Apple Butter

Apple butter “frolics” were major social events. In spite of the chores involved, the assemblage had relatively little to do; so they told stories, gossiped, sang, and otherwise enjoyed fellowship.  Courting couples were given special attention, often given the job of stirring. The most popular stirring technique was to move the paddle twice around the sides and then across the middle. This old rhyme reminds the stirrers to follow this technique:

“Twice around the side
And once down the middle
That’s the way to stir
The apple-butter kittle.” 

At some frolics, if the couple stirring bumped the kettle and splashed the butter, they had to kiss each other.

Apple butter was made in large quantities, using a copper pot over an outdoor fire.  First, a couple of gallons of apple cider was boiled down to half its original volume.  Then several bushels of peeled, cored, and quartered apples were added to the pot.  Aromatic apples with a pulpy texture were preferred for making apple butter, varieties such as Royal Limbertwig, Buff, and Wolf River.  A long wooden paddle, made of hickory with a couple of holes cut through the blade, was used to stir the boiling liquid.  Half a dozen pennies were added to the kettle to keep the apple butter from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Constant stirring of the liquid was required; it was an all-day job, taking as much as twelve hours.  When a dollop of apple butter on a plate stayed put when the plate was turned upside down, the apple butter was ready to eat.  The first tastes were eaten fresh and hot from the pot, spread on slices of home-baked bread.  The rest of the apple butter, preserved by canning, was kept on cellar shelves to be enjoyed through the winter.

a man stirring apple butter that is in a pot over a wood fire. He is tasting a bit on his finger
A volunteer at Horne Creek Farm's
Cornshucking Frolic tasting the
fruits of his labor.
Other Interesting Facts Related to Apple Butter:
  • If the fire wood touches the kettle the butter will burn.
  • Oak makes the best fire for a butter boiling because it gives a steady heat without creating much flame.
  • Copper pennies are placed in the apple butter kettle to scrape the bottom of the kettle and prevent the apple butter from burning.
  • It was said that a young woman who splashed the butter when she stired the kettle would make a poor housewife.
  • If you turn the crock upside down, without a lid, and the mixture stays in the container without running out or dripping, it is “real” apple butter. (If it pours out, it is “jelly” butter.)
  • When the butter is finished and poured in the crocks, the person who gets the penny from the kettle should save it because it is a good luck token.
Apple Butter Recipe:
  • 1 ½ - 2 Gallons Apple Cider
  • 3 Bushels Apples
  • 5 -9 Pennies

Pare, core, and slice apples. (Since Horne Creek Farm slices apples the night before special events, they place the sliced apples in water with some lemon juice added to prevent them from turning brown.

  • When ready to begin, drain the water and lemon juice off of the apples. Set aside.
  • Bring 1 ½ - 2 gallons of cider to a boil in a copper kettle over an open fire. Determine how much cider to put in by looking at the apples -- if they are very juicy to start with, start with 1 ½ gallons of cider. If they seem a little “dry,” start with 2 gallons of cider.
  • Add apples and pennies. Continue boiling. Stir constantly with the wooden apple butter paddle for 5 to 7 hours until thick. Sugar, cinnamon, and other spices (such as nutmeg, cloves, allspice) may be added to taste.
  • Remember to remove pennies from pot before serving!
Historic Apple Butter Recipe:

“Cider for apple butter must be perfectly new from the press, and the sweeter and mellower the apples are of which it is made, the better the apple butter be. Boil the cider till reduced to one half its original quantity, and skim it well. Do not use for this purpose an iron kettle, or the butter will be very dark, and if you use a brass or copper kettle, it must be scoured as clean and bright as possible, before you put the cider into it, and you must not suffer the butter to remain in it a minute longer than is actually necessary to prepare it, or it will imbibe a copperish taste, that will render it not only unpleasant, but really unhealthy. It is best to prepare it late in the fall, when the apples are quite mellow. Select those that have a fine flavor, and will cook tender; pare and quarter them from the cores, and boil them in the cider till perfectly soft, having plenty of cider to cover them well. If you wish to make it on a small scale, do not remove the apples from the cider when they get soft, but continue to boil them gently in it, until the apples and cider form a thick smooth marmalade, which you must stir almost constantly towards the last.  A few minutes before you take it from the fire, flavor it highly with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves, and when the seasonings are well intermixed, put it up in jars, tie folded paper over them and keep them in a  cool place. If made in the proper manner, it will keep good more than a year, and will be found very convenient, being always in readiness.”

“Many people who are in the habit of making apple butter, take it from the fire before it is boiled near enough. Both to keep it well, and taste well, it should be boiled long after the apples have become soft, and towards the last, simmered over coals till it gets almost thick enough to slice. If you wish to make it on a large scale, after you have boiled the first kettle full of apples soft, remove them from the cider, draining them with a perforated ladle, that the cider may fall again to the kettle, and put them in a clean tub. Fill up the kettle with fresh apples, having them pared and sliced from the cores, and having ready a kettle of boiling cider, that is reduced to half its original quantity; fill up the kettle of apples with it as often as is necessary. When you have boiled in this manner as may apples as you wish, put the whole of them in a large kettle, or kettles, with the cider, and simmer it over a bed of coals till it is so thick, that it is with some difficulty you can stir it; it should be stirred almost constantly, with a wooden spaddle, or paddle, or it will be certain to scorch at the bottom or sides of the kettle. Shortly before you take it from the fire, season it as before directed, and then put it up in jars.”

--The Kentucky Housewife, 1839