real science experiments like this must have a control.
Our normal recipe is on the left, which calls for 4 cups apple slices, two cups water, and 0.25 cups corn starch (the rest of the recipe is below).  We already like the fact that not as many fillers like corn starch and water are added to the pectin-containing recipe.  But, it looked like all of the water we added was still running around in the pan.  We feared that the finished crisp would be too runny.
After baking in the crisp, however, our fears turned out to be unfounded.  The canned pie filling with pectin is on the right in this picture and is no more runny (either here or in the pan after scooping the piece out) than the regular corn starch-thickened filling, which is on the left.  100% of household respondents preferred the much more appley flavor of the pectin-thickened filling.  Given a large number of apples to preserve in the future, this recipe will definitely reappear in our house.
We should note that in our two batches, we added different amounts of water.  The recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of water per 5 cups of apple slices, or up to 0.5 cups water if the apples aren't very juicy.  Our apples weren't very juicy, so in the first batch we added closer to the 0.5 cups, but that seemed to make it really runny, so the second batch (from which we made the above crisp), we added closer to the 3 tablespoons.  In the interest of completeness, Katie also made an apple pie from the first batch to see if that would be runny.  
It's hard to tell from this picture (we wanted to feature Katie's artsy crust work), but the first batch is considerably runnier, especially when the pie is warm.  (And who wants to wait until the pie is all the way cool before trying it?)  Considering that jams and jellies made with pectin are also often runny until they cool all the way down, that kind of makes sense.  In any case, we would recommend using the minimum amount of water, regardless of how juicy the apples are.

The recipes:

For the pectin-canned pie filling, go here.

For the uncanned, corn starch-thickened recipe we used before (can't remember where we found it):

4 cups apple slices
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cups water
1 cup brown sugar
0.5 teaspoon cinnamon
0.25 teaspoon salt
0.125 teaspoon nutmeg
0.25 cup corn starch

Slice apples, mix with lemon juice, set aside.  Mix all other ingredients in 2-quart saucepot on stove, heat on medium heat until thick.  Add apples, cook until tender.

Crisp topping:
The crisp topping we used is usually good for a thin topping on a 9" x 13" pan, or a thick topping on a 9" x 9" pan:

1 cup oats
1 cup brown sugar
1 stick melted butter
0.75 cups flour

Mix all ingredients together until uniform.

Put the pie filling into a 9" x 13" pan, spread the crisp topping on the top, lightly pack together by patting the crisp lightly on the head like it just brought you the Sunday paper, and bake at 350 °F until crisp topping is crispy. That's all there is to it!

Pie Crust:
For the pie crust, we used this recipe, but reduced the butter to 0.75 cup and replaced about a cup of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.

What types of preserved apple products do you make?  What's your favorite apple pie filling recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. This looks absolutely amazing, guys. I vote you bring some for Easter!

    1. Do you vote for crisp, pie, or straight pie filling? It's pretty good just with a spoon, too. :-)

  2. Interesting...I have never made pie filling with pectin thickening. Apples are high in pectin that begs the question, can they create their own pectin? I imagine this will work with other varieties of fruit as if you can make jam/jelly with it, you could make pie filling with it! Fun! I see future experiments in the making! (By the way, what happens if you re-warm the pie or crisp, as in apple pie...does the pectin stay thick, or melt?)

    1. I just realized I forgot to reply to your comment! I think what happened is I wanted to check and see what happened with different re-heating schemes, then got distracted. (like usual). If I recall correctly, only the pie had a significant amount of liquid remaining, and it didn't change on heating.

      Regarding the apples making their own pectin--I think it wouldn't be low-sugar (low-methoxyl) pectin, so I'd be surprised to see much thickening without a lot more sugar than we're adding. The Pomona's pectin is a low-sugar pectin, so it should be less sensitive to the amount of added sugar.

  3. I have always just chopped apples up coarsely, tossed with some cinnamon, ginger, sugar, etc. (and sometimes add dried cherries and candied ginger), and heated until it starts to cook down and is heated through. Add a splash of water or cider so it doesn't burn. Spoon into jars and can ~20 mins in a water bath. Probably not an 'approved' recipe, but it's all high-acid stuff, so it seems safe to me!

    1. That sounds like an even easier way to do it!

      Does it stay thick when you use it in baked goods?