Making Apple Butter the Way Grandma Made It

Graves Mountain Lodge in Madison County, Virginia, has an apple butter festival every fall. This year it will be on October 6, 7, 13, 14, 20 and 21.

It’s Done When It Stops “Weeping”

By Glenda C. Booth

They get up in the middle of the night and stand over a 40-gallon copper kettle of slurpy, orangey, gurgling pulp for 12 hours and stir and stir and stir some more. It’s one of Virginia’s very exclusive “clubs,” mostly men, who hover around a burbling mush and stir apple butter in the making. When Virginia’s fall apples come in, old-timey apple butter production begins. Some church groups make apple butter to raise funds, while also helping sustain a centuries-old tradition. The camaraderie, interaction and sense of accomplishment are what Vern Eppley of Lorton’s historic Pohick Episcopal Church, calls the “Spirit of Apple Butter,” where apple butter making has been the centerpiece of the church’s fall country fair since the 1940s.

Thirty-five miles south of Charlottesville, at Nelson County’s Saunders Brothers Orchard, every fall, Jim Saunders and friends start the cooking ritual at 11 p.m., stoke oak fires overnight and stir and stir and stir some more, watching their slurpy elixir thicken and darken in 35- and 50-gallon kettles as wisps of smoke rise.

An Old-fashioned Culinary Art

Consumer alert: Apple butter has no butter. Recipes for this condiment vary, but basically is it’s made from a long-slow boil of fresh apples in water, plenty of sugar and various spices, usually cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. A few renegades might corrupt it with vinegar or lemon juice. Apple butter originated in monasteries in the Middle Ages, reports Wikipedia. In the U.S. South, it has traditionally been an annual, fall, family event, a common way to avoid wasting a bounty apple harvest.

Traditional apple butter aficionados insist on using a copper kettle with a rounded bottom and no seams, a vessel that sits on legs about one foot above the ground. The apple mush is more likely to burn in a cast iron pot, maintains Phil Aylor of Madison County. Minders keep a wood fire going steadily and take turns slowly stirring it throughout the entire cooking time, around 12 hours. They stir and stir and stir some more, an exercise that often becomes a male-bonding time to swap tales and gossip, and maybe sneak a swig or two of an “adult beverage.” This ritual is old-timey apple butter making in Virginia’s hills and hollers and occasionally, in suburbia.

Apple butter must cook for at least 12 hours, here, over a fire at the annual Graves Mountain Lodge Apple Butter Festival.

Etlan United Methodist Church, near Madison, sends their “Apple Butter Committee” to Graves Mountain Lodge’s annual Apple Harvest Festival every fall, a seasoned group that uses a homemade, specially-designed wooden stirrer with an oblong hole on the bottom to help keep the apple pulp circulating. This paddle-like utensil must be rounded to fit the bottom of the kettle and prevent burning, they maintain. “The foot of the stirrer must be as long as the kettle is deep,” explained Nate Wheatley. Some people tie corn husks on the bottom of the paddle to scrap every little bit off the kettle’s sides.

At the Graves Mountain Apple Butter Festival, members of the Etlan United Methodist Church’s “Apple Butter Committee” stay up all night and stir the apple butter with a specially-made, wooden stirrer.

Opinions vary on which apples and ingredients produce the best apple butter. Many Virginia experts prefer Rome, Stayman, Granny Smith, golden delicious and winesap apples. The Pohick church group use “imported” summer Rambos from Pennsylvania. Some chefs combine several types of apples. Some prefer tart apples, offset with sweeter varieties.

Traditionalists decry the “cheaters” who start with store-bought or pre-prepared apple sauce. Most apple butter cooks peel, core and quarter or slice the apples. Some people throw in finely-chopped apple peelings. Some start with one-half gallon of water and then continuously add apples for 10 to 12 hours. Some throw in a “kick” of apple cider. How much is a kick? Chef’s choice.

