Introduction: Real Shelf Stable Apple Butter, Recovering a Lost Art.
“Making Apple butter is almost one of the lost arts”
Vick's Monthly Magazine, Volume 10, 1887
The first half of the video above is the short concise version of this project. The written instructable is everything you need to know and then a little, and this blog post is the geekiest version:)
I’ve always been interested in preserving things by old methods. There was a time before canning jars existed, and a transition time when most people still didn’t have them, or didn’t have very many of them. Before that, food preservation was different. Some of the foods we eat now evolved out of what used to be essential preservation methods, but they are not what they used to be. We still eat bacon, but we eat it because it tastes good, not because we must dry, smoke and salt it enough to keep well in a cool room.
And then there is apple butter. I don’t remember how I figured it out, but I’ve known for a while that what we call apple butter is for the most part not what it used to be. Apple butter used to be a shelf stable pantry product that was not vacuum sealed in a canning jar at high heat. It evolved out of necessity when there were no canning jars! Real old school apple butter was a thick paste so concentrated in sugar and so diminished in water content, that it would keep without canning or refrigeration. This is the apple butter that has always intrigued me and this project has been on the back burner for a long time, unfortunately, not literally. This year I finally began my journey, to discover, reclaim and record the process of making real apple butter.
My ex wife came into possession of a battered cookbook with yellowed pages that belonged to her great grandmother. It was grand-mams go-to cookbook. It is from another era, 1891. I thought it might be old enough to contain a recipe for real apple butter, and it does!
The Every-Day Cook-Book and Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes For Family Use by Miss E. Neill
Economical, Reliable and Excellent
Mercantile Pub. and Adv. Co. 1891
“Boil one barrel of new cider down half, peel and core three bushels of good cooking apples; when the cider has boiled to half the quantity, add the apples, and when soft, stir constantly for from eight to ten hours. If done it will adhere to an inverted plate. Put away in stone jars (not earthen ware), covering first with writing-paper cut to fit the jar, and press down closely upon the apple butter; cover the whole with thick brown paper snugly tied down.”
I decided to see what other information I could dig up. I started with YouTube videos and web searches. It wasn’t an exhaustive search, but all indications are that this is a dead art. There are lots of people using the old apple butter making tools and there are even apple butter festivals in Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, but none seem to be making the old style product.
Using one of my favorite research tools, the arm of our big brother google known as googlebooks, I was able to dig up a good number of other recipes for corroboration, mostly from the 19th century. There is some good stuff. I’ve posted all of this fascinating research in a blog post.
Following is a great quote on the keeping ability of true apple butter, though not all accounts are this positive about storage, long keeping was definitely the goal.
“When cooked, it will be about as hard and fine as butter. It is a delicious article and will keep many years; indeed it improves by age. That which we ate in Pennsylvania was seven years old. Families in that region make no applesauce, or rather they make it this way, once in seven years only, and then call together friends and neighbors for a great operation. We made 100 lbs. three years ago, directly after our return, and a fine article it is. We keep it for the benefit of age.” The Dollar Farmer 1843
Wow, okay, that sounds amazing right! Are you on board yet!? Another account says:
“When done, it was dipped out into earthenware vessels, over the top of which was tied brown paper, and then the vessels were stored away in the garret, where the butter has been known to keep for twenty-five years.”
Kaching! That’s money in the bank! Got a bumper apple year? Hello Apple Butter, where have you been all my life!
Apple butter was not only a good way to reduce a bunch of apples greatly in size and store them easily, but by all accounts it was also awesomely delicious! as these quotes indicate:
“One of the most delicious dishes among our Pennsylvania German farmers is apple butter.”
“This product has become almost an article of necessity to the native inhabitant and no Pennsylvania farmer considers his fall work completed, if he has not made up his annual supply of this delicacy.”
“At supper we had a hand at the apple butter; and I now recollected that I had before tasted some of it in coming through the Jerseys, but did not know that it went by that name. It is really excellent, and quite American; and, believe me, buckwheat cakes and apple butter are a feast for a king: I guess Queen Victoria has never tasted any thing so fine.”
