Apple Butter: A Slow-Cook Holiday Family Tradition

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apple butter

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Apple butter might not seem like a traditional holiday food, but it holds a place of honor at my family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas table in Virginia. Stored in mason jars in the cellar or pantry until opened, then kept in the fridge, the apple butter gets its own special serving dish at my family’s holiday meals. Every few years we forget to put out the apple butter, but as soon as we start passing the homemade rolls, someone (usually my father) inevitably asks for it.

Because apple butter is traditionally made in the fall after apples are harvested, it also makes a great holiday gift.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I grew up, gallons and gallons of apple butter are made by groups of people who gather for an “apple butter boiling.” The results are then canned and sold as fundraisers for local churches, fire halls and civic organizations.

Not a hurried process

Making apple butter this way is a two-day process. It takes 15 to 18 bushels of apples to make a large kettle of apple butter, so preparing the apples is an event in itself. On the evening before the apple butter boiling, people gather to peel and core the apples and cut them into slices called “snits.”

The next day is devoted to cooking down the apples in a large copper kettle over an open fire. It takes hours to boil down the apples in a bath of apple cider and the pot must be stirred the entire time. It’s traditional to add 10 to 12 pennies to the bottom of the kettle as you start to boil the apples in the kettle. Nobody really knows why, but some people think it keeps the apples from sticking to the bottom and burning. There’s even a special way to stir the kettle and a rhyme to help remember how to do it.

Once around the side and twice through the middle,

Don’t you burn that apple butter ‘kittle.’

People in the community buy apple-butter from the communal “boiling” for themselves and to give as holiday gifts. I grew up in Winchester, the apple capitol of Virginia, so my perspective on apple butter may be slightly skewed, but it’s been my experience that you can find apple butter anywhere people grow apples, at least in this country.

 

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My daughter tells me how to pick apples the right way. Credit: Susan Lutz

However, if you don’t have a local civic group that takes two days to make apple butter for you, you’ll probably have to do it yourself. I don’t mean to imply that you can’t buy apple butter at the grocery store. You can. But it’s not the same. So this year I embarked on a quest to create the kind of apple butter I grew up with.

A new generation

My husband and I took our daughters to pick apples in our local apple country at a place called Oak Glen, Calif., about an hour and a half east of Los Angeles. When I told my dad what we were planning, he said, “I always wondered who went to those places. Seems smarter to have someone else do the hard work and pick out the good apples for you.”

Clearly, he is a man who grew up picking his own apples from his family’s small orchard. I was embarrassed at first, but also defensive when I said, “So you WANT your granddaughters to grow up not knowing how to pick apples? The phone line was silent for a minute before he replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Point made.

My family happily harvested apples at Riley’s Farm (and enjoyed the hay ride and other “old-timey” events). A few days later we began to make our own apple butter. My father happened to be visiting when we made the second batch. I’m pleased to report that he sat at my stove dutifully stirring the pot of apple butter for an hour and a half one evening. Such is my father’s love of apple butter and family.

The apple butter we made is so thick that it will pile up on a spoon and melt in your mouth. It is dark brown in color, generously spiced with cinnamon and cloves and never gritty. My recipe makes about nine half-pint jars so if you go to the trouble of making it, you’ll have plenty to share. That is, unless you’re a part of my family, in which case you’ll have to make at least two batches of the stuff for your own family’s use. That’s what I did this year and I think I might make another batch or two before the holidays roll around so I have some to give away as presents.

Country-Style Apple Butter

Yield: 9 to 10 half-pints

I am grateful to Phyllis Shenk and Betty Sheetz for sharing their apple butter recipe with me and allowing me to attend their family’s joint apple butter boiling about 10 years ago.

Both of these amazing women have since passed away, and I often think of them as I stir my apple butter “kettle.” Although they’d probably get a good chuckle at the “tiny” quantity of apple butter this recipe makes, I think they’d like it. I’m sure it would please them both to know that I’m teaching my daughters to love apple butter and to learn their traditional apple butter stirring-rhyme.

Note: This is not the fastest or easiest way to make apple butter. It’s still a two-day process, even without the open fire and copper kettle.

My recipe calls for using a combination of a slow-cooker and stirring a pot on the stove for several hours. Using the slow-cooker allows me to cut down on stirring time by about 1½ hours, while still getting the rich, dark color I like.

Ingredients

8 pounds of apples (Phyllis and Betty recommend using Ben Davis or Rome apples. They say never use Staymen because they cook up “stringy.” I’ve used a combination of Jonathans and Senshus with great success. Avoid overripe, mealy apples of all varieties.)

2 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)

1½ tablespoons whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1 spice bag (or a piece of cheese cloth with a string to tie it shut)

4½ to 5 cups white sugar (The total amount of sugar used depends on sweetness of the apples. You can also substitute light brown sugar for white sugar.)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

2 cups apple cider or water (Sometimes I need to add a little extra water to the pot during the second cooking phase on the stove-top if I turn the heat up too high during the cooking process.)

