Really, Really Slow Food: Asian Pear Butter

Stacks

My first memories of fruit butters are driven out of Carbondale, Illinois, which seemed worlds away from the Chicago suburbs, both in station-wagon miles and in accent.

Maybe Aunt Harriet’s slower cadences and shifts and drawls reinforced her patience for hours and hours of bubbling the moisture out of the orchard’s apples and peaches. All I know is that my first attempts about 12 years back, trying to cram the process into a few precious free hours between business trips, were miserable failures that tarred at least one pot so thoroughly it went straight into the trash bin.

Strip

The key, I now know, is to take things low and slow. Try a very low oven—250º or even less—for 3-4 hours. Or on the stovetop over the lowest flame you can manage. Or in a slow cooker overnight.

Whichever way you go—and with whatever fruit you use (I’ve done apples, peaches, blueberries, cherries, rhubarb, and now Asian pears)—know that there’s one way that “slow” doesn’t apply to fruit butters. Even though the added sugar gives, say, apple butter, a longer shelf life than applesauce, butters generally have way less preservative sweetener than jams or jellies, so once you open a jar, try to finish it off within 6 months or so.

Stack

Asian Pear Butter

Adapted from my mom’s apple butter recipe, which I think is probably from “Aunt” Harriet Ross, who, with her husband, Arthur, tended a huge garden behind their home near the Southern Illinois University. If you thought Chinese Long Beans were a recent, artisan-fad thing, think again. Art was growing them in the late ’60s.  

  • 10-12 large Asian pears (roughly 5 lbs)
  • about 2-1/2 cups granulated cane sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups water or cider
  • 1 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 inches ginger root, peeled and cut into 1/4″ pieces
  • 1 star anise (or bag of other spices—I used a combo of fennel, cloves, and allspice)
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Wash the pears and cut them into like-sized chunks. If you have a food mill or chinois (or even a potato ricer), there’s no need to peel the pears first. In fact, it’s better if you don’t, since the skins and seeds have natural pectin that’ll help your spread achieve a firmer set. If you don’t have a mill, though, you’ll probably want to peel and core everything first.

Cut pears
Using a food mill lets you skip the coring and peeling. In fact, the skins help set the preserves.

2. Load the pears into a large pot. Add the water and lemon juice, then the star anise (or spice bundle) and ginger. Simmer, covered, for about a half an hour, until the pears are good and soft.

Lemons
Next time, remind me to buy bigger lemons. It took the whole bag to get one cup of juice.
Spice bag
Cloves, allspice berries, and fennel seed subbed for star anise, which got tossed in last week’s spice-drawer purge.

 

3. Remove the pot from heat. Fish out and discard the star anise/spice bundle. Position your food mill or chinois over a large bowl (if you can set up near the sink or compost bucket, do so). Scoop a few ladles of the pear solids into the mill, and press them through. Discard the solids (skins, seeds, etc.) and repeat with the rest of the pear chunks. Pour any liquid remaining in the pot through, too. If you’re mill-less, you cored and peeled ahead of time, so just smash everything up at this point with a potato masher or an immersion blender.

Mill
Use a food mill to separate the pears’ seeds and skins from the flesh.

4. Rinse out the original pot (there’s probably a yucky ring from the skins). Measure the purée and then put it back in the pot. Add one-third as much sugar as you have purée. I had 7-1/2 cups of fruit, so I added 2-1/2 cups of organic sugar. Sprinkle in the cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Now’s a good time, before you get cooking, to put a small plate in the freezer.

Sugar
I use a 3:1 ratio of fruit:sugar. If you like it sweeter, use more.

5. Cook over low heat until the purée is very thick and and the sugars have caramelized dark brown. Stir frequently so it doesn’t scorch. When you think it’s close, taste and adjust the spices, then test the consistency by dripping a little of the spread onto that plate you tucked into the freezer. Wait 10 seconds, and tip the plate. If it’s not runny, you’re done. My Asian pears must’ve been particularly juicy, because this step took a ridiculously long time—seriously, nearly seven hours of bubbling—way longer than apple butter usually takes.

Done
Use the plate test—or the toast test—to see if it’s done.

6. Ladle the preserves into sterilized jars and either cool before you refrigerate, or make shelf-stable by canning them. I ended up with 10 quarter-pint jars of pear butter. I processed 9 of them in a boiling canner bath for 15 minutes, and put the 10th in the fridge for more immediate access.

Start to finish, the process took nearly 9 hours. The wait was well worth it. But next time, I’ll use a slow cooker so I’m not tethered to the stove and a wooden spoon all day.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. dianemenke says:

    How nice will that be to open during our first snow storm? ENJOY!

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks, D. Looking forward to that first snow. I’m thinking a good, strong dollop on some steel-cut oats.

  3. Lisa Quinn says:

    Asian pear sauce is NOT safe for canning. They are a low acid fruit and need acidification to be sate. The National Center for Home Food Preservation states that asian pears may only be canned as halves or slices. Asian pear puree is not safe for canning. There are no home canning recommendations available for asian pear puree. The reason is the risk of botulism in asian pear puree. Please see:
    http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/fruit_puree.html
    http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_02/asian_pears.html

    1. Susan says:

      Thanks for reading–and thanks for your comment, Lisa. I believe the recipe’s big slug of lemon juice provides enough acidity here, but if you want to be extra cautious, you could switch to bottled juice, which has a more consistent level than fresh. Or keep everything in the refrigerator. And obviously, toss any stored jar that has a bulging lid or whose contents smell or look funky upon opening. I’ve made at least one batch of this recipe for 4 years running. I usually put it in smaller jars, and I’ve never run into an issue. But I sure do understand and appreciate your caution.

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