“There were “oceans” of apple-butter and great loaves of snow-white bread that “took the cake” over anything that came within the range of my experience., and some of them looked as big as peck measures. A slice cut from one of them and smeared thick with that delicious apple-butter, was a feast fit for gods or men. “
Exciting right?. A product that keeps without canning or refrigeration, and it is delicious too! I’m also an apple geek and have collected over two hundred varieties which are grafted all over the property. I’m all about apples, and I have to crack the apple butter code!
I tackle projects like this dealing with lost arts fairly regularly. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and there is actually more information available on apple butter production than I had hoped. The initial results seem very encouraging, but there are still some important questions remaining, and reacquiring this art for reals may actually take many years of making, storing and eating the stuff. Gosh, life is hard…
Step 1: Tools, Materials and Ingredients
So, the recipes fairly consistently define apple butter as the product of boiling down apple juice in a copper or brass pot (iron would discolor and taint) until it is reduced by 1/2 to 1/3rd of its original volume, then adding peeled and cored apples and cooking those down with constant stirring until the whole is reduced to a thickened paste.
The recipes vary, but I ended up with the approximate ratio of 1 part of fresh pressed apple juice to a little less a quantity of whole apples. My guess is that erring in favor of more juice is going to make a sweeter and hopefully better keeping product. If you like to measure things I would start with about a 1 to .85 ratio, that is apple juice to whole unpeeled apples. It is probable that anything between 1 to 1 and 1 to .75 would work.
One thing I’m assuming, and which is occasionally mentioned, is that the apples should be as sweet as possible. The only four apples I found that are specifically referenced for making good apple butter in older literature (not that I looked really hard) all have the name sweet or sweeting in them! The Pound Sweeting, Pumpkin Sweet, Tender Sweeting and the Red, or Sweet Pippin. These sweets and sweetings are a class of apple that has been neglected and largely lost. I think this preference really tells us something. I think a high sugar content is going to be key to preserving this product right along with low moisture. If you look at old recipes for jams and preserves, they often have a very high sugar content. Sugar was sometimes added in making Apple Butter if the apples were not sweet enough.
Spices were often added, but the flavor is so good and concentrated that they are certainly optional.
Other things needed are jars for storage, or the old equivalent of jars, stoneware crocks. Butter firkins and kegs were used as well.
In the old days, cooking was done in copper cauldrons, stirred all day long. Even then people knew that copper is toxic and advised cleaning copper vessels thoroughly before use and not allowing food to sit in them any longer than necessary. I highly recommend against using copper or brass. Copper was the closest equivalent of stainless of that era and used for all sorts of industrial processes where iron was unsuitable.
Most apple butter these days is not made with boiled cider, but the juice fraction in apple butter is essential to preservation, at least without the addition of large amounts of extra sugar. So, you need juice, and quite a bit of it. Since all the pulp is discarded in juice making, and you need slightly more juice than whole apples by volume, you need a lot more apples for the juice than for the peeled and cored portion of apples.
Step 2: Make Juice and Cook It Down
Start with a little more fresh juice than whole apples. I used a counter top juicer for these test batches, but most old recipes say to start with a barrel of cider! I’m sure you could buy juice, but it may be prudent to add a little sugar if it is not very sweet. Boil the juice down to half it’s volume while you get busy peeling and coring the apples.
Step 3: Cook Down and Smooth
Put the peeled and cored apples in and cook them in the juice.
In the old days, they would stir the apple butter continually. I believe this was mostly to break the apples down, eroding them into a smooth paste. It may also have served less tangible secondary purposes like showing off and flirtation. One account says that the long paddle was deemed too heavy by the girls who would use that as an excuse to ask for help from their favorite boy whereupon the two of them would stir together. Indeed, people still do use the old style paddle just the same way, stirring by hand, and it seems that the traditions of copper pots, long wooden paddles and stirring are much more important now than the integrity of the original product. For practical purposes, an immersion blender or blender can reduce the apples to a smooth consistency as soon and they are cooked, avoiding hours of needless stirring.
If the heat isn’t ridiculously high, constant stirring is not necessary until near the end and it only need be stirred enough to prevent caramelization of the sugars or sticking.
The consistency of the apple butter is key to it’s keeping ability. One thing for sure is that it thickens a great deal when it cools, so cool it on a chilled plate to test it. I tried to err on the thick side, attempting to make it as dry and reduced as possible while still leaving it spreadable. Since numerous references also mention difficulty keeping the butter in warm weather, I think this will be a critical factor. One account says it should be like butter, and another compares it to cheese, but doesn't say what kind. The general impression I got is that it is not so stiff that it cannot be spread. My first batch was too thick, but this second batch seems about right, being only just spreadable.
