Sweet Steam

A Copper Kettle, Four Bushels of Apples and a Steam Engine Combine for some Fine Apple Butter

Apple butter steam

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Back in good ol' days: Three kettles of apple butter steam along at an apple butter party at the late Hugh Hartzell's farm in October 1964. From left to right are Charlie Ditmer, Harold Ary, Glen Halley, Harold Mote and Hugh Hartzell. The fellow sitting on the Baker's bunkers is unidentified.

One of the nice things about a publication such as this is that it is a good place to record old time ways of doing things. I have seen very little published about making apple butter with steam, so I thought I should add my experiences and maybe prompt some discussion concerning this activity.

Before we get into details, we need to note that making apple butter is one of those 'men' activities, like putting steaks on the barbeque. Only real men would stand around a hot grill on a hot day in the sun cooking steaks. Likewise, only real men would stand around a tub of hot, boiling apple butter on a cold autumn day with the north wind blowing. Now, preparing the apples for use can, and usually does, involve members of the fairer sex, but the actual action that culminates in the concoction is performed by men.

So, why use steam to heat apple butter? As you may know, making apple butter with a fire under a kettle requires constant stirring, or the apple butter will get scorched. Steam, on the other hand, does not get so hot that it will burn the apple butter, so no one needs to stir the mixture. This is even better than grilling where you only turn the steaks once - you don't even have to stir the apple butter. What could be better?

A word of caution, however, and that is you must have a sufficient number of friends and acquaintances to give your apple butter to. If you are a loner, you better love apple butter on everything from sandwiches to grits to steak.


You must have the proper apparatus to make quality apple butter. You will need: a 25-gallon copper kettle, a copper heating coil for use in the kettle, one aged steam engine, piping to transmit steam from the boiler to the copper coil, and a sufficient number of men to talk to. Copper kettles are hard to find, and I don't know if a substitute can be used (maybe a reader can address this point?). If you don't have one, ask around to see if anyone will loan you one.

The copper coil we use is simply -inch copper tubing coiled to fit onto the bottom of the kettle and with valves plumbed to each end. The tubing drops into the center of the kettle, runs to the edge and then coils from the outside edge of the kettle (allowing about 1-inch of space between successive coils) until it reaches the center (see photo at top). The tubing then comes up from the bottom of the kettle to a valve fitted with a pipe nipple, to which a hose is attached to exhaust steam away from the kettle. Remember: Never use lead solder on any part of the apparatus.

The steam engine provides steam for heating the apple butter, and the piping connects the boiler to the coil. We always set the copper kettle on half of a 55-gallon drum to raise it off the ground to a convenient height, being careful not to punch a hole in the copper kettle. It's also a good idea to place the kettle under the cover of a building to keep dirt, soot and leaves out of the kettle during cooking - and to keep the men out of the wind.

You will also need a sufficient quantity of clean mason jars and lids to hold the final product. If you finish with 15 gallons of apple butter, you will need 60 one-quart jars or 120 one-pint jars. A large funnel and ladles will help you fill the jars. And remember, the apple butter will be very hot, so you will need a supply of hot pads and towels to clean up spills.

The Recipe

The recipe we used was the same one the late Hugh Hartzell of Darke County, Ohio, used.

Hugh Hartzell (left) and Lloyd Seman grinding apple slices with an electric meat grinder. Do you suppose the cigar adds flavor?

The four bushels of apples are peeled, cored and ground to make the snits, which are the ground up apples and any accompanying apple juice. This is where the women come in. We used mechanical, hand-powered apple peelers to peel the apples, and hand-operated corers to core the apples. It did not take long with three peelers and corers operating to process the apples. But then, I was with the steam engine, so I don't know how long it took. Following that, we ground the apple flesh through a commercial-type meat grinder to produce the snits.


First, spray the interior of the copper kettle and coil with a non-stick baking preparation like PAM. This will make cleanup much easier and the women will be thankful for your thoughtfulness.

With a properly fired-up steam engine, pour the 20 gallons of cider into the kettle. Then, when the women are not looking, use a clean pine stick as a depth gauge and mark the height of the cider on the stick. Measure one-half of the depth and mark that. You are going to concentrate the cider by boiling it to half its starting depth. Adjust the steam flow until you see a rolling boil.

When you have concentrated the cider to half its volume, it is time to add the snits. These are simply dumped in the kettle and the mixture is again boiled. At this point the cooking snits are lightly colored, just like regular cooked apples.

Apple butter will keep without refrigeration because it does not have enough moisture in it to support microbial growth, so you boil the mixture until liquid no longer separates from the solids of the mixture. It gradually becomes thicker as water is evaporated. When you can take a spoonful of the cooking mixture and no water separates from the solids, you can add the sugar. The apple butter will now begin to appear as the brownish mixture you see in jars. Feel free to taste it, because you may want to add more sugar or cinnamon. At this point, some homemade bread and butter would be useful as a toast to success.

When done, turn off the steam and remove the coil from the kettle. You can now scoop the apple butter into mason jars. You may want the women to do this because they usually do not make a mess, and thus the men could do some more taste-testing while they talk.

Apple butter made this way is shelf-stable for a number of years, as evidenced by the jars still in my cupboard. There are, I am sure, many variations to making apple butter. One variation I know is to initially add 10 gallons of water instead of the full 20 gallons of cider, boil and then add snits. This can save cooking time and did not seem to affect the flavor. Make sure you allow sufficient time for cooking. It can take five or more hours to cook a kettle of apple butter.

We found making apple butter to be an enjoyable experience and a good opportunity for steam folk to socialize a lot of steam engine experiences are exchanged in the process. I am sure there are readers with lots of apple butter-making experience, maybe someone can offer some insight into apple butter flavor and apple varieties. I would welcome comments and recipes from other cooks.

Contact steam enthusiast Dwight Seman at: 1500 Crooked Creek Road, Watkinsville, CA 30677, or e-mail: desman@arches.uga.edu

20 gallons of cider 4 bushels of apples to make 100 pounds snits 25 pounds sugar cinnamon optional.