Recipe: Shaker Apple Butter (1871)

Shaker Apple Butter, Photo: Eric Colleary

Few things remind me of autumn more than apple butter – that creamy, slightly spicy fruit spread thick as butter. Apple butter is a great way of using up a large amount of harvest apples at one time. Canned in a hot water bath, these will keep at least a year (but who could possibly have tasty apple butter lying around that long?). There are countless uses for apple butter, whether the classic spread on a piece of toast, or add some cracked black pepper and serve it hot as a savory sauce for a pork roast.

I love this recipe for Apple butter, which comes from the Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts. The recipe dates to about 1871, and embodies the Shaker’s utopian philosophy of food:

   We’re willing to state-
Eat hearty and decent,
And clear out our plate –
Be thankful to heaven –
For what we receive,
And not make a mixture
or compound to leave

We find of those bounties
Which heaven doth give,
That some live to eat,
And, that some eat to live –
That some think of nothing
But pleasing the taste,
And care very little
How much they do waste.
Our Shaker Home, 1830

Their recipe for apple butter is close to perfection, is simple in both ingredients and production, and wastes as little of the apple as possible – apples are roughly chopped with core and peel removed only after cooking. Also, in a gesture towards self-sufficiency and sustainability, this recipe uses Shaker Boiled Cider as a sweetener, rather than imported sugar from the Caribbean. The Shaker’s raised some of the funds for their communities by bottling and selling their boiled cider as a domestic sweetener, and can be used in all kinds of recipes as a sugar substitute. This apple butter is plenty sweet enough without adding sugar, and the limited use of spice (allspice only, rather than cinnamon, nutmeg and ground cloves) allows the apples to remain the star of this sauce. I’m a big fan of Shaker cooking, and you’ll likely see many of their recipes appear here in the future.

Apples, Photo: Eric Colleary

The Recipe

5 pounds cooking apples, cut up but not peeled or cored
1 gallon fresh apple cider
1 tbsp allspice

The first step is to make Shaker Boiled Cider. Sister Mary Whitcher’s recipe is succinct: “Take 4 gallons of cider and boil it to one gallon.” Here, not needing quite so much or quite so syrupy of a sweetner, take one gallon of fresh cider, and boil it down to a half gallon. The result should be a strong, sweet reduction that is still thin – not syrupy.

Boiling Cider for Sweetner, Photo: Eric Colleary

In a large enameled dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stock pot, add apples (five pounds is roughly fifteen medium-sized apples) and cover with boiled cider. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Stir frequently to avoid burning the apples. This process loosens all the usable apple pulp from the hard core, seeds and peel.

Apples Simmering in Cider, Photo: Eric Colleary Straining Apple Pulp, Photo: Eric Colleary

Remove from fire. Using a fine mesh strainer and wooden spoon, gradually push as much pulp through to a new pot as possible. The pulp should resemble a thick red applesauce. Undesirable apple parts will remain in strainer. In Shaker tradition, don’t just pitch this – compost it, or if you are lucky enough to have pigs or farm animals, feed to them. This step takes awhile, and is a great task to give to a child if you have one around. Not only will it get the task done, it will encourage them to cook later in life.

Strained Apple Pulp, Photo: Eric Colleary

Return the strained pulp to the stove and bring to a simmer. Stir constantly until pulp breaks down further, darkens to an amber brown, and is of a thick enough consistency that if you drop a bit onto a spoon or plate, it will pile instead of spreading out. When it reaches the right consistency, stir-in allspice to your taste.

Add Allspice, Photo: Eric Colleary Finished Apple Butter, Photo: Eric Colleary

This recipe makes roughly two quarts. Can immediately to preserve for the year. Otherwise, store in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for around a week. Plan to make this at least a day before using – the flavor changes for the better the day after cooking.

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