Ark of Taste
Boiled Cider and Cider Jelly of New England
Boiled cider and cider jelly are traditional New England 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. Occasionally, boiled cider is referred to as “cider syrup,” but this name is more correctly applied today to a distinct, though similar, product that contains additional cane sugar and that yields a lighter, clearer syrup that is most often used for pouring at table, much like Grade A maple syrup.
Boiled cider became an important homestead product in colonial New England (and elsewhere, as European settlers pushed west). During the American Revolution, it was one of the indigenous sweeteners, like maple syrup, which could readily be produced on the farm and that did not need to be imported, like brown sugar and molasses, which came via trade with British plantations in the West Indies and were thus associated with the African slave trade. Like maple sugar, it represented a local, seasonal, and economical option for many inland or “hill” farmers, many of whom did not live close to the main coastal or riverine trade routes.
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 1862, Gail Borden, Jr. of Amenia, New York (the same person who developed “condensed milk”) received a patent for the “Improvement in Concentrating and Preserving for Use Cider and Other Juices of Fruits” (Patent No. 35,919, dated July 22, 1862). Borden, however, acknowledged in his application that, “I am aware that cider has been concentrated by evaporation in open air and used for various culinary purposes, and I therefore make no claim for evaporation of cider generally.” His idea was to produce boiled cider (or other fruit syrup) in a vacuum pan, to improve both its organoleptic and keeping qualities.
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.
Cider jelly is made from fresh apple cider that is concentrated slightly further than boiled cider to about one-ninth the original volume of the juice. The natural pectins found in apples ensure that, if reduced far enough, the boiled cider will eventually reach the jelling stage. Without any additional sugar, the resulting jelly is “fully puckered,” in the words of one New Hampshire orchardist -- with the same sweet/acid balance as boiled cider. The resulting product can be spread and used like jelly on baked goods, served with cheeses, or used like boiled cider in various ways, such as for glazing ham, chicken, or other meats.
With westward expansion and the loss of farms from New England, particularly in the years following the Civil War, the agricultural economy of this region generally declined; only in recent years have small farms and orchards begun to make a comeback as more people begin to value locally grown foods. The relatively few citations in cookbooks to boiled cider in the years since World War II emphasize that 1) it is a traditional New England product, and 2) it has for many years become increasingly hard to find commercially though it is certainly easy enough to make at home from fresh sweet cider.
Today, boiled cider is relatively little known except as a cultural artifact, and is certainly underappreciated, even in its traditional homeland of New England. Although a few small orchards in various parts of the U.S. do produce it, only two companies in the state of Vermont still make it in any commercial quantities. 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. In 1798 this farm was originally settled by Willis Wood’s ancestors; in 1882 the sawmill on the property was converted into a cider mill, and succeeding generations of farmers have been producing cider (and boiled cider) ever since that time. Fresh, unpasteurized sweet cider pressed from locally grown apples is reduced into boiled cider and cider jelly in a wood-fired evaporator and bottled on-site. More than anyone else, the Woods have kept the tradition of boiled cider (and cider jelly) alive in New England. Without them, it is doubtful that this product would have survived in commerce at all. Yet, even with their fidelity and persistence over the years, boiled cider remains an endangered regional food tradition.
The recent emphasis on rediscovering and celebrating America’s regional food traditions should make both boiled cider and cider jelly appealing to modern chefs and home cooks alike. Once people have tasted boiled cider, they generally devise many other, non-traditional uses for it. In 2007 one young Slow Food chef in southwestern New Hampshire developed a “caramel apple gelato” that highlights the caramelized and slightly smoky, burnt flavor of the boiled cider. Such culinary creativity will be key to establishing both new market potential and an appreciation for boiled cider and cider jelly today, and to securing their future.