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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