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.
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
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.