In Pursuit of the Real Oldtime Apple Butter, Shelf Stable, Delicious and All Apples

At some point I figured out that Apple butter as we know it is not what it used to be.  Old School apple butter was made to keep without canning or refrigeration and probably pre-dates canning jars.  I wouldn't be surprised if it entirely predates even the concept of heat canning.  I have had this idea on the back burner for a long time; the idea to find out everything I could about what apple butter used to be and to learn to make it, which I finally got around to this year.  The truth seems better than I had hoped.  The video below is the short, pretty version, the first half, being the process, is only about 4 minutes long and then I talk a little bit.  This post will be the long geeked out version, with thoughts and speculations and such.  And this instructable is the medium version, with a little more than you need to know, but not too much (I'd like to place in their heirloom recipes contest over there.  You can help by voting for me here..).  Finally, the post I put up yesterday is a compilation of all the relevant research that I collected, most of it from before 1900.  That's the best bit to me.  I love that stuff!

If you try making/storing/eating this type of apple butter, please report back.  Even if it is years from now, I'm sure I'm not the only one that would like to hear how it goes!

High definition/full screen recommended!

So, I already somehow knew that apple butter predated canning in jars, but I didn't know much else.  So, I did research to find what I could about real apple butter in general and the process of making it.  I actually found more and better stuff than I expected.  Basically, it seems that apple butter at it's best is not only delicious, but can keep for years without refrigeration or canning.  The news could hardly get any better than that!  I found numerous accounts of it's deliciousness and several claiming very long keeping, up to 25 years!  Not only that, but one account says it improves with age!  Wow, the news just did get better!

Of course there are many variations, but I think it's fairly safe to say that the old school apple butter is a product of boiling down a large quantity of cider with some peeled and cored apples added to make a smooth stiff mass.  Just how stiff is open to experimentation at this point, but on a spectrum of apple sauce to fruit leather, it is certainly supposed be closer to the fruit leather end.  I made three somewhat different consistencies, which I will probably save for a year or more to see how they keep.

I started this project too late to get a large quantity of apples without buying them, so I was only able to make a couple of very small batches this year.  I'm hopeful that they will keep well and I'm already thinking of seriously scaling way up next year.  It was easier than I thought and not that time consuming either for reasons I'll divulge presently.

The typical process and equipment for making apple butter was to boil cider down in a copper pot, then add peeled and cored apples and cook it down while stirring for 10 or more hours with a wooden paddle on the end of a large stick.  This traditional equipment is still in use by individuals, church groups and at apple butter festivals across America, but I couldn't find a single reference to anyone making the old style product.  The new apple butter tends to be closer to a very thick applesauce and, typically at least, must be preserved by canning.  I started my research by looking through the 1800s.  After I extracted all the good stuff from that era, I did a search through the first quarter of the 20th century.  There is an obvious change that happens after about 1900.  The new USDA recommendations were to can apple butter.  Recipes started using more apples and sugar and less cider, in short, short cuts began to creep in.  Since it would be canned anyway, there was no reason to cook it down so far, which meant less time, less stirring and resulted in more product (although just because it contained more water and fiber).  I think it was already on the decline in the late 1800's as this quote indicates:

“Making Apple butter is almost one of the lost arts”
Vick's Monthly Magazine, Volume 10, 1887

The old copper kettle and long wooden paddle.  Do not use copper, it was known to be toxic even then, but iron was unsuitable and copper was the go to metal for many processes for which iron was unsuitable.  The next best at the time was probably tinned copper, but I think that is toxic too. photo from Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, Alice Morse Earle 1901

rockin't it old school baby!  photo from Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth, Alice Morse Earle 1901

An old advert for an apple butter paddle

So why bother making it the old way?  I just like skills that give me independence.  Apple butter can be made with just apples and be stored in random containers from ceramic to glass to wood.  I also hate buying canning seals. They are expensive and just another source of plastic contacting my food and leaching who knows what into it.  Sure, there are alternative jars that use rubber seals, but do a little shopping and see how much it will cost to re-tool your entire canning jar collecting over to fancy European jars with rubber seals.  In the end. I do what works for me and I preserve what I actually want to eat.  I'm not really a ludite.  I'm not going to dry and pickle everything just so I don't have to buy canning seals, but if I can make a truly outstanding product that I actually really want to eat by this very simple method and then store it for years?  Just let me say, OH HELL YES HOMESLICE!

So lets get down to it here.  This is the super short recipe version based on a compilation of experience and the various references I read.  Consider it a starting point only.  I'll elaborate, on some points below.

*Use a ratio of juice to whole apples between 1 to 1 and 1 to .75

*Boil the juice down while you peel and core the apples

*If the juice and apples don't seem very sweet, consider adding some sugar.

*Add the apples to the juice and cook, leave the lid off so it continues evaporating.

*Put a ceramic plate in the refrigerator for cooling test blobs on.  The butter cannot be tested hot, it stiffens a lot on cooling.

*When the apples are cooked and the liquid is getting thicker and is more than half reduced, grind it all smooth with a blender or immersion blender.

*Cook down at a steady boil stirring enough to prevent sticking and caramelization (burning or browning of the sugars).  As it cooks down it will require more stirring.

*Eventually it will start to have more body and stick to itself, start testing it as soon as you see it changing character like this.  It may appear to start acting more like toffee or caramel.  Keep stirring, don't let it caramelize.  Smear a bit on the cold plate and test it for consistency.  I went for a product that was just soft enough to spread with a little effort, like somewhere between cold and warm butter.  See the video for example.

*Pack into jars while hot.

*Possibly put paper, waxed paper or baking parchment directly over the apple butter before tying paper tightly over the top.  I don't remember any of the old references saying that it should be sealed in any way, such as with wax.

