The Old-fashioned way of making Apple Butter

The cool days of autumn are a sign that it’s time to “put up” the last crops of vegetables and fruits of the year. It’s time to harvest pumpkins, apples, grapes and squash in preparation for winter.

Apple Butter and Bread

Apple Butter and Bread

Here in Amish Country, one of the traditional ways of preserving apples is to make apple butter. Yes, it’s possible to make apple butter in your kitchen, but it’s often an event for families to get together, visit, eat and stir a big batch of apple butter to share. My neighbors, the Harry and Kate Gerber family made it a priority every October to schedule a stirring where everyone, old and young,  chipped in the help prepare apples and then help stir the pot. It is an all-day affair.

Prepare the apples

According to June Miller, Harry and Kate’s daughter, the first step is to purchase the right kind of apple. Grimes Golden is the Gerber family pick, but they’ve tried blending other varieties to enhance the taste. Grimes Golden a yellow apple and is the perfect for apple for apple butter because it cooks down to a fine texture and is sweet. Although it can be used for eating, it’s also an excellent apple for pie baking.

The night before the Stirring, the family gets together to peel the apples (yes, done with an old-fashioned apple peeler). The peeled apples are quartered or cut in eighths if the apples are large. This is called schnitzing. The seeds are cut out and discarded and the apple slices are soaked in water overnight.

Stirring the Apple Butter

Apple Butter Stirring at Yoder's Amish Home, Walnut Creek, Ohio

Apple Butter Stirring at Yoder’s Amish Home, Walnut Creek, Ohio

It literally takes all day to make apple butter – the Gerbers start cooking at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning. The soaking apple pieces are drained, then a copper kettle filled with 13 gallons of apples and 13 gallons of fresh water is set over the fire to cook…and cook…and cook. The kettle must be watched at all times so the apple butter does not burn.

A long-armed wooden paddle is used to stir the pot almost constantly for 8 or 9 hours. This is not a job for the weak and frail. It will work out your arms and back after a day of stirring!

When is the apple butter ready?

After the apple slices have cooked down into a fragrant brown sauce (you don’t want to see any pieces floating) it’s time to add brown sugar and white sugar. How much depends on how sweet you want your apple butter to be. It’s especially important to keep stirring the apple butter once the sugar is added because it will burn more quickly.

The apple butter is ready when it cooks down to exactly the right consistency. To test it the “Gerber way”, dip a spoonful of apple butter out of the kettle, let it cool slightly on the spoon and then tilt the spoon downward as if to empty it. If the apple butter slowly drops off the spoon with a “plop” (a very technical term), it’s finished and ready to take off the fire.

June recommends having some freshly baked butter bread ready to test taste and consistency of the apple butter as you go along. This is half the fun of the stirring!

After the apple butter is cooled, everyone brings their own jars to fill and take home for the year.

A recipe for a small batch of Apple Butter

Most of you won’t be stirring apple butter in a 30 gallon kettle, so we’ve included a recipe for a small batch you can make in your own kitchen. If you don’t want to schnitz apples, you can also cook apple butter directly from applesauce. It should cook faster that way.

APPLE BUTTER  – taken from Der Dutchman’s 1973 Cookbook
Contributed by Mrs. Ben D. Miller
3 gallons uncooked apple schnitz
8lbs white sugar
1 gallon Karo

Put all ingredients together and cook 3 hours with the lid on the pan. Take the apple butter off the heat and put through a sieve (such as a Victorio strainer). Return the apple butter to the pan and heat again. When the apple butter is thick, put in canning jars and seal.




Etiquette in Amish Country

Amish Farmer Chopping SilageIf you’ve ever visited Amish country, you already know that you’ll see and hear things that are both unique and fascinating. And while you may have the feeling that you’ve traveled back in time, please remember that this is, in fact, real life for everyone who lives here – both Amish and “English”.

To enhance your experience, you’ll want to remember a few things before setting out on your trip…

Driving in Amish Country

You’ve left the beltways and four-lane highways behind for a slower pace. A very slow pace. A trotting horse will be traveling at 8 miles per hour or less. A team pulling farm machinery may be painfully slow. Especially on the hills of Holmes and Tuscarawas Counties, you may catch up with a buggy or bicyclist on a hill where you can’t see oncoming traffic. Just be patient. You’ll get there eventually – wait until you have a clear view of the traffic coming from the other direction.

Be very cautious at night – even though some Amish churches allow reflectors and lights, black buggies are still difficult to see on a dark road without streetlights. The most conservative orders of Amish allow only one lantern hung on the side of the buggy and are almost impossible to see at night. They are most common in the Mount Hope and Apple Creek areas in Ohio.

Honking is rather disrespectful. Horses, by nature, are flight animals. Honking can “spook” or frighten them and cause a wreck. Most horses on the roads are “traffic safe” (broke to drive in traffic) but you never know. Give them the benefit of the doubt and be ready for anything. If you feel the need to alert a buggy driver, a light tap on the horn will suffice.

