Real Shelf Stable Apple Butter, Recovering a Lost Art.

About: I have spent most of my life accumulating skills to be a more self reliant person. I like making stuff and doing multidisciplinary projects using available resources. I view the world as a resourcescape of...

“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

Apple Butter

“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:

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    16 Discussions


    3 years ago

    i THINK you ended up making a butter/jam hybrid. as such, if you cap with a nice wax seal while still hot, it should be shelf stable for at least a few months, years if done at the proper temperature.

    Here is my reasoning. Butters tend to have added spices, and are made from whole fruit (sometimes, but not always, skinned) and cooked for long periods over low heat, which helps caramelize the product. Jams have added pectin, to create a more jelly like substance. The extra apple juice you added works as both the extra sugar AND as a source of pectin concentrated out of the juice while you were cooking it down...making it a jam, but the caramelizing and spices make it a butter too.

    Either way, sugar bonds with water, drawing moisture out of living cells, thus making the fruit inhospitable to microbes that can cause spoilage. And with all that concentrated apple goodness, that is a LOT of sugar. In a non-humid storage facility, it should be good for a long time. many months for pantry storage. indefinitely in the fridge.

    <a historyLesson>

    probably why you heard the tales of storage in the garret is because this is an OLD recipe. Modern houses are sealed tight, have insulation, and attics that often require active ventilation, just to keep from self immolation! (ok, maybe not THAT hot). before the late 1800s homes were not built with large, continuous sheathing, and asphalt roofing materials. it was wood and slate shingles on lath.The attic would therefore be "room temperature" AT BEST during the winter, and most importantly, DRY(both dried from the fire providing heat and from the cold dry winter air drafting through the 'leaks'). Since preserved foods were only meant to keep you going until next spring when fresh food was once again available, the food would be eaten before summer heat could induce spoilage.


    4 replies

    Reply 1 year ago

    Nope he made apple butter it is not a hybrid and this stuff will store as far as I have seen from personal experience indefinitely I know this because there are 20+ year old cans of apple butter and canned vegetables in my grandmothers cabinet. I know that they are still safe to eat because I have eaten them and even the cans that have been opened are still safe to eat. The vegetables still look like they were just picked yesterday.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Well, apple butter just is what it is. A name is not a thing. I'm not sure what role pectin plays, but my impression is that it is more the reduction in moisture that gives it it's very stiff texture, at least if cooked down that far. It also, like candy or caramel stiffens considerably on cooling and acts in the pan a lot like caramel, sticking to itself. So, my impression is that it is both the high sugar and lack of moisture that give are the primary factors in both it's finished consistency and keeping ability.

    I could certainly see a garret being cool in the winter, but my impression is that attics are basically hot in hot weather. And, two accounts seem to indicate pretty clearly that it was stored year round in the garret. One says it is stored in the garret where it has been known to keep for 25 years. Another is this one which was concerning events immediately after the battle of Gettysburg about July 4th...

    Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade
    By John Overton Casler, Robert K. KricUniv of South Carolina Press, 1906

    was one large farmhouse close by where we pioneers were placed, and we
    went to it and found a bountiful supply of provisions. The family must
    have left in haste, as the table was still set, with the dishes on it,
    just as if they had left their meal and run for dear life. We found
    several barrels of flour, a smokehouse full of bacon, a springhouse full
    of milk and butter, the garret full of crocks of apple butter, and
    everything eatable that is kept in the farmhouse of a well to do
    Pennsylvania Dutchman.

    That is pretty specific. The recipes vary quite a bit. My best guess is that some was made with apples of a lower sugar content, and/or with a higher moisture content and may not have kept as long. It certainly seems too as though storing in a dry, albeit warm, place v.s. damp/cool environment could make a difference too. I left a small amount out overnight on a plate on the kitchen counter, and it seemed to soften, just from picking up some moisture from the air.

    For now, my working assumption is that if made properly, most likely a combination of sugar content and low moisture, though acidity seems worth considering too, it should keep in warm or cool storage as long as the moisture content isn't rising due to exposure to humidity. Also, that it was stored in the garret all year and that it would at times be very warm there, if not downright hot.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Well, that IS very specific!

    The part where they also found the spring house packed with milk and butter... also seems to indicate recent. Salted butter would last a while, but milk would be unrecognizable after a few months, even with modern refridgeration and pasteurization. Of course, dysentary was a common cause of death back then... so 'good' food is relative. :-)

    So, I looked, and my regular applebutter recipie says a 2-4 year shelf life when hot sealed ("while still steaming hot, cover with a thin layer of honey, then a qurter to half inch of melted beeswax") with no mention of storage conditions. So, at the very least, my grandmother was confident in the longevity of the applebutter. With a bit of bravery, I don't see why a pre-1900 American wouldn't be perfectly ok with an older crock full.