Directions

1. Wash, peel, core, and slice apples into at least 8 pieces about ¼ to ½ inch thick. You should end up with approximately 6 to 6½ pounds of sliced apples from 8 pounds of whole apples.

2. Warm the apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of water or apple cider in a medium sauce pan.

3. Place apples, spice bag containing the cloves and cinnamon stick, and warmed liquid mixture in a slow cooker. Cook on high, with covered lid, for 8 hours. Don’t do this overnight because you want to watch the cooking process to make sure the apples don’t scorch. The cooking time will depend on the heat of your slow cooker. If you have a high-powered slow cooker, cook on low heat.

If all the apples won’t fit into your slow cooker, you can place the extra apples in a medium sauce pan with at least 1 cup of the original liquid mixture. Heat the pot of apples and liquid mixture slowly on the stove and keep the pot covered. When apples in the slow cooker have cooked down a bit, add the softened apples from the pot into the slow cooker.

4. After 5 hours, open the lid and taste the liquid. Remove the spice bag if you like the flavor. For a stronger flavor, leave the spice bag in the mixture until you achieve the desired spiciness. Continue cooking for a total of at least 8 hours.

5. After 8 hours, the apples should be very soft. They will also have produced a large quantity of liquid.  Cool the apple mixture and put it into the refrigerator overnight.

6. The next day, put the apple and liquid mixture into a large non-reactive pot and heat slowly, stirring constantly. If you don’t like slightly lumpy apple butter (as I do), you can run the apple mixture through a food mill or use an immersion blender to get rid of some of the lumps before you begin heating it.

7. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, for approximately 1½ to 2 hours until the apples are dark brown in color and have the consistency of slightly lumpy applesauce. Add 1 cup of additional water (or apple cider) if the pot starts to get dry before the apples have thoroughly cooked. Be careful to keep heat low enough that the mixture does not bubble up and burn you while you’re stirring the pot.

8. When the apple butter has thickened, add 4 ½ cups sugar, continuing to stir the pot.

Taste for flavor. Add up to ½ cup of additional sugar and ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon if needed.

9. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of apple butter onto a plate and watch to see if a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of apple butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.

10. While apple butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.

When apple butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.

Photo: Apple butter. Credit: Susan Lutz


Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she lives near Washington, D.C., where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.

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Comments

Carey Ann
on: 11/15/12
Yum! The apple butter in the photo looks wonderful. The stuff my mother used to buy in the store was a muddy brown color. Yours looks worthy of trying to create, especially if I can tell myself I can also give it as a Christmas gift (and doesn't get eaten first).
Jane
on: 11/16/12
It sounds wonderful. Now I know what I want for Christmas.
Susan Lutz
on: 11/16/12
@Carey Ann- Making this apple butter will probably take longer than a trip to the mall, but the results are well worth it. Please let me know if you give it a try!
Bob Engel
on: 11/20/12
I was so happy to have this memory brought back. In the 1980s I lived in a spiritual community outside of Charles Town West Virginia. We must've looked like a bunch of crazy hippies to the locals, but that didn't keep the church group from lending us their decades-old copper kettles for apple butter. These kettles were about 15-20 gallons in capacity and were stirred with a hoe-like implement made from a six foot long dowel with a wooden spade attached at 90 degrees to the end. The stirring was continuous for the 6-8 hours it took to make the apple butter. Stirrers took turns moving the spade back and forth across the middle of the kettle, while simultaneously walking in a circle around the kettle over an open flame. It felt down right medieval. Traditions like these make for enduring memories.
Susan Lutz
on: 11/21/12
@Bob Engel- I love your apple butter story. I grew up not too far from Charles Town and I can clearly imagine the scene you describe. It must have been quite an event. Communal activities like apple-butter boils have a great way of creating bonds not only within communities, but also BETWEEN communities. Thanks so much for writing.
Mark Shenk
on: 12/2/12
Its good to know that Mom and Bettys' tradition is being carried on . Alot more than apple butter was made. Also alot of fond memories of the families that helped us and the stories that were told. Too bad you missed hog butchering time , not many people do that now adays. Have to admit its alot easier goin to the store, but it doesn't quite taste the same.
Susan Lutz
on: 12/5/12
@Mark- I'm so happy to hear from you. I do indeed wish I'd been around for hog butchering time. I didn't realize that you guys still did that. Maybe next year...
KATHLEEN GARDNER
on: 12/16/12
I well remember the Apple Butter Making. Daddy set up the kettle behind the woodshed which was behind the garage. There was a lot of stirring and talking. Nothing was better than fresh apple butter on Mom's homemade rolls! Our church still does the apple butter in October.
Susan Lutz
on: 12/18/12
@Kathleen- What a great memory. Thanks for writing. You're lucky to still have a good source for apple butter!

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