Photographing the Amish

Amish do not pose for photographs or videos, the key word being “pose”. Posing for photographs is seen as prideful or interpreted as making a graven image, forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Exceptions may be made for children or young people who have not yet joined the church.

However, many Amish will not resent visitors taking photos of their buggy, working on the farm or in public places. Just be careful and respectful – no need to hang out of your car trying to shoot an up-close photo of a “real Amish person”. If you feel uncomfortable taking the photo, just ask permission. The answer may be no, but your polite request may open the door to a conversation!

Buggy horses and other farm animals

It’s fine to stand back admire that beautiful field of shiny black and white Holstein dairy cows, but it’s impolite and dangerous to enter the field to pet or feed them. Again, animals are unpredictable – they have teeth that could bite or heels that could kick! The occasional bull in the field could also ruin your day.

The same warning applies to buggy horses tied at a hitching rail. It’s always best to ask permission to touch the animal or buggy. Stories have arisen of Amish returning after shopping, only to find tourists sitting in their buggy posing for pictures. Please, don’t do this.

Conversations with the Amish

Tourism is so common in Ohio’s Amish country that most people have become accustomed to questions and conversations with visitors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or say hello, especially in a public setting. Be genuinely interested in the response and never make anyone feel foolish (a good reminder for all conversations!)

One fellow blogger recommended trying to speak a little Pennsylvania Dutch. This makes me smile – the day-to-day Dutch spoken by the Amish is a little different than the “Dutch” you may read in popular Amish romance novels. Even those of us who know enough Dutch “to be dangerous” would not try speaking more than a few words here and there. That is, unless you want to be the latest amusing story at their next Sunday church lunch.

Amish Etiquette 101

Really, the main thing to remember is the Golden Rule, paraphrased as: treat others the way you’d like to be treated yourself. It’s mostly common sense. Amish Country isn’t a zoo or a show with actors. We’re all people just like you and appreciate the same kindnesses that you do.

Pork & Sauerkraut for a prosperous new year

Every culture has its traditions for health and wealth for a New Year. Here in Ohio’s Amish country,  the tradition is to eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. As my dad always said, if you want to have “money in your pocket” for the next year, you have to eat sauerkraut.

Why pork and sauerkraut?

True to our Swiss and German heritage, the pork custom is based on the notion that fattened pigs symbolized wealth, progress and forward-thinking. For example, when searching for food, pigs will root in the ground, pushing their snouts forward. Therefore, a pig is always pushing forward in the future. It’s also difficult for a hog to look backwards, unlike a chicken or turkey which scratches backward when foraging. It’s said that a Pennsylvania Dutchman would never eat chicken on New Year’s Day.

Sauerkraut, a long-standing tradition in Germany, is believed to bring blessings and wealth also. Those seated at a New Year’s feast would wish each other goodness and as much money as the number of shreds of cabbage in the pot of sauerkraut.

Homemade Sauerkraut

Translated from the German as “sour herb” or “sour cabbage”, sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that has undergone fermentation by lactic acid bacteria. The lactic acid lends the distinct sour taste to the cabbage. There is no vinegar in sauerkraut, though it can be used with fresh cabbage to make coleslaw. Easy to grow and easy to preserve, the humble cabbage is high in Vitamin C and lactobacilli (healthy probiotic bacteria). It is said to be good for digestion and provides a nutritious meal to combat diseases such as scurvy.

Years ago, almost everyone in Amish country was a farmer and had a big garden to grow cabbage and other produce. Before grocery stores and processed food, people had to work hard to grow, preserve and store food for the lean winter months. Everybody made sauerkraut, including my Grandma. Although I was too young to ever participate, my aunt filled recently fill me in on her kraut-making technique.

First, she harvested and washed the fresh cabbage, removing any brown leaves.  The next step was to cut the cabbage and shred it into fine pieces. She saved the hard crisp center of the cabbage as a snack for the children.

Next she placed the shredded cabbage in a freshly-scrubbed 10 gallon ceramic crock (ceramic or glass is important – metal won’t work), mixed in salt and let the cabbage set until it wilted slightly. The wilting of the cabbage indicated that fermentation was beginning. The next step was the cleaning a large round piece of slate, cut to exactly fit the diameter of the big crock. The slate was fitted into the crock on top of the cabbage. She then pressed the slate down on the cabbage to compact it and remove as much air as possible. A large heavy field stone was placed on top of the slate to weigh it down keep pressure on the cabbage.

It was important that the crock remain in a cool dry place for the rest of the fermentation. Grandma placed her sauerkraut crocks in the central part of the old farmhouse basement, away from the drafts of the coal-furnace, so that the temperature would remain constant and cool. Depending on the temperature, the sauerkraut was ready to eat in about 6 weeks. A longer ferment would yield a more acidic or sour taste to the kraut. The sauerkraut was served with homemade sausage from the home-raised pork that my Grandpa would butcher by himself each winter.

How do Amish beat the heat?

Whew! It’s been one of those summers here in Ohio – one week it’s hot and humid, the next week it’s just more hot and humid. Seriously, it seems like it’s been hot since the snow melted last spring.

