I am an apple butter fanatic. I love the stuff. No, I LOVE the stuff. I learned to love it, as I did so many other things, because my mother made it. I would like to say that I learned to make apple butter at my mother’s knee, but that isn’t true. The truth is, I had to teach myself to make apple butter because before I thought to get my mother’s recipe, she was gone.
I searched Mama’s recipe box, which came to me some years after her death. The recipe wasn’t there. I searched my recipe box, which she started for me when I married. It wasn’t there. I turned to the Ball Blue Book that she gave me when I married (along with my granite-ware water bath canner and Presto pressure canner that I still use). Mama thought of her Ball Blue Book as her canning bible, as I do, so I thought she’d probably used one of the recipes in the book. I thought I knew which one, as she always started with applesauce that we had cooked down and rubbed through the big cone colander ourselves. I knew that after one disastrous scorching incident, she had always cooked her apple butter down in the oven. Reducing the apple butter in a low oven keeps it from scorching. And oh boy, does it make the house smell good! But when I had that first batch going in the oven, something didn’t seem right. It didn’t smell quite the way I remembered. After cooking it a few hours to meld the spices with the applesauce and sugar, I gave it a taste. And it definitely didn’t taste like Mama’s apple butter.
At this point, I was going on memory alone, since I no longer had any of Mama’s apple butter to compare. But I added spices, and I got something that first year that tasted closer to what I remembered. The next year, I started with less sugar, because I knew Mama’s tastes, and they were similar to my own. Both of us have always preferred tart to sweet, and since apple butter sweetens as it reduces, I knew I could start with less sugar and add more if necessary. The second year’s batch was much better, much more like I remembered. Every year, I’ve refined my recipe, until now I have something that tastes like my mama’s apple butter every time. So here it is, and here’s to you, Mama. Thank you for everything, always, and in this particular instance, thank you for apple butter.
Spicy Apple Butter
6 quarts unsweetened applesauce
¼ cup lemon juice
2 cups sugar
2 ½ tablespoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cloves
Mix all ingredients together in Dutch oven and bring to boiling over low heat on stovetop. Place uncovered in 300 degree oven and bake, stirring occasionally, until reduced by about half. (See note below on cooking method.) Butter will be thick and dark brown.
Taste during the cooking process and add sugar or additional spices to taste. Be careful of cloves—it’s a very strong flavor that can overpower the other spices.
When the butter has reduced so that it will mound on a spoon, it is ready to be canned. Prepare jars and boiling water bath; sterilize jars in boiling water bath for 10 min. Bring apple butter to boil on stove top over low heat, and watch out for spitting. Fill sterilized jars with boiling apple butter, leaving ¼ inch head space. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath. (Use altitude chart for elevations above 1000 ft.) Yield: about 6 pts.
Rule of thumb for yield: Whatever amount of applesauce you start with, you’ll get roughly half of that in apple butter, so 6 qts. of applesauce yields about 6 pts. of apple butter. You’ll get a little more or less, depending on how far you reduce it.
Cooking methods: Lots of people cook their apple butter down all day or overnight (or all day and overnight) in a crock pot. You can do this. It will reduce. But it will not have the same flavor as apple butter cooked down in the oven. Oven-roasting produces that deep, dark, rich flavor and a color like melted chocolate. Crock pot cooking cannot match that flavor, although it is more convenient and energy efficient. I usually make applesauce during the day, then cook my apple butter all night in the oven. Sometimes I lower the temperature to 250 degrees if I think I will not be canning the apple butter very early in the morning, so it doesn’t over-reduce. Always bring the butter back up to boiling on the stove top before putting it in the jars.
Apple butter is wonderful on biscuits, on cornbread, and on freshly-baked bread, but it also elevates a piece of toasted store-bought bread to new heights. My children loved apple butter and peanut butter sandwiches and took them to school for lunch. It’s also delicious spread on pancakes before the maple-syrup pour, or stirred into a batch of pancake batter for some spice and texture.
To me, apple butter is the quintessential fall flavor. It’s autumn in a jar. It’s also a sensory link to my mother. When I make apple butter, I can see Mama bending over the oven, her round face flushed with heat and delight, stirring, tasting, approving.
All original text, photographs, and the apple butter recipe are copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without the author’s permission.