Apple molasses, also called “boiled cider,” is a traditional sweet syrup from New England and is steeped in homesteading history. It’s made by boiling fresh-pressed apple cider down into a thick, caramel-colored reduction. Boiled cider typically uses “sweeting” apples: apples that are bred for their lack of acidity and unusual sweetness. “Summer Sweeting,” “Hightop Sweet,” and “Sidney Sweet” all fit the bill. Oddly enough, these apples taste terrible out of hand, but when their juice is boiled down between one-seventh and one-tenth the original volume they produce a historically favored sweetener, revered like maple syrup.
Having made one small batch of homemade apple molasses, John Paul Rietz–a 23-year-old apprentice at Super Chilly Farm, located just outside Palermo, Maine–decided to tackle a large-scale molasses project.
John Paul and three other MOFGA apprentices harvested a truckload of Sweet Red apples from The Apple Farm. They hauled the apples over to Albeon Cider Mill, a local cider press, where the yield was 56 gallons of cider. Next John Paul visited Jaime of F & A Farm to borrow an evaporating pan used for maple sugaring.
Back at Super Chilly, John Paul hauled two truckloads of wood to a fire pit in front of the apprentice house. He built a fire and used cinder blocks to elevate the evaporator pan above the flame. He added an initial eight gallons of cider to the evaporator pan. As the cider began to reduce, he added more Sweet Red cider approximately every 45 minutes. The additional cider lowered the overall temperature briefly, but, thanks to the fire revving below, the cider quickly returned to a boil. He occasionally skimmed the surface with a metal scoop, removing any foam.
For two full days, breaking only to sleep, John Paul kept the fire ablaze. In the late afternoon on the second day, John Paul poured the last few gallons of cider into the pan. For the next half hour, he kept a watchful eye: He didn’t want to boil the cider too much, and it’s hard to estimate how much liquid is left in a large evaporating pan. John Paul shared his technique:
“Your eye tends to underestimate how much liquid is in the pan. I was trying to gauge how deep the scoop of the skimmer was at the end of the boil and I tried to compare that image to how it looked when I first put in the initial eight gallons. When I thought it looked a little shallower, I put out the fire.”
John Paul went on to explain that while any amount of boiling-down will taste good, he aimed for a specific ratio (between 1:7 and 1:10) in order to achieve the consistency of molasses, a sweetener that is very shelf-stable. (Note: You can also use a hydrometer to measure the Brix measurement, i.e. sugar content, of your molasses and compare that to the brix content of sugar cane molasses to see if you’re in the ballpark.)
You can also make apple molasses at home on a much smaller scale. John Paul and his girlfriend Emily, an apprentice at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop, first dabbled in making cider molasses in 2009. After a farm event, they were left with too much sweet cider to drink. Rather than let it ferment into hard cider, they decided to make syrup. They put a big pot on an electric stove range (although John Paul noted that a wood stove would be a great alternative) and filled it with cider, which was heated to a rolling boil. They added a gallon or two of cider into the pot at a time. (Note: They left the exhaust fan running the entire time, as the boiling reduction process can create a lot of moisture and make wallpaper peel, or cause other problems.)
In the coming days, John Paul plans to do a second molasses trial with mixed-variety apple cider, pressed from apples around Palermo. He wants to see how the taste compares with 100% Sweet Red cider.
“Historically, people used special apples that lacked acidity for this purpose. But when Emily and I made our version in ‘09, we didn’t know about that tradition. We used cider we had on hand and it was really good. I’m not convinced that one [apple] is better than the other.”
John Paul likes eating apple molasses with nut butter, goat cheese, cow cheese, or bread and butter. He says molasses is interchangeable with honey or maple syrup, and imagines it would be out-of-this-world good on pancakes. In the meantime, John Paul plans to experiment with other food preservation projects. Next up: sauces. John Paul plans to cook down the apple drops from the Grimes Golden tree at Super Chilly Farm and harvest some of his favorite Seckel pears to make an outstanding pear sauce.