We here at FruitStand are equal opportunity condiment lovers, happily scarfing down all sorts of toast-toppers, from fruit curds to conserves to compotes.
But even we must admit there’s just something about fruit butter that’s totally our jam—so we’re here to spread the good word on the great spread.
You may have seen it at the farmer’s market or grocery store, lumped in with all the other fruit-based bread toppings. You may have even thought to yourself, “Is there really a difference between fruit butter, jam and jelly?”
As it turns out, the answer is yes!
Fruit butter is actually distinctive from its common condiment aisle compatriots, thanks not only to what’s in it, but how it’s made.
Or maybe we should say, how it’s not made.
Nearly every type of fruit-based spread, from jams to jellies to marmalades, rely on the same secret ingredient: pectin. A naturally-occurring starch found in most fruits, the compound is the main contributor to that jammy texture—typically achieved by combining it with heat, sugar and the presence of some sort of acid (think: citrus fruit).
But rather than focus on gelling things up, the fruit butter process works by breaking things down.
The presence of pectin is disregarded completely when creating the spread. Instead, a low, consistent heat, several hours and just a bit of sugar are used on a pan full of fruit pulp.
Heating things up just enough for so long takes care of the texture by evaporating the fruits’ natural moisture – rather than turning it into a gluey mix. And since slow cooking the pulp essentially takes care of everything, fruit butters can be whipped up with half the sugar needed to make a jelly or jam.
The end result leaves the pulp in a delicate, creamy and infinitely spreadable state. And it’s this quality that gives fruit butter – otherwise a 100% butter-free concoction – it’s culinary nickname.
It all started in the monasteries of Northern Europe, when crafty – and, most likely, hungry – monks were figuring out how to make their crops last longer in the pre-refrigerator days.
Fruit butter emerged as the perfect solution, as it was not only simple to make but extended the fruit’s shelf life nearly indefinitely – and used far less precious sugar to get there to boot.
The first type of widely-produced fruit butter was made using apples, which lend themselves better to the process than most other fruits, due to their naturally low moisture content. And a few flourishes were added to the recipe initially, including the addition of warming spices like cinnamon and cloves.
But it wasn’t long before the butter was out of the bag, exploding in popularity all over Europe, and even more experimental examples were cooked up across the continent.
In the Netherlands and Germany, syrup – rather than sugar – is used to help break the fruit down, and the extra ingredient adds its own spin and sweetness to the mix.
Hungary claims perhaps the continent’s thickest fruit butter with its recipe for lekvar, which is made out of pre-cooked plums or apricots.
And in Poland, the locals eat powidla, made by cooking down whole fruit – usually cherries or plums – rather than starting with pulp. The end result bears a thick and smooth consistency that’s spread over everything from bread to pork to pastries and even included in glazes and sauce.
Still, if you’re searching for the spread in the U.S., you’ll only find a few types of fruit butter flavors. The Food and Drug Administration has declared that only butters made with apples, apricots, grapes, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, or quince can be officially labeled as such.
Sure, you could eat fruit butter on toast. And in fact, that’s one of the best ways to enjoy it.
But the only thing truly limiting the number of ways to eat fruit butter is your imagination.
The spread makes a surprisingly good addition to savory dishes, adding a naturally sweet-but-not-too-sweet counterpoint to something salty or acidic – much how it’s used in Poland.
Fruit butter is also a great option for low-fat or vegan cooking, making a solid stand-in for actual butter or many other fatty – and, typically, diary-based – ingredients.
Still, for those less-adventurous (but still curious!) culinary explorers, fruit butter can be used in lieu of frosting between cake layers or on top of cupcakes or pastries. And the spread is even good when keeping it simple, spooned over a graham cracker or into some yogurt.
But no matter which way you decide to eat it, or which flavor you choose, fruit butter is bound to bring its own unique spin to the table.