Apple butter was always on Grandmother’s breakfast table. We scooped it onto hot buttered toast, added crisp strips of bacon, and folded it into a sweet and savory breakfast sandwich. The rich flavor of apple butter still brings memories of family breakfasts full of stories and laughter.
Equally good tucked into a hot buttered biscuit, added to a peanut butter sandwich, or spooned onto fresh pancakes; apple butter has always been a staple food in my kitchen as well. My mother and grandmother purchased the “Old Virginia” brand, but I prefer to make it myself.
Apple butter is one of those very simple dishes that anyone can make; like cheesy grits or tomato and basil sandwiches. And, since the apple harvest is underway here in Virginia, fresh, beautiful, local apples are appearing at farm stands and grocery stores by the bagful.
There are so many delicious apples on the market; it might be confusing to make a good choice. My advice is to search for the local apples if your state produces them. Virginia does, and so I pass over those trucked in from Washington State or stored for months in a warehouse somewhere. That means I avoid the huge bags of Red Delicious apples with their bright waxy coatings, and look for MacIntosh, Granny Smith, or Gingergold. Apple butter, like cider, often takes on more complex flavors if you mix up varieties within the same batch. This is a great way to use up apples with blemished skins and other imperfections. Green summer “cooking” apples work just as well as the later harvests of apples to eat out of hand.
Use an electric crock pot to make the cooking simple. Your house will smell better while making apple butter than it will when burning any Yankee Candle.
Add ¼ inch or less of water, or apple cider, to the bottom of the pot. Then add ground cinnamon and cloves to the liquid. I use about ½ tsp. of cinnamon for a dozen apples, and about ¼ tsp. of ground cloves. Sometimes I add just a touch of cardamom, but that is an acquired taste. Next, add about a half cup of dark brown sugar to the water, and turn the crock pot to “high” for eight hours. I’ve made apple butter with both honey and with white sugar. It all works fine. I would never use an artificial sweetener in this recipe. The sugar, or honey, serves as a food preservative as much as it serves as a sweetener.
Draw a sink of hot soapy water, and wash the apples well. Unless you grew the apples yourself, or they are certified organic, take time to clean them, rinsing and rubbing each under running water, and setting them aside to drain.
Trim away any blemishes, holes, or bruised areas, but otherwise leave the peels on the fruit. Place each apple on a cutting board, and slice from top to bottom just to the right of the core. Turn the fruit 45 degrees, holding the whole apple together, and slice again. Continue turning the fruit and slicing two more times until the core stands alone. Rough chop the pieces, trim away any remaining seeds, and throw the apple pieces into the heating crock pot. Continue chopping all of the apples you plan to use. You can fill the pot to within an inch of the top as nothing will boil over.
Sprinkle more cinnamon over the sliced apples, and pour on some honey, if you wish. Stir the apples to coat them all, cover the crock pot, and walk away. All you need to do for the next several hours is stir the apples from time to time to distribute the juices and keep them all moist. This recipe doesn’t call for any added pectin, because the pectin cooks out of the apple peels themselves.
When the cooking time is up you can check to see how tender and brown the fruit has become. If they aren’t almost falling apart, you can cook a few more hours, or turn off the pot, put a dishtowel over the lid, and leave everything in place overnight.
When the apples are tender and cooled, ladle them into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. This cuts up all of the peelings and mixes the liquid and pulp equally. Be sure to drain all of the cooking liquid into the apple butter as you process it in batches.
At this point, you can cover and refrigerate your apple butter, or, if you have time, continue with canning it. If you’ve made a small enough batch to use within a week or so, just keep it covered in the refrigerator until you’ve eaten it all.
To preserve the apple butter for winter, bring the pureed apple butter to a slow simmer in a pan on the stove. Add 1 tsp. of lemon juice to make it slightly more acid. Meanwhile, wash and boil your canning jars and lids.
The initial purchase of canning jars is an investment which will pay off many times over, as they can be re-used indefinitely so long as they don’t chip or break. The lids which seal them should be fresh each time you use them, but are fairly inexpensive.
For small batches, I often re-use grocery store jars saved from olives, jam, or roasted peppers. Their lids can be boiled and re-used at least once.
Please read a good resource on water bath canning if you aren’t familiar with the process already. I’m going to give a simplified version here.
Basically, fill a hot (just boiled) jar, with hot (simmering) apple butter, wipe the lip of the jar, and top with a hot (just boiled) lid. (Use a funnel in the jar to save your fingers from burns) If using a traditional canning jar, screw on the band tightly, and turn the jar upside down on a tea towel on the counter. If recycling a jelly or olive jar, screw on the boiled lid, and just turn the jar upside down on the tea towel on the counter. (Apple butter has a high enough acid content that sealing it in the jar should be sufficient. If you are more comfortable boiling the closed jars in a water bath for 10 minutes, by all means do so.)
Fifteen minutes after filling the jars and leaving them upside down on the counter, they should have sealed. Turn them right side up, and leave to rest for several hours until they are cooled. These can now be stored in a dark pantry or in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
This same basic process works for apple sauce. Leave out the spices and use honey or white sugar. It probably won’t need to cook as long before you puree it, because you aren’t caramelizing the sugar.
Why make and preserve your own apple butter when the grocery down the street stocks it? This is an interesting question, and deserves an essay of its own.
In fact, if this question interests you, I highly recommend A Householder’s Guide to the Universe: A Calendar of Basics for the Home and Beyond by Harriet Fasenfest. Harriet does a wonderful job of making the case for preserving your own local harvest of food. She looks at running a home from the point of view of an economist; in other words, she examines how we can each best use our own resources to care for ourselves and our family. She also takes great joy in the process of raising fruits and vegetables, working with local farmers, preserving the harvest, and cooking at home.
Harriet, based in Portland OR, has organized her book by the month of the year; and gives practical gardening advice, tips on organizing the pantry, recipes, family history, and insightful essays on everything from GMO seeds to the world economy. It is a thoughtful read whether you are just starting out in your first home or whether you are adjusting to the demands of retirement.
So please, try making a batch of home made apple butter this autumn. It costs little, but will bring you so much pleasure. Substitute pears or peaches if you prefer. But try this simple treat for yourself and your family. You deserve it.