For some time, I have had trouble separating apple butter and applesauce in my mind. Both are made of apples and both provide boosts of exceptional fall flavor to my palate, yet I have never been quite sure where to draw the line.
I have only ever had apple butter in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where apple butter is regionally famous. Since then, apple butter has always been a thing that I find at farmers’ markets or artisanal shops. Applesauce, on the other hand, has always been readily available pretty much anywhere from gas stations to bodegas to supermarkets. Because of this, I assumed that apple butter was a regional food or perhaps a more rugged cousin to applesauce, like thick versus thinly cut bacon.
Ignorance, however, is not an excuse. Plus, while I know many different uses for applesauce, my Thanksgiving and Christmas tables are only going to be more interesting with more knowledge. So, what is the real difference here?
Applesauce is a semi-solid food typically made from apples, a liquid (apple juice, cider, water, and/or vinegar), spices, as well as added sugar (optional). The combination is cooked down until the apples soften so it can be mashed or pureed and the cooking time ranges from less than an hour to a couple hours.
Apple butter contains no butter but it is a dense “spread” typically made from apples, a liquid (apple juice and/or cider), sugar, and spices. The combination is cooked down so that natural and/or added sugar caramelizes into a thick jam-like spread. In order to successfully caramelize, recipes usually require cooking slowly over low heat for several hours or a couple days.
Applesauce ranges from a yellow chartreuse to box brown. Due to the caramelization and ingredients, apple butter comes in shades of brown or deep red.
Applesauce is generally accepted as a European food that originated in the 1700s. It was a convenient way to preserve the life of apples and it paired well with sweet and savory foods.
Apple butter dates back to medieval times and is more regionally specific to Belgium, Germany, and Holland. This may explain why the Pennsylvania Dutch love it so much. The age of the dish also explains why the preparation process takes so much longer.
Applesauce is lighter due to the higher water content. Even if it is chunky, it does not have the same buttery or jam-like consistency as apple butter. Instead, it will be lighter and fluffier.
Since apple butter is a spread, it is closer to a jam than a sauce. Yet, the consistency can range. Some come as more of a jam and others—especially when served warm—have a dense sauce-like consistency that seems to melt as it gets hotter.
Why? Apples naturally have pectin in their skin and fruit. As you cook them, the pectin releases and acts as a gelling agent. Applesauce has a shorter release time, so it is mostly mashed cooked apple with a little bit of jelly. Apple butter allows the process to mature, so it turns over into a jelly-like spread or “butter”.
There is quite a range of flavors that you can experience in both applesauce and apple butter as they tend to use similar spices with varying intensity.
Applesauce is lighter and brighter, so it should be lightly spiced. Allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg are typical additions but this should not overpower the bright flavors in the applesauce unless you are making a strong choice that most children (frequent applesauce connoisseurs) will thoroughly detest. Choose wisely.
Apple butter is more concentrated, so it is darker and deeper in flavor. It contains more sugar, the same basic spices, as well as stronger spices like clove, vanilla, and ginger. Cooking the spices longer means that the flavors mix-in and become more intense. The stronger flavors make the apple butter a better pairing for potent cheeses and earthy breads.
Applesauce, in America, is mainly a dessert and condiment. As we are a cultural melting pot, we add applesauce to desserts like the French, eat it with pork like the British, eat it with potato pancakes like the Germans, or just eat it as a snack alone or with bread because it is simply yummy. Apple butter, on the other hand, is mainly used as a condiment for meat, bread, and cheese.
Because they are both condiments, the two frequently overlap as food pairings and can also marinate meat. Additionally, when baking, both can be used as substitutes for oil, eggs, and butter.
By now, we can see that the two are indeed variations on a theme. The theme being apple and the variations are depth of taste, color, and intensity. While they are more similar than they are different, their consistencies prevent them being used as interchangeable ingredients. Yet, with what I learned here, I am eager to break with tradition and try some apple buttered pork or apple butter pie this year. Who’s with me?
Related Video: 3 Tricks for the Best Homemade Applesauce Ever