Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

Highbush cranberries aren’t really cranberries. They’re a robust shrub related to honeysuckle, and they grow wild in North America from Alaska to Newfoundland, crossing into some parts of the Lower 48. There’s even a rogue population in New Mexico.

These berries are wonderfully glossy, almost luminescent, and their color is more rosy-orange than their namesake. But like cranberries, they are tart, pectin rich, and full of Vitamin C.

There’s also this: When they’re ripe, highbush cranberries smell like dirty socks. (This odor is generously called “musty” by the wonderful University of Alaska Cooperative Extension pamphlet from which I adapted this recipe.) It’s very easy to tell when there’s good highbush cranberry picking nearby; it gets right up your nose. The taste is pungent, too, comparable to nothing else I know.

“I need how many more?”
Truth is, this guy is as enthusiastic about picking berries as I am, and twice as fast.

We find our highbush cranberries in the cool forests near Fairbanks — not so much in the deeper Interior near our cabin. This year we got to the berries just in time; the leaves were red and dropping and some of the fruit was starting to wrinkle. We kept them on ice for transit to the cabin, but after we faced the job of getting organized . . .

Removing the skylight covers and getting sorted out on the back porch.

Including putting everything away in the kitchen . . .

Everything fits in somewhere, like pieces of a puzzle. If I can just remember how.

I had to get right on it.

About the Cast Iron Pan

What you see above wasn’t such a good idea. The guidelines for using cast iron in jam making are similar to those for copper. (Earlier this year, I wrote an entire post about using copper jam pans, so I should have known better.) If you prep something acid in a cast iron pan, the iron will leach into whatever you’re cooking.

Unlike copper, an extra dose of iron doesn’t pose a health danger for most folks, but you will be able to taste the iron in your preserves. Stewart said he couldn’t really taste it in this apple butter, but to me it was like I’d licked the pan.

Also, if you cook with cast iron, you know it needs to be seasoned with oil to provide a good, rust-resistant coating. The highbush cranberry acid damaged the seasoning on our best big skillet. At the cabin, we don’t have an oven to use for recoating it and it weighs about a half-ton, too much to carry out and back in again. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about that. Anyone know how to season a cast iron pan on a woodstove? (We tried. We failed.)

Still, I’m not entirely sorry. I love the taste of this highbush apple butter, iron or no — and it was a pleasure to work with the heavy iron pan. But don’t let the photos mislead you. Take care with cast iron when putting stuff up.

About the Applesauce

This recipe calls for four cups of applesauce, and I used store bought! I felt a little lazy for it, but there was lots to do and I didn’t want to lose my precious highbush berries. I did end up making a 100% homemade applesauce before we left Alaska, using some leftover apples and our plentiful low-bush cranberries (lingonberries). But if time is tight or you want more ease when you experiment with making flavored apple butters, there’s no shame in using good, store-bought sauce.

Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

2 quarts highbush cranberries
1 cup water
4 cups unsweetened applesauce
6 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon salt
zest and juice of 1 lemon

1. Sterilize your jars.

2. Put the highbush cranberries into a big, nonreactive pot and add the water. Simmer until the skins pop. (This took longer than I expected it would, about 35 minutes.)

3. Let the berries cool until you can handle them, then put them through a sieve or food mill to remove the seeds.

4. In your big pot, combine the berry puree with all the remaining ingredients: applesauce, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, salt, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

5. Simmer until thick, about 30 minutes.

6. Ladle the hot apple butter into your sterilized jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace.

7. Process 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Yields about 8 cups.

I’m also intrigued by the Cooperative Extension’s recipe for Highbush Cranberry Ketchup. Apparently, in Alaska, ketchup has been made from highbush cranberries for more than a century. Next year I plan to catch up (ha!) with that tradition.

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15 comments to Highbush Cranberry Apple Butter

  • growandresist

    I love your cabin! It is beautiful and so homey! No wonder you love it!

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Thanks, Meg! And hey, how come you're not on my blogroll? I'm going to fix that right now!

