Apple butter is a luscious fruit spread made by slow-cooking apples until their sugars naturally caramelize. Historically, apple butter was cooked over a very low fire, sometimes for days at a time, until the apples transformed into a deep brown and took on a thick consistency.
These days, we can cheat a bit in our modern kitchens, but it’s still just as tasty as ever.
How to Make Apple Butter
Making apple butter is all about low, slow cooking. If someone asks you how to make apple butter, don’t bother answering if they’re not patient. It’s a fun little test, maybe just pause 15 seconds before answering, and if they can’t handle the suspense…tell them this is not a recipe for them.
The tradition of making apple butter goes all the way back to the middle ages, long before home canning was developed as a method of food preservation. The apples would be cooked on a copper kettle over a very low fire for at least 10-12 hours, stirring with a long wooden paddle. The low slow heat would cause natural apple sugars to caramelize, resulting in a deep brown color, and rich caramel flavor.
While traditional, slow-cooked apple butter is absolutely delicious, the method was actually developed as a method of food preservation. Sugar is a natural preservative, and making apple butter the traditional way concentrated the sugar in the apples to extend their shelf life as a spread. Sealed hot with a bit of oil or wax, apple butter would keep for quite a long time.
At this point in history, sugar mostly in the form of honey was expensive and a taste of something naturally sweet was a real treat. Traditional apple butter didn’t contain added sweeteners, and it actually was so naturally sweet that a bit of cider vinegar was sometimes added to add a tang and balance out the caramelized apple sugar.
These days, apple butter is often made at home using shortcut methods that take a lot less time. The addition of brown sugar isn’t traditional, but it does save a lot of time in the canning kitchen. Most modern recipes also include quite a bit of vinegar, as a nod to tradition, but largely to balance out the high levels of added sugar.
Know that anything you add to apple butter, besides the apples themselves, is completely optional and based on your own taste. Apples are acidic enough to be safely canned at home, and most modern apple varieties are sweeter than medieval varieties meaning they likely have enough sugar to stand on their own. Suggestions for added sugar, vinegar and spices are just that…suggestions.
I’m going to take you through the best way to make traditional slow-cooked apple butter, as well as the basics of canning apple butter at home.
Crock Pot Apple Butter Recipe
Copper kettles and low cooking fires are largely a thing of the past, but slow cookers are in just about every kitchen these days. No need to spend hours tending the fire and endlessly stirring when a slow cooker actually cooks even slower than the old-fashioned method.
Start by peeling, coring and chopping apples. If you’re ambitious, save the peels and cores to make apple scrap vinegar or apple jelly. Depending on how efficient you work, 5 pounds of apples will result in about 3 pounds of peeled/cored apple chunks (or roughly 12 cups).
I started with 5 pounds, but I’m pretty sure my oval crockpot could have held more like 10 pounds of apples and yielded considerably more apple butter.
The apples need a bit of liquid to get started, but it doesn’t take much. Add about 1/2 cup of apple juice, apple cider or just plain water to the bottom of the crockpot. Turn the slow cooker on high and put on the lid.
In about 2 hours, the apples will have softened and the whole pot will be bubbling. Remove the lid, and give the pot a good stir.
Your goal here is to break up the apples and basically make applesauce. You need applesauce before you can make apple butter, and if you really want to cheat you can just start with applesauce. It may take more time for the slow cooker to break down the apples to a sauce, depending on the variety.
If you want to save time, you can simply do this part on the stove before transferring the cooked sauce to a slow cooker. It only takes about 20-30 minutes to make applesauce on the stovetop, but it’ll take a few hours in the slow cooker to reach the same point.
Some people also use an immersion blender here to really break up the apples, but they’re going to be cooking for a long time and it’s not really necessary. They’ll naturally come apart on their own.
Once the apples are cooked, and you’ve got them stirred into a sauce it’s time to change gears for a real slow cooker apple butter. This is when you’d add any other ingredients (sugar, spices, vinegar, etc) and then turn the heat way down. If you’re really patient, choose “keep warm,” but even “low” is going to take a very long time.
Then use a chopstick or wooden skewer to pin the lid of the slow cooker just slightly open. The goal is to have the lid on to retain heat, but also have the lid just cracked so that moisture can escape helping concentrate the apple butter. Slow cooking is key, that’s what’s going to allow those sugars to slowly caramelize without burning.
Depending on your slow cooker and the natural moisture in the apples, slow cooker apple butter can take between 12 and 36 hours to cook. Be sure to stir it every 3-4 hours, and a bit more often as it gets closer to finished. When leaving it overnight, you can be extra safe and just turn the crockpot off or you can turn it all the way down to “keep warm.”
My crockpot apple butter made with 5 pounds of apples took about 30 hours, mostly on “low” but I turned it down to “keep warm” overnight as a safety precaution.
In the end, you’ll have a thick, rich, caramel-flavored spread…
Stovetop Apple Butter
So I’ll admit, stovetop apple butter is a bit trickier. Sure, it’s much quicker, but it’s very hard to make it right. Most modern stoves just don’t cook quite low enough to make apple butter without burning it on the stovetop.
If you search “stovetop apple butter” and then scroll through the pictures, you’ll actually notice that the texture is very different than just about every crockpot apple butter recipe out there.
It’s more of a thick apple sauce, and not quite the dark brown spread with a velvety texture that’s characteristic of homemade apple butter.
That said, it can be done assuming you have a thick-bottomed pot (such as an enameled cast iron dutch oven) and a stove with a low simmer burner. Be sure to stir it at least every 5-10 minutes, and a stovetop apple butter will be ready in about 3 hours (give or take, depending on the apple varieties and your stove).