    Now... where to find a redflesh apple graft... :-)


    Reply 3 years ago

    I definitely thought of going the wax route and hot packing. My mother as late as about 1980 was still doing wax sealed jams. I remember they often had a tiny spot mold, something I've seen in other hot packed products. I think the mould uses up the very limited amount of oxygen available and it's game over. But, all of that stuff was also low in sugar relative to old school preserves, jams and jellies which all have enough sugar to send any sugar-phobe on a binge. But, hey, a simple solution is always better if it works. Who am I to improve on a piece of cloth or paper! I also didn't sterilize the jars or put the pack the stuff particularly scalding hot. I'm just trying to think in 19th century terms. Germs? Yeah, I heard about them things, can't even see 'em? whell I never!

    It just so happens that my friends just launched a new website for the North American Scion exchange! It's just a place to trade scions with people. Very cool and much needed. Red fleshed apples are gaining in popularity. I think they are pretty easy to find now.


    1 year ago

    My grandmother has cans of apple butter from a very long time ago and they are still safe to eat even the ones that have been opened same with the canned vegetables that she made more than 20 years ago. The vegetables look as if they were just put in the can yesterday. It is amazing how many amazing methods and skills that work so well have been forgotten even though they are still very helpful today.


    What's the ratio of apples to apple butter?

    How many gallons of cider and chopped apples do you need to make, say, a pint or quart of apple butter?


    2 years ago

    my grandmother used to make an ancient type of fruit preserve boiling and concentrating grape must ( the jus before in became wine) and cooing pears and quince apples in it. I made it myself but it is an hard work becouse quinces are very hard to cut ando to cook.


    3 years ago

    I know for a fact that the applebutter I have made (ball canning book recipe) and enjoyed most of my life (I was born and lived just outside of philly) was/is more like a thick applesauce than a butter. Thank you for writing this up. Old ways need to be preserved, for history and future sake.

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    Yeah, that is the modern product. I've made it that way too, and so did my Grandma. It's really good and I think it's not a matter of one or the other. they are very different looking and tasting products. It's not just because of the cooking down part, it's also because most of the apples are juiced. A lot of people don't have the means to even make juice anymore, but it used to be the norm. If you didn't have a press, a close neighbor had one. I made some persimmon butter last night to see if that would work, but it didn't seem as concentrated because all the pulp is in there still. I'm not sure how to juice a squishy persimmon! I'm just hoping the persimmons are so sweet it will keep without the juice fraction.


    3 years ago

    This was the basic recipe my mother used but so we didn't have to stir constantly she would, after cooking it down , put it in an enamel roaster and put it in the oven at a about 250 , stirring occasionally, until as thick as she wanted it.

    2 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    That is really neat to hear. What era was that and where would the recipe originally have come from? Did she put it in crocks to store or was it canned in jars with lids? One recipe I found mentioned making it in crocks in an oven. I may try that when I make a larger amount. Thanks for commenting.


    Reply 3 years ago

    I think my mom might have received the recipe from my dads mother.
    She was born in 1875 into a Mennonite family in PA. My grandparents lived on a farm and my grandfather had a big cider press where he made cider for surrounding farmers and he got his payment mostly in apples so Grandma had lots to work with. Since they didn't get electricity in their home until after WW2 I'm sure she used the crocks to store much. I remember my dad telling me she made sausage when they butchered a pig and stored it in a crock with a layer of sausage and then a layer of fat then another layer of each until the crock was full then it was stored that way. My mother made the apple butter for years but I remember her making it in my home in the 1970's. I'll be 76 in 2 weeks so things were passed down for a long time. I'm glad you are keeping these old ways recorded because the way things are going we may need them again before long.

    Karen Wood

    3 years ago

    I love what the red fleshed apples do for the color and the shelf life is amazing. Before I watched the video I was sure it was going to involve some fermenting. Will be interested to hear how it ages and holds up.

    2 replies
    skillcultKaren Wood

    Reply 3 years ago

    I wish I had more apples so I could do more different storage tests, but by the time I started the project, I couldn't find a large quantity. Hopefully next year.

    Karen Woodskillcult

    Reply 3 years ago

    I guessing next year you will have a lot more apples.