*Where to store?  The warm place?  The cool place?  I don't know, let me know what happens!


Spices are optional and sugar is added if the apples are not sweet enough.  After reading all the recipes and accounts that I found, I basically decided that a proportion of juice to whole apples somewhere between1 to 1 & 1 to .75   is probably in the ballpark.  The apples are measured whole, and subsequently peeled and cored.  For a large amount, I would definitely use a hand crank peeler/corer device.  They are awesome.  I'm also going on the working assumption that since using more juice means more sugar and less fiber, that it's best to err on the side of more juice.  I made two very small batches because I didn't have many apples and couldn't find any free ones late in the season.

I believe that the stirring was a combination of preventing burning, as well as a social rallying point of sorts, and necessary to reduce the apples to smitherines, which would not happen if they were just left to stew. I found that by reducing the apples to a smooth consistency with an immersion blender, I didn't actually have to stir it very much at all.  While I can't know for sure if there is benefit to stirring a large batch for 10 or 12 hours over an open fire unless I try it, I tend to doubt it will make a ton of difference and using the immersion blender saved me a lot of probably unnecessary effort.  On the other hand, the whole apple butter party scenario and keeping the fire going with constant stirring is really pretty neat and I think it survived because it has some special appeal to us as social beings.  I'd love to host one of those sometime- keep people busy stirring paring and pressing.  I like parties with a purpose!

The water content must be reduced for the product to be stored without canning.  Descriptions of apple butter's texture are not that helpful, but one compared it to butter (makes sense given the name right?) and another to cheese.  Many accounts though say it was spreadable.  So, I figured if I made it just barely spreadable this time, I could always make it softer in the future and see if it would still keep.  The first batch was too stiff.  It has to be sort of cut with a butter knife.  For the second batch I did one jar softer than the other.  One of those is spreadable, but somewhat stiff.  I'm guessing it is just about right.  We'll see how they all hold up.

There are accounts that seem to support both storing cold and storing in the garret or attic, which must certainly be warm to hot sometimes.  The most compelling accounts are from the Pennsylvania Dutch and taken altogether, it sounds like they both stored in the garret and kept the stuff for years.  I'm inclined to think that if it is made properly (whatever that may be) and kept from absorbing moisture, that it will keep well regardless of temperature.  But that is just speculation at this point.

Stiff, but definitely spreadable

There is some mention of other fruit, especially pears and one mentions quince as a flavoring.  My friend Erica makes something called Membrillo which is a similar quince paste.  There seems to be much possibility in using other fruits and I'm sure the lines between fruit spreads, butters, preserves and jams can't always be drawn cleanly.  But apple butter just sort of makes sense.  Apples are versatile and typically grown in larger quantity than other fruits by American subsistence farmers and homesteaders for that very reason.  And if the legendary keeping qualities prove to be legitimate, what a great way to use a bumper crop of apples and insure food for years to come in case of crop failures.

Speaking of keeping qualities again, I'm more or less assuming for the purposes of moving forward with experimentation, that the primary factors in keeping ability will be sugar and water content.  Diminishing the water and increasing the sugar will make the conditions increasingly unfavorable for spoilage organisms.  That is well known stuff.  A third factor could be acidity from concentrating fruit acids.  And, an outside possibility could be copper content from cooking in the old copper pots.  I'm putting my money on the first two though, because those are already well known factors in the food preservation world.

There is a class of apples, sweets or sweetings, that contain high sugar and were used for processing into various products and as stock feed.  They were sometimes added to cider, cooked (since they requiring no added sugar), and apparently made into apple butter.  The only 4 apples that I ran across as recommended for making apple butter pre-1900 all have the name sweet or sweeting in them.  The Pound Sweeting, Pumpkin Sweet, Tender Sweeting and the Red, or Sweet Pippin.  I think that says a lot.  I'll be collecting some of those now, but they are a much neglected group of apples and I would imagine most of them have been loss to time and neglect.

This post is sort of the "finish" of my old school apple butter project, but also just the start, and hopefully the start of yours too.  I don't think we need anything much more in the way or research, but it may take any one of us more or less time to decide what works well in terms of apple varieties, apple ripeness, and moisture content of the finished product.  And who knows what unforeseen vexes to navigate and pearls to collect await us.

Sometimes people, or societies, reject things for good reason and sometimes not.  Often, things are rejected categorically or just fizzle out when necessity no longer dictates form.  In my observation, and to my way of thinking, categorical rejection is a plague.  To assume for instance that a machine or mechanical contrivance is always better than a body/hand powered tool is folly, even if the machine does the job faster and with less energy expended by the user.  Things have to be assessed in a larger more holistic context.  I won't be simply assessing apple butter by "it's more work" or "it's the old fashion way so it's better" or even "it tastes better so I'll make it at any cost!"  I'm too lazy/busy and practical to do something for long if it doesn't "work" for me in a broad sense.  Old fashioned apple butter, no matter how romantic the notion, will have to run the gauntlet of my life, preferences, values, desires and needs, just like everything else.  And we shall see if it makes the cut.  I have certain food products I make, like canned tomatoes, artichoke hearts, hot sauce, pepperoncini, canned apple and grape juice, frozen roasted eggplant and peppers, dried chilies, dried black trumpet mushrooms- things that have stood the test of time and work for me.  I put them up almost every year that they are available, and I eat them all.  They only sit in the cupboard collecting dust if I have a huge bumper crop or have to ration them so I don't run out.  Given the small quantity of this apple butter that I made, I've only actually eaten a very small amount.  Regardless, given the quality and the fact that the preparation is not particularly difficult, I have a feeling this old fashioned apple butter is going to be join the ranks of those awesome favored foods already populating my cupboards on a yearly basis.

Small Beginnings.  Next year I get serious  >:-[ 

Posted on December 30, 2015 .