Cooking Up History: Apple Butter (1918) | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Cooking Up History: Apple Butter (1918)

Cooking Up History: Apple Butter (1918) | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeApple Butter - Final Product


Apple butter is a concentrated spiced apple sauce that makes for a great seasonal spread. As it is a simple way to preserve apples, apple butter dates back to medieval times in Europe. No wonder it also made it to Wisconsin. You can find advertisements for apple butter in local newspapers as early as 1858 and there are a number of recipes to choose from if you want to make your own.

EnlargeWatertown Republican Apple Butter Recipe


In 1881, the Watertown Republican printed a recipe illustrating that, at the time, making apple butter was quite the family and/or neighborhood affair requiring a kettle over an open fire and a broomstick to constantly stir the apple and spice mixture for 14 hours: “Apple butter is a tedious thing to make. It is best to have a merry-making over the apple paring and stirring, as it is very heavy work for one or two persons.” In 1911, the Watertown Leader featured a helpful device – an apple butter stirrer – which you may want to recreate if you’re cooking the old-fashioned way. Even with the right equipment, however, you may want to consider the 1881 cautionary tale included in the recipe warns you to carefully choose your apple butter making friends because you may, otherwise, end up stirring by yourself at midnight.

EnlargeWatertown Leader Apple Butter Stirrer


Although the 1881 recipe seemed fun, we opted for a 1918 version printed in the Vernon County Censor instead. It allowed us to stay indoors, have more temperature control by using a stove and, most importantly, save some time. The process is still time consuming but very rewarding.

Fresh apple cider is boiled down before fresh apples are added and you start waiting and stirring. The recipe calls for sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves to be added when you’re two-thirds of the way to the finished product. These instructions are very vague if you’ve never made apple butter before and when the recipe omits any estimates of how much time this is going to take out of your day. We decided to add the sugar and spices after about 1 hour and 15 minutes and it worked very well; no sugar was burnt in the process. According to the 1881 recipe, you know the apple butter is done if it is “so stiff that a spoon will stand up in it.” It took another hour or so until we reached that point.

As soon as it cools down a little, the apple butter is ready to be spread and enjoyed. You can keep it in the fridge or use your favorite canning method to make it shelf-stable.  


EnlargeCutting up apples


The Recipe in 2020:

Apple Butter with Cider

  • 4 quarts fresh apple cider
  • 4 quarts apples, peeled and chopped
  • 1 lb sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 ½ tsp. allspice
  • 1 ½ tsp cloves
EnlargeApple Butter with Cider Recipe


Boil 4 quarts of apple cider down to 2 quarts. Add chopped and peeled apples and cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes on medium heat stirring occasionally. Add sugar and spices and keep stirring and cooking until the mixture is “so stiff that a spoon will stand up in it.”

EnlargeApples cooking on stove



Got some extra apples and need some more ideas? Check out our 1922 Apple de Luxe recipe.

Used up all your apples but still craving apple pie? Check out our 1887 recipe for Mock Apple Pie