Stir up (or cook down) some Colonial Apple Butter

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In a world of wonderful jams and butters, apple butter might just be the ultimate slow food. Comprised of just a few natural ingredients, and no sugar, the best apple butter cooks most of the day over a low flame, so that the resulting mixture is wonderfully dense and has a rich, caramel-y taste. I’d been wanting to get in touch with my inner Colonial cook and make some, when a friend happened to bring over a bounty of Fuji apples from her backyard tree, and then another friend further inspired me by making amazing dried apples from her tree. (Lucky me!)

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Apples were indeed plentiful in Colonial America. Alice Morse Earle’s book, Home Life in Colonial America, lists such dishes as apple-slump (baked apples under a cake topping), apple-crowdy (a turnover-like dessert), and something called apple-mose, along with various types of pies. The book quotes a Swedish parson writing home about the Delaware settlement in 1758:

Apple-pie is used throughout the whole year, and when fresh apples are no longer to be had, dried ones are used. It is the evening meal of children. House-pie .. is made of apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.

I washed the Fuji apples, appreciating their pretty shapes and colors. In Colonial country homes, it was not uncommon to hold an apple-paring, in which friends and neighbors came to help peel the crop of apples for winter’s dried apples, applesauce and apple butter. The ingredients for apple butter were put into large brass kettles, which were then hung in big, open fireplaces. The finished apple butter would be stored in barrels in the house’s basement. Quince and pear butters were made as well.

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My apple butter is extremely easy to make, requiring only the ingredients you see above:

8 cups apples (a cup is approx. 2 small apples)

2 1/2 cups apple cider

1 Tbsp. honey

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. cloves

This recipe yields 2 jars of apple butter and can easily be doubled or tripled. I arrived at it through a combination of various vintage, Amish, and canning books, along with some trial and error.

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1. Wash, peel and chop the apples into small pieces.

2. Place the apples into a large pot and cover with the cider.

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3. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer.

4. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.

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5. Simmer on low heat, uncovered for 6 or more hours, or until the mixture cooks down to a paste. You may opt for occasional periods of slightly higher heat, if you find that your mixture remains too watery or if you want to caramelize some of the apples at the bottom of the pot.

This is the “inner Colonial” part — the long, slow cooking process and the fantastic way your house will smell and feel as you do it.

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6. Using a wide-mouth funnel, ladle the mixture into jars that have been prepared for canning. (I boil them for 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.)

7. Seal the jars and boil them again, for 10 minutes. Let them sit for a day. (If you follow strict canning guidelines, you can store your apple butter for the future. If you do not, then you’ll want to eat the apple butter within a couple of weeks and store it in the refrigerator.) Please refer to the USDA canning guidelines, downloadable Guide 1, for more information on proper home canning.

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Preserves and butters of all kinds make wonderful gifts and spreads, especially one like this, in which there is barely anything to get in the way of the wonderful, fresh, age-old Fall apple taste. Try apple butter on toast or crackers, with cheese, poultry, or even other fruit.

The colonial kitchen above is located at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT. If you are able to get to this museum, I highly recommend it. It’s like no other — approximately 40 buildings on beautiful grounds house collections of folk art, paintings, quilts, dolls, design, and entire detailed re-creations of such staples of the past as apothecaries, blacksmiths, printing shops, train stations, one-room schoolhouses, and homes of many eras. Look for an upcoming post that details more about the one-of-a-kind Shelburne Museum.

In the meantime, enjoy your butter and fall!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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15 Responses to Stir up (or cook down) some Colonial Apple Butter

  1. What a delightful post. Loved the historical touch to the story. You’re right, nothing smells better than apple butter cooking slowly all day long. I shared this post on my Facebook Wall (Seasonal Wisdom), so others could also enjoy it.

  2. Hi Teresa! I’m so glad you visited and liked the recipe enough to pass it on. I think it’s wonderful. I’m also glad to be reminded of your web site, which is also terrific. I just added it to my blogroll. Cheers!

  3. Evelyn Schiavone

    Loved your article on apple butter. I have my mother’s brass kettle and remember her making apple butter outside in the fall over an open fire. The kettle rested on 2 very large flat stones, with the fire in the middle. It was an all day process just as you say. Would love to try making apple butter sometime, wonder if a crock pot would work?

    • Hi Evelyn! I’m glad you visited. Are you related to my friend Mary Anne? She said she was passing the recipe on to family members.

      How wonderful that you have your mother’s brass kettle and especially the memory of her cooking apple butter over an open flame. I love your rich description of the process. Lucky you! I’ve had others ask about crockpot apple butter and, in poking around the internet, I do see plenty of recipes. Most of them call for long, slow cooking, just as the kettle version does. (And none of the ones I saw were made without added sugar, but I’ll look more.) It seems like the crockpot would imitate the low flame. I’ll just have to try it with my recipe and let you know how it goes. (I’m curious now, too.)

      Thanks again for writing and for sharing your memories.

  4. I made apple butter last year and didn’t think it turned out very well. My husband liked it, but I thought it was way to sugary. I see yours doesn’t have sugar (other than honey). I might have to try that.

  5. Evelyn Schiavone

    Yes, I am Mary Anne’s mother. She gave me some of your beautiful soaps. They are much to pretty to use, but someday I will. I make glycerin soap for my own use, but have not tried any other kind. You sure are good at soapmaking.

  6. Sounds very much like fall!

  7. Hi Mel, Evelyn and Weekend Cowgirl! It’s wonderful to see you all.

    Mel, I hope you make this apple butter and let me know how it goes. It’s so naturally sweet and flavorful, it doesn’t need any extra sugar.

    Evelyn, I’m enjoying getting to know you online and hope that we can meet in person one day. I’d love to hear more about your soapmaking. Go ahead and use my soaps. :) Thank you for the compliment!

    Weekend Cowgirl, indeed! Apple butter says Fall at its height to me.

  8. Yum! I love apple butter, and I love that your recipe is sugar-free. I’m definitely going to try it. Thanks.

  9. Hi Abby! Thanks so much for visiting! I’m so glad you like the recipe. Its lack of sugar is not only good for you but really brings out the taste of the apples and the cooking. I hope you enjoy making it. Let me know how it goes!

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