While there are recipes to make apple butter in a crock pot or an oven, the best apple butter is made over an open fire in a large kettle with the help of family and friends. This very old method may require a commitment, but the taste and the experience can not be matched.
It was our family tradition for more than 25 years. In fact, we really freaked out a new next door neighbor in the late 1970’s by making apple butter in our backyard in the city on the day after she moved in. She thought we were witches…she later confessed well after we all were good friends.
It is easy to understand the connection to witches considering it was October and the equipment used does look a little like a witches cauldron.
This picture of my dad stirring the apple butter was taken sometime in the 1990’s years after the family moved to a little farm in the country. Not only were the neighbor’s further away, they often helped to make the apple butter. The piece of metal in the picture was to shield people stirring or sitting on the other side of the fire from the heat (it was a particularly warm day) including my aunt (who happened to be one of the neighbor’s).
As apple butter made over an open fire requires constant stirring for many hours, it helps to have as many extra hands as possible.
The process of making apple butter starts well before you need people to stir the kettle. Prior to the day of making apple butter, a mixed variety of apples need to be made into an unsweetened and unflavored applesauce. Depending on the size of the apple butter kettle and how much apple butter you want to make, this could be dozens of bushels of apples that need made into apple sauce.
Although some people peel and core the apples first, my mom (we) always cooked just cored and sliced the apples. She (we) would run the sliced apples through a Foley food mill (I am now partial to the OXO Good Grips Food Mill) to remove the peel, etc. This not only saved peeling the apples, but it increased the amount of pectin in the applesauce.
Apples, especially their cores and peels, are a high in pectin. The highest concentrations of pectin in apples are found before the apples ripen. Although the ripe apples have less pectin, they still are pectin rich. Pectin is a water-soluble fiber that is used as a thickener when making jams and jellies. Therefore, it helps to thicken the apple butter.
The cooked applesauce needs to be stored in non-reactive container and refrigerated (or frozen) until ready to cook into apple butter.
A supple of dried hardwood, canning jars, lids, and the rest of the ingredients also need to be gathered prior to starting the apple butter stirring. The exact amounts of each depends on your kettle size and amount of apples.
I have never seen or heard of anyone trying to make a large kettle of apple butter using an exact recipe. However, here is a list of what we used and general instructions on how we made it:
My maternal grandmother also made pear butter and on rare occasion peach butter using the same basic method, according to my mom. Pears and peaches are also high pectin fruits.
Here are my tips for cooking apple butter in a kettle over an open fire:
1. Buy extra cider to drink (sweet not hard…your going to be around an open flame!)
2. Bake bread or biscuits during the last hours of the apple butter cooking so you can eat the apple butter while it is still warm.
3. Ashes floating into your apple butter? Don’t fret about it..they just add flavor:)
4. Buy marshmallows, chocolate bars, graham crackers, hot dogs, and buns to have a wiener roast with s’mores after all the hard work is done and the jars are cooling…a great ending to a long day with family and friends.
If you don’t have an apple butter kettle and stirrer handed down in your family, you can buy used kettles at auctions, estate sales, on ebay and other websites. Or, just get a new set from Lehman’s Hardware and start your own family tradition/legacy. (Lehman’s is the only place I know that sells the wooden stirrers, otherwise you have to make your own).
If your are unable to make it outside, there are groups, churches and festivals that make and sell kettle made apple butter in the fall in many areas including Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, I have not found any here in Georgia….