We’ve been running the fans non-stop in my old 1840’s farmhouse in Walnut Creek, but have you ever wondered what do Amish do to stay cool in this weather? And how do they keep their foods cold? The solutions are mostly just plain, simple common sense.

Amish build houses to stay cooler

Because Amish don’t choose to accept the luxury of electricity, traditional air-conditioning is simply not an option. One way to keep the house cool is to build their homes with basements that are built into the bank of the hill, at least as much as possible. The soil around the basement is cooler than the air temperature and helps insulate the basement, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

In old farmhouses particularly, Amish will “move into the basement” during the summer. They even equip the basements with kitchens so they don’t even need to cook upstairs. The extra kitchen also comes in handy when they host church and hold weddings where they need to feed many people. The floors are concrete, both for easy cleaning and because they feel cool on bare feet!

Rising early

Amish are notorious early risers. It’s nothing for them to rise at 4 or 5am to begin the day’s work – laundry, weeding the garden, canning, and farm chores. In this way, they get their tough, more physical chores done before the day’s heat moves in.

Amish often assume that everyone gets up at their hour. When I was young, we regularly got phone calls at 6am for my dad about some farming job, asking “Iss da Chim dat?” (Is Jim there?) It’s amusing now, but I didn’t think it was funny back then. It didn’t matter to Dad – he was up by 5:30 anyway.

Cooling milk in the spring house

A few of the old farmsteads still have spring houses on their farms. Years ago, it was quite important to build a farmstead near a spring, not just for available drinking water, but for cooling your farm products, such as milk.

Amish Milk Can photo

Amish milk cans, ready for pick-up

A trough was built, usually from concrete, with a pipe coming in from the spring and and outlet to drain off the water when the trough got full. In this way, the spring circulated fresh, clear and cool water constantly. The new milk was put in capped milk cans and then placed in the trough to stay cool until it was collected by the milk hauler. Some Amish farmers still use milk cans for their milk. On occasion, you’ll see them placed near the road, ready for the hauler to pick up.

Many Amish have switched to milk bulk tanks now, which run off a diesel generator. The milk is kept fresh in exactly the same way as any dairy and they avoid the back-breaking labor of loading milk cans twice a day.

Natural gas appliances

Many Amish have hook-ups to natural gas and all but the most conservative orders use gas refrigerators to chill foods. These refrigerators function just like the electric models and is  hooked up to natural gas just like a gas stove. Many local stores carry this type of appliance, the most famous being Lehmans Hardware in Kidron.

Gas freezers are also available but seem to be a little less common – probably because of the high energy requirements. If they don’t have a big gas freezer at home, Amish will often ask an “English” neighbor (someone with a car and electricity), to host their electric freezer in an outbuilding or garage. My neighbors had a big chest freezer in our old milking parlor for years, making regular trips every day to retrieve frozen food for a meal.

Old-fashioned Ice boxes

You might think that iceboxes went away a long time ago, but there are still some Amish who use them. According to an expert at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Swartzentruber Amish still cut ice from ponds in the winter to place in their ice boxes. Rather than the old-fashioned wood boxes, they may use an old non-working freezer and use the ice blocks to keep it cold.

To cut ice, they make a pilot hole with a drill bit, then put a cross-cut saw in the pilot hole and saw the ice into blocks. Ice blocks can be bought a private ice houses in the area for those who don’t have ponds. They store the ice in a dark insulated icehouse and cover it with sawdust.

The BEST way to keep cool – Homemade Ice Cream!
Hand crank Ice Cream Freezer

A hand-cranked ice cream freezer

This is by far the best way to beat the heat. In Holmes County, making a batch of ice cream is an event whether you are Amish or not. Get the family, friends and neighbors together and make any excuse to enjoy a bowl of cold, creamy goodness.

The traditional way to make ice cream is to use old-timey freezer – basically a wooden bucket, a steel container and lid to hold the mix and a hand crank (or electric motor) to spin the container. “Dashers” inside the steel container spin with the crank to keep the mix from freezing solid. A couple bags of crushed ice plus some salt, and you are in business!

You really can’t beat a good homemade ice cream made with plenty of cream and vanilla! This is my personal recipe for homemade ice cream in a 6 quart mixer:

1 gallon (approximately) whole milk
1 cup white sugar
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
2 cups heavy cream
6 eggs
8 oz. vanilla instant pudding
1 Tablespoon of Watkins Double Strength vanilla

It is recommended that you cook the eggs for safety: In medium saucepan, beat together eggs, 1/2 gallon milk, and sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat a metal spoon with a thin film and reaches at least 160 degrees F.

Cool egg mixture and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into the steel container and add remaining whole milk until the level is approximately three inches from the top. The mix will expand, so you need to leave extra room. Insert dashers and place in the bucket. It takes about two bags of ice to line the bucket and you’ll need to keep layering the salt with ice to lower the temperature of the ice. Crank until the mix has solidified but is still creamy.