How to Take Applesauce to the Next Level

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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Turning a trip to the orchard into a batch of applesauce is one of my favorite rituals of the season. The cozy aroma perfumes the entire house, drawing folks to the kitchen for stolen spoonfuls while the applesauce is still warm. It's simple, wholesome, and delicious—sweet enough to feel like dessert, but neither sugary nor cloying.

Perhaps because of my background as a pastry chef, my applesauce isn't quite as simple as purists would have it, but neither is it obnoxiously complex. What matters most is gathering a selection of the best apples you can—preferably a blend.

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I let the offerings at the farmers market be my guide, and grab the best of what's in season. In this case, it turned out to be a blend of Granny Smiths, Cortlands, and Gravensteins, plus a few Braeburns I had on hand. My previous batch was a combination of Arkansas Blacks, Stayman Winesaps, and Macouns.

For applesauce, the specifics of the blend aren't as important as the overarching concept, which is to have a mix of tart, sweet, and aromatic apples for a naturally balanced flavor. Without that balance, applesauce can seem astringent, dull, or just plain blah.

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The color of the applesauce will vary according to the apples—Cortlands are great for adding color, as they turn pink over time—and whether or not you choose to peel them. Since the peels add beautiful flavor and color, I keep them on. Plus, they can be blended into oblivion with a top-notch immersion blender—more on that in a bit.

After coring and chopping the apples, I combine them in an enameled Dutch oven (I used a five-and-a-half-quart Staub here) and toss them with lightly toasted sugar, which adds a super-mellow sweetness, with just a hint of caramel.

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I season the apples with a generous pinch of salt, plus a splash of good-quality apple cider vinegar. (Check out Michael Harlan Turkell's vinegar recs; his advice for how to step up your vinegar collection has made a huge difference in my cooking.)

Aside from that subtle hit of acidity, I also like to doctor my applesauce with a few simple aromatics. In this case, that means a cinnamon stick and a nice strip of orange peel, though a used vanilla bean that's given up most of its flavor is pleasant, too. Think of these ingredients as the sweet equivalent of a bay leaf in a pot of chicken stock—able to boost the overall fragrance and depth of the dish, without getting in the way.

Covered and placed over medium heat, the apples will start to wilt and give up their own juices in just 15 minutes, so there's no need for any added water.

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The mixture will have a highly vinegary aroma at first, but that intensity will burn off as the apples continue to simmer for another 10 minutes. During that time, the apples will remain covered, except when you pause to stir.

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The exact timing will vary with the size and output of any given burner, and the specific dimensions, material, and gauge of the cooking vessel will have a huge impact, too. So, regardless of the timeline, what matters is that the apples, and their skins, are perfectly tender—just take a bite to see!

At that stage, simply remove the aromatics and purée the mixture with an immersion blender. I was lucky enough to work on this recipe while Sohla was testing immersion blenders, and the All-Clad immersion blender put the one I have at home to shame, making a purée just as smooth and creamy as if I'd peeled the fruit.

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You can certainly make do with a food processor or blender; just bear in mind that the results may not be as silky-smooth.

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Since I often spoon it over oatmeal for breakfast, I love my applesauce as is, wonderfully thick and intense. That said, its texture is easily adjusted with water or apple cider to taste. (Full disclosure: I've been known to thin my applesauce with Applejack for an extra layer of flavor.) Just take it slow, and work in an ounce at a time to avoid overdoing it.

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As a final touch, I like to stir a few drops of rosewater into my applesauce. Not so much that anything perfume-y comes through—only enough to restore a sense of freshness to the cooked fruit. Apples and roses are in the same botanical family, so their fragrances play well off each other.

With a well-rounded blend of fruit, the complexity of toasted sugar, apple cider vinegar for brightness, and the subtle use of aromatics, applesauce can be so much more than a plain purée. Yet for all the character it brings to the table, and all the unexpected ingredients I add, the flavor remains focused on apples above all else.