  • Denise | Chez Danisse

    The butter looks good, but I'm still amazed with this well-planned Alaskan adventure you two take each year.

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Denise: You're on to me. All this canning is just a ruse so I can share pictures and stories about Alaska. And I'm not sure whether I'm joking. :-)

  • Julia

    I'm also in Denise's camp. And Meg's, for that matter! It's true, we want to hear more. But for now, I'll just say: I'm sad for that pan! What a bummer. But I understand, those berries are gorgeous, glossy indeed! I have some around here, and I need to start staking them out. They are so brightly red, they look as if they must be poisonous! That butter looks amazing. Btw, it was certainly not lazy to use the applesauce that YOU made!

  • 6512 and growing

    Cranberry-applesauce is my favorite thanksgiving relish. How wonderful to pick your own (dirty sock smelling?) cranberries!

  • Nicole

    I have been following your blog off and on since July and was just catching up. I was surprised to find you right here in my neck of the woods. I hope you were able to get some of the Mayo's carrots before you left.

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Jules: I'm psyched that you have highbush cranberries at home. Get those babies staked!

    6512: I made a couple of cranberry-apple combinations these past few weeks. It's such a wonderful blend — dirty socks or no. :-)

    Nicole: Hello! My goodness, you're from Fairbanks and you know the Mayo's carrots? They are the best of the best. I'm trying to arrange to spend the whole of next summer in Fairbanks, including blueberry season! Maybe we'll be able to meet.

  • woolnest

    What a beautiful cabin!

    I just learned last weekend that "The Best Recipe" cookbook (by the Cook's Illustrated folks) recommends a oven-free reseasoning technique. They have you heat the pan until water drops sizzle on contact, and then brush it with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil. Wipe off the excess with another paper towel, and repeat 3-4 times.

    The portion of our pan that needed to be re-seasoned remained a lighter color than the rest of the pan, and I think I need to do the whole process again, but I didn't wait very long before wiping off the excess oil and didn't keep the pan very hot. Even with those errors, it worked fine.

    (Oh, and Spike can be assured that his big fan would never call him a thorny pig. Only tease him gently for his resemblance to her ridiculous cat.)

  • Shae | Hitchhiking to Heaven

    Dear Woolnest! Thank you so much from both Spike and me. I know Spike is grateful for your support, and I am so pleased that you have an answer to my question. This technique sounds very promising, and those Cook's Illustrated folks are definitely trustworthy. I will try to redeem our pan next summer.

  • sharon hetherington

    Thanks for the information.
    We made strawberry jam and when opened you could smell metal and taste metal.
    We did not know what happened, but, sounds like we used the wrong pan.
    Has this happened to you.
    We made raspberry jam but that seemed okay along with pickles and salsa. It was just the strawberry jars.

    • Shae

      Hi Sharon: Yes, what you are describing is a reaction of the fruit with the metal pan. It’s exactly what happened to me with the cast iron, above. The easiest way to avoid that is to always use a nonreactive metal, like stainless steel. For more information about using reactive metals, take a peek at the post about copper pans that I link to in the discussion above.

  • [...] There’s only one precaution that you must take when cooking these high acids foods into their canning-ready state. You’ve got to make sure you use a cooking vessel that is non-reactive. Pots made from metals like aluminum and untreated cast iron react with the acid in the preserves and can leach a metallic flavor into your final product. Shae at Hitchhiking to Heaven talks about an issue just like this in her most recent post in which she cooked high bush cranberries in a a cast iron skillet. [...]

  • Heather Fear

    I did not know the rule about cast iron pots and I’ve made at least 3 batches of peach jam with mine with no problem. My husband swears that he’s not tasting anything metallic. I tasted it also and did not taste anything. When I do mine, I put everything in at the same time, including sugar – could that be preventing the metal taste?

    • Shae

      Hi Heather: Yes, it’s working fine for you because you’re including the sugar. It’s a mystery exactly why sugar stops the reactivity, but it does. Peach jam sounds really good to me right now. I can’t wait until stone fruit starts coming in!

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