Boiled Cider and Cider Jelly

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Boiled cider and cider jelly are traditional farm-based products made solely from the concentration/reduction of fresh, unfermented cider. Despite their deep historical and cultural roots in rural New England, these products (especially boiled cider) are little known today, even in their home region, and have virtually disappeared from commerce. Boiled cider is a natural sweetener made solely by the concentration by heating of fresh-pressed apple juice. It has been found in the New England region, largely as a farm and homestead product, since the first years after European settlement and the introduction of the common apple (Malus domestica) to this country. For instance, local historians have documented its use among the settlers of Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts, as early as 1677. In the past, it was commonly referred to as “apple molasses,” because of its consistency and because it was used, like molasses, primarily as a sweetener for baking and culinary purposes, rather than as a table syrup for pouring (though it can be used for that as well, on pancakes, waffles and ice cream). In appearance, boiled cider is a dark reddish brown color, opaque like molasses, and with the consistency of syrup. It has a clear and concentrated aroma of apples, and its dark, caramelized sweetness is typically balanced by a sharp acidity – the result of the good sugar/acid balance found in most North American dessert apples. In early times, boiled cider was often produced from “sweeting” apples that contained relatively less malic acid and were sweet, but too bland for fresh eating, and more suited to culinary uses such as baking or making apple butter. The variety “Summer Sweeting,” which is sometimes cited as a type of apple used in making boiled cider, may refer to one or more very old New England apple varieties, such as the ‘Hightop Sweet’ from eastern Massachusetts, or the ‘Summer Sweet’ (‘Sidney Sweet’) from Maine. Instructions for making boiled cider call for the fresh juice to be concentrated to about one-seventh its original volume in an open, non-reactive metal kettle, and skimmed as it boils down. At least one old source claims that a superior boiled cider could be made by steam-cooking apples in kettles, weighting them down in slatted baskets and pressing their juice through straw, and then reducing this expressed juice. Historically, however, most producers simply boiled down the same apple juice that had just been milled and pressed for fresh drinking or for fermentation into alcoholic or “hard” cider. Modern producers boil off the fresh cider in an evaporator pan like the ones that are used to turn maple sap into syrup. In terms of its main uses, boiled cider has been most often employed in baking. It is ideal for making pies (with or without dried or fresh apples) and as an ingredient in cakes, cookies, and other recipes. In fact, for any culinary use where sweetness and an apple character is desirable, it works very well. It has historically been used as an ingredient in mincemeat; in brining liquids for meat and poultry; and as a sweetener for baked beans, winter squash, and other vegetables. It was also valued for making a traditional type of applesauce, because it not only added sweetness, but a concentrated apple flavor, and improved the keeping qualities of the sauce. Historically, both boiled cider and cider jelly were used by early settlers for reconstituting into juice over the winter months, which was considered not only a treat, but as a nutritional “supplement” to the winter diet. Also, both products were an important ingredient in making other jams, preserves, and jellies due the high pectin content of apples, in the period before commercial pectin was developed. This practice continues in traditional New England summer and winter kitchens to the present day. The chief exponents and marketers of boiled cider for many years have been Willis and Tina Wood, who operate a seventh-generation family farm in Springfield, Vermont. More than anyone else, the Woods have kept the tradition of boiled cider (and cider jelly) alive in New England.

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