Downhome experts say that authentic apple butter making is a taste-as-you-go process, made the way Grandma made it and her grandma before that. Noah Smith of Finks Hollow and Kenneth Smith of Madison County learned on the farm from their parents. The Smiths are Etlan Methodist Church regulars at the Graves Mountain festival. Starting in the wee hours, they stir and stir and stir some more until it’s done.

As the mixture gurgles and spurts, it goes from light orange to reddish-orange to russet brown. Some people add sugar throughout the cooking; others, at the end. The Etlan crew throws in three pounds of sugar to one gallon of apple butter and then cooks it at least 20 minutes more, all the while stirring and stirring and stirring some more. The sugar caramelizes, darkening the apple butter’s color.

How do they know when it’s done? Some can judge doneness by the thickness and russet color, but there’s no computer code, cookbook prescription or kitchen timer trick for determining “the right thickness” or “doneness.”

The Pohick Church team has what they call “a stainless steel test” for declaring doneness. “The stainless steel test is spooning out a glob onto a stainless steel surface and subjectively evaluating the quantity of water that leeches out as the glob cools,” say Eppley and Randy Brooks on the church’s website.

The Etlan church team use the water test. Said Smith: “After nine to 10 hours, when a little volcano bubble comes up, put some in a pan, tilt it and see if the water drains out. If it does, the apple butter is not thick enough.” He explained that it has to stop “weeping,” meaning that water should not separate from the pulp. When the water’s gone, they add the sugar and spices. Again, ingredient amounts are in the eye of the chef.

Apples at a Syria, Virginia, fall market, awaiting customers.

Some modern slackers concoct apple butter in a crockpot, but diehards like Saunders, Smith, Aylor and Wheatley would never resort to new-fangled devices like one-pot cookers, potato mashers or food mills. They swear by the traditional folkways — long, slow cooking in a copper kettle over a steady, gentle, outdoor fire, stirring and stirring and stirring some more, the way generations have made it.

Once pronounced done, the apple butter goes into jars. At Pohick Episcopal Church, a volunteer production line of volunteers ladles the mixture into jars and caps each with a sterilized lid and ring. They typically produce over 1,500 jars.

The finished product, jars of apple butter.

Whatever the approach, the secret to making apple butter is to have lot of patience, apples, firewood and stamina to stir and stir and stir some more.

How to Eat Apple Butter

“The big thing to me,” says Saunders, “is that it really does taste better than the apple butter you can buy at the grocery store.” He has faithful customers who drive for several hours to get in line for their favorite spread as it comes out of the kettle. One year, a lady brought biscuits so fellow customers could slather on the just-out-of-the-kettle apple butter. Some fans scrape bits from the kettles’ sides with fresh biscuits.

Many rural southern homes always have a jar of apple butter at the ready. Some people smear it on toast, cornbread, muffins or rolls. Apple butter and bagels, who knows? It could be the next foodie craze. Some combine it with peanut butter for a sandwich. Some bake apple butter cakes. Graves Mountain Lodge chefs create apple butter donuts. Some dabble it on ice cream or eat it plain for dessert. And many devotees just slurp it.

Virginia’s Fall Apple Butter Festivals, a Sampling

Pohick Episcopal Church, Lorton, September 21-23, http://www.pohick.org/events.html

Shenandoah Valley Apple Harvest Festival, Winchester, September 15 and 16, http://www.virginia.org/Listings/Events/ShenandoahValleyAppleHarvestFestival/

Shenandoah National Park’s Skyland Lodge, Luray, September 25, https://www.virginia.org/Listings/Events/AppleButterCelebrationinShenandoahNationalPark

Graves Mountain Lodge, Syria, October 6, 7, 13, 14, 20 and 21, http://www.gravesmountain.com/

Silver Creek and Seaman’s Orchards, Tyro, October 6 and 20, http://silvercreekseamansorchards.com/apple-butter-festival/