Step 4: Packing and Storing
I packed my apple butter into small jars. It must be packed hot while it is still soft.
In one jar, I put a small circle of baking parchment pressed down onto the apple butter and then tied brown paper over the top. In another I used a brown paper circle pressed down on the apple butter and again brown paper on top. The third is fairly full and simply has a regular jar lid on it. I already know it tastes amazing. The real questions are how long will it keep stored like this, and will it improve with age, or suffer in quality?
I had assumed that it would keep better in a cool cellar or the like, but two accounts claim it was stored in the garret, which is the attic or top of the house, which was probably warm or even downright hot at times. It may be that the warm air kept the product dry, where as any consistently cold or damp environment, like a cellar, might allow the sugars in the apple butter to absorb and accumulate moisture over time and begin to spoil.
Step 5: Closing Thoughts and Where to Go From Here
Making this apple butter is really not that hard at all. It just takes a little extra attention at the end so that it doesn't over cook or burn. Plus, you get to skip the whole heat canning step. I think people stopped making it this way because it requires a lot more apples for less finished product (though it is more rich and concentrated too). Also, the USDA basically convince people that this type of preservation was unsafe and that everything had to be cooked to death in those newfangled canning jars. Perusing the available literature, it is clear that after 1900, there is a change in the apple butter paradigm leaning toward more added sugar, less juice used, higher moisture content and heat processing in canning jars. Well, making real old school apple butter may be time consuming, but so is canning, and by the time you pay for lids and seals for canning your apple butter, those money saving home preserves are suddenly not as money saving as they were supposed to be! The truth is that canning jar companies now have us on an endless treadmill of canning lid consumption. Maybe there are legitimate reasons that old school apple butter died out. I'm hell bent on finding out the truth through personal experience.
I'll leave you with this interesting account on storing apple butter.
“Yesterday I ran in to a neighbor's to see if she had any carpet-rags ready cut and sewed that
she could possibly spare us in a pinch like the present, and I found her stirring apple-butter, and three of her neighbors preparing more fruit for thickening. I was in a hurry, for the weaver had fell short of the colors of green and black filling; but my walk had been up-hill, and I was entitled to sit and rest, so I improved the time talking. One woman put her apple-butter in gallon crocks and jars; another put it in a half-barrel keg, and used out of the side of it and the other kept hers in three and four-gallon jars. They asked our way, or the way we did long ago …..We learned by experience that a keg of apple-butter would sour if we used out of it in moderate weather, the same as a gallon jar of jam would. When we made a large quantity of it then, we reheated it in the spring, and put it into vessels not containing over one gallon. If it was too strong, or too sour, we added sugar and cinnamon to the small quantity designed for immediate use, generally preparing one crock full at a time as we needed it. What rivers of apple-butter the American people are making! An incident happened lately that afforded a jolly laugh to us. Lily and I were walking one night in October, arm in arm, down the road to the village. It was quite dark, but clear and starry, and the south wind blew breezy enough to fluff up the hair of our uncovered heads. The village lights twinkled cheerily, and here and there flamed and flared the blazes under the kettles containing apple-butter in all stages, from the sweet cider, warm and brimming, down to the thick ruby mass beginning to glisten and show signs of fulfillment. I said: "See the kettles out in Bodkin's yard, and Professor Leslie's, and Williams's, and Showalter's, and the Widow Lane's, and Johnny Hermon's, and over at Mike Cole's, and at about every third house in town." "Yes, and one can smell hot cider in the very winds from the south," said Lily, "and once in awhile you get an intimation of 'boiling over' or 'sticking fast.' What a panic sweeps over the land, and how like a malignant epidemic it goes from house to house, attacking both old and young, and married and single. We hear it, and feel it, and taste it, and smell it." Just here two gentlemen came up behind us horseback, and in the gathering darkness we stepped aside to let them pass, and as I turned my head away from the breeze I heard one of them speak just one word, and that word was, "apple-butter." Their conversation had been on this prevailing topic.”
Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 47 1879
Again, all research compiled is available here: