As a child I lived in a rural area in southern Indiana with an abundance of apples, and making apple butter was an annual church fundraiser. Bushels and bushels of apples were collected and distributed to the congregation, and the night before Apple Butter Day the kitchens in farmhouses across the township were busy peeling and slicing the apples for the next day. Early on Saturday morning a group of men set to work in the church parking lot building the cooking fires from seasoned oak, maple, and hickory, then setting the tripods from which the great copper kettles hung. As the morning progressed the apples prepared the previous evening began to appear and enter the kettles, and the day-long task of cooking and stirring the apple butter began. When the cooking finished the kettles were turned over to the canning line, where lines of women with canning skills honed by decades of home-canning produce from their gardens quickly transformed steaming kettles of boiling apple butter into rows of sparkling clean jars filled with reddish brown apple butter ready for opening up on the cold winter days ahead.
Years later I found myself with a high-output propane fueled cooker, a large stockpot (about 10 gallons), and an abundant supply of cheap apples from a friendly orchardist. Borrowing from the community tradition of apple buttering, my sister’s family, my parents and I created a family tradition on a smaller scale.
The process begins with putting 2 gallons of apple cider in the pot and bringing it to a rolling boil. While the cider is heating, we begin peeling and slicing 2 ½ bushels of apples. Golden Delicious is our traditional variety, but occasionally some others make it into the pot. Once the cider is boiling well, apple slices are added by the handful with the mixture being allowed to come back to a light boil between additions. To prevent sticking and scorching, the pot must be stirred constantly from the time the first apple slice goes in until it is taken off the fire several hours later. At first the mixture is thin with apple slices floating in cider, but as it boils and is stirred the apples break down and the mixture becomes thicker. Once all of the apples have been added to the pot, it is allowed to cook down until very few identifiable apple slices remain and just enough sugar (approximately 2 cups) is added to reduce but not eliminate the tart edge of the flavor and then about half a pound of red-hots (a type of cinnamon candy) are added. It is then cooked down until a spoonful placed on a chilled plate maintains its form and does not develop a watery ring, at which point it is removed from the fire and canned.
The process is very much a time driven one with quantity per time (assuming a sufficient supply of apples) determined by the size of the heat source and the cooking vessel. The defining characteristic between apple sauce and apple butter for me is the cooking time, and there is no substitute for slow cooking over 8-10 hours per batch. In addition it is a labor intensive process; to remain an enjoyable day, we have found a minimum of 4 people to be required and a few more are welcome additions.
The results are sufficient for our usage and gifts to friends and relatives. Given the available equipment and estimated yield from the orchard, apple buttering appears to hold its ground as a fun family tradition, but is difficult to consider as a primary crop storage and usage method.