Monday, August 23, 2010

It is Apple Butter Time!

     If you grew up in rural Pennsylvania then you know that October is apple butter time. Apple butter is an American invention and attributed to the Pennsylvania German settlers, dating as far back as the mid 1700s. Before they could rely on refrigeration, the local farmers had to sugar cure then smoke meat, pickle vegetables and dry fruit. The Pennsylvania Germans noted that applesauce became rancid before the end of winter. They found with a longer cooking process of the apples and cider they could produce a tasty condiment that could get them through the winter and longer. In the Pennsylvania German dialect, apple butter was called “lattwarick.” Some people claim that apple butter can last several years. The higher concentration of sugar gives apple butter a much longer shelf life than applesauce.
     Every farm had at least a small orchard of apple trees, which yielded apples from July to November. Apples were essential to the survival of the farmers and were eaten at every meal for most of the year. Harvesting and preparing the apples was labor intensive. The local farmers and their families would work together to make cider, dried apples, vinegar, applesauce and apple butter. Because making apple butter was an all day affair, a community would often celebrate with a dance when the chore was done.
     The first step in making apple butter was to press cider from sweet apples. The cider was then poured in a large copper kettle and heated with a hot wood fire. The cooking was usually done outdoors. The cider was boiled until half of the quantity was left. Then large amounts of pared, cored and sliced apple, called “schnitz,” were gradually added to the cider. These apples could be all the sweet variety or half sweet and half tart. It takes five pounds of apples to make a pound of apple butter. The mixture was constantly stirred with a long wooden paddle to prevent the apple butter from sticking to the pot and burning. The paddle was long enough to allow the stirrer to be several feet away from the smoke and heat. The stirring job was tiresome and went on for twelve hours. Children and young adults would team up to stir the pot with the teams taking turns. It became a social event and acceptable for a young man and woman to converse as they stirred. Eventually the heat causes the apples’ natural sugars to caramelize, giving the apple butter its distinctive deep brown color. Spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and sassafras root were added to give the apple butter its spicy flavor. The mixture became harder to stir as it thickened. The apple butter would be pored into clay crocks and stored in a cool place like a root cellar or a hole dug in the ground.
     The apple originated in the eastern Mediterranean region but was carried by traders and soldiers through out Europe and Asia. The only variety of apple native to American was the sour crabapple. The colonists brought new varieties of apples with them in the form of seeds, called pips. They grew specific types of apples for different uses such as baking, deserts or cider. Back then, the apples were small and stored in cellars or barns for months at a time. With the multitude of orchards soon there were thousands of different varieties of apples. Many of these heritage, antique, or heirloom apples have all but disappeared. In the 20th century, professional nurseries improved apple production with more heavy bearing varieties, cold storage and faster transportation. Consumers only wanted those varieties that looked good. Taste became a lower priority. Researchers are now rediscovering some of heritage varieties and preservation orchards have been planted. Some heritage varieties have been lost forever as urban sprawl has destroyed old apple orchards.
     Fortunately, farms such as the Burnside Plantation are growing heritage apples to preserve history. Their large apple orchard, which extends up the hill behind the farmhouse and past Martin Tower, is bursting with Newton Pippins, Roxbury Russets and Rhode Island Greenings. Other farms in the area specializing in heritage apples are the Glasbern County Inn in Fogelsville and Suyundalla Farms in Coplay. You can still find heritage apples at the Saucon Valley Farmers Market in Hellertown (Sundays 9am–2pm until November 18th), Emmaus Farmers Market (Sundays, 10-2, until November 25th) and Bethlehem Farmers' Market, New and Morton Streets (Thursdays, 12-5 until October).
You can go on a tour of apple butter production at Bauman’s Apple Butter Factory in Sassmansville, PA  The Baumans has been making apple butter since 1892 with the third generation at the helm now.
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  1. What a wonderful story about apple butter, and so well-written! It made me hungry.

  2. Schnitz is dried apples (ask anybody in the Lehigh Valley who is PA Dutch).. It would make no sense to use dried apples to make apple butter.

    Apple butter is made from fresh and drop apples cooked slowly and continuously stirred in a large iron pot over an open fire.