The process for how to make apple butter on a stovetop is exactly the same as crockpot apple butter, just a bit quicker. Bring everything to a boil and cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring the apples to break them up into a smooth sauce. Then turn the heat all the way down to very low, and place a chopstick or wooden skewer in the pot to hold the lid open just a crack.
Cook very low for another 2-3 hours, stirring every 5-10 minutes, especially as it gets close to done.
Apple Butter Recipes
Thus far I’ve talked about technique, but some of you are thinking, come on…just give me an apple butter recipe already!!!
The thing is, making apple butter is all about technique, and the recipe is more or less up to your personal tastes. Like cinnamon, then add it. Want a sweeter apple butter? Then add sugar. Want a hint of tart? Add cider vinegar or lemon juice.
It really is that simple.
My homemade apple butter is just apples, but I know that’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. I like low-sugar jams, and a no sugar apple butter recipe suits me just fine. What can I say, I’m a traditionalist?
But if you do want to try a time-tested apple butter recipe with a bit more in it than just apples, here are a few to get you started…
- The Joy of Cooking from 1975 ~ Start with any quantity of apples, and cook them into applesauce with a bit of water. Then measure the strained applesauce, and to each cup of sauce, add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp cloves, and 1/4 tsp allspice. (This apple butter recipe is quite sweet, and a bit heavy on cloves in my opinion, but lovely otherwise.)
- Stocking Up from 1977 ~ This unique recipe recommends you start with 2 parts apples (peeled and cored) and 1 part apple cider. Those are the only ingredients, but with all that cider there’s plenty of extra apple flavor and sugar. The apples are boiled in the cider on high until it reaches applesauce stage, then it’s turned to very low and cooked slowly, stirring frequently until thickened to apple butter.
- Canning for a New Generation ~ A relatively new canning book, I love it because it has interesting recipes and reasonable amounts of sugar. They suggest starting with 6 lbs apples and adding 2 cups apple cider, 1 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp cloves, and allspice.
I’ve purposely not listed the recipes from the Ball Canning Books, which suggest adding a cup of sugar for every pound of fruit (before peeling). That actually works out to more like 2 cups of sugar to every cup of apple puree, which is way more sugar than I put in even the sweetest jams.
Things to avoid in an apple butter recipe:
There are plenty of bad apple butter recipes on the internet (and in books for that matter) and when I was first starting to preserve my own food at home I made several of them. Here’s what to watch out for…
- Too Much Vinegar ~ The national center for food preservation has instructions for canning apple butter, and while they’re great on canning safety, their food recipes are often a bit strange. They suggest adding 2 cups of vinegar to 8 pounds of apples. I made that recipe and I actually had to throw it away because it made me gag. Don’t add more than 1/4 to 1/2 cup vinegar or lemon juice to a 5 to 8 pound batch of apple butter.
- Too Much Sugar ~ This is a matter of personal taste, but at a certain point, it’s no longer apple butter and it’s basically apple jam or apple candy. Avoid recipes that have excessive amounts of sugar. Keep in mind that most jam recipes have around 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar per pound of fruit, and if you’re approaching that amount you’re making jam. Apple butter can be made without added sugar, and I’d suggest only adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of fruit at the most. Ideally more like 1-2 tablespoons per pound.
- Too Much Spice ~ Cinnamon and other warm spices can be intense (or bitter) if added in large quantities. I’d suggest no more than 1/2 tsp spices per pound of apples.
Canning Apple Butter
Once you’ve made apple butter, it’s not quite “preserved” yet. A few jars will last several weeks in the refrigerator without canning, but if you truly want a preserve that’s going to last all winter, your best bet is canning apple butter.
Apples are naturally high acid fruits, with a pH somewhere between 3.2 and 4.0. That means they’re just fine for water bath canning without any added acid. Sugar is also optional, and it’s only added to apple butter canning recipes for flavor, not safety.
The biggest concern when canning apple butter is removing bubbles. I’d suggest using straight-sided canning jars like wide-mouth pint mason jars for big batches or straight-sided half-pint jam jars. Both of those are much easier to pack cleanly without air bubbles.
This time I was trying to be fancy, and I used a set of short wide-mouth half-pint jars, which I regret. They look lovely, but they’re really hard to de-bubble.
Fill the canning jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace and de-bubble them as best you can. Adjust headspace, wipe the rims clean, and cap with two-part canning lids. Process apple butter in a water bath canner for 5 minutes for half-pints and pints, or 10 minutes for quarts.
Turn off the canner and leave the jars in the hot water for an additional 5 minutes (this stabilizes the temperature and prevents siphoning as the jars are removed). Remove the jars to a towel on the counter and allow them to cool.
The lids should “ping” closed to seal within a few hours. Check seals after 24 hours and store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator for immediate use.
Apple Butter Recipes
It’s one thing to tell you how to make homemade apple butter, but the real question is how to use it. Sure, you can slather a bit on toast, and that’s downright delicious. Where apple butter really shines, in my opinion, is in baked goods.
It’s basically a creamy concentrated caramel apple, and it adds amazing flavor to muffins, pancakes, and smoothies.
Other Ways to Preserve Apples
Still want more? Here are a few more great ways to preserve apples at home:
- Canning Apple Pie Filling
- Canning Apple Cider
- Homemade Hard Cider
- Extracting Sugar from Apples (Apple Sugar)
- Canning Apple Sauce