Step 1: Choose Apples
The best apples are the ones that taste good to you. We like apples that are tart and tangy, but you might prefer ones that are more sweet and mellow. Both are good! If you're buying your apples at a farmer's market, you might mention to the farmer what you're making and ask if he or she recommends any specific apples.
Since making apple butter is more of a technique than a strict recipe, you can use any amount of apples you want. The applesauce recipe we'll be using as a base calls for 3 pounds of apples, and this will make 2-3 cups of apple butter. You can double or triple or quadruple this if you want!
Step 2: Make Applesauce
Cook the apples down until they're completely soft and falling apart. If you have a food mill, run the apples through this so you get a uniform texture. Otherwise, you can mash the apples using a potato masher or give it a spin with a food processor or immersion blender.
Taste the applesauce to see how you like it. Remember that this will be reducing down, so the flavors will be concentrating. You can always add a bit more sugar later on if you think it's too tart.
Step 3: Cook the Applesauce
This is the part that takes some patience and attention. Pour the applesauce back into a saucepan and set it over very low heat. Add in a spice packet with a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, and a star anise, or any combination of those spices.
Cook the sauce very very slowly, stirring it every so often so you're sure the bottom isn't burning. Leave the lid off so that the liquid can evaporate. The sauce should be simmering very quietly - you should only see a bubble or two every few seconds.
As it cooks, the sauce will slowly turn color from yellow-pink to deep red-brown, and it will get thicker and thicker. Taste it every so often to see how it's coming along. You can add more sugar if it's too tart or remove the spice packet if it's getting too spicy.
The apple butter is done when a ribbon of the sauce drizzled on the surface holds its shape for several seconds. This isn't an exact science, so you can feel free to stop cooking sooner or later than this as you prefer. For small batches like this one, this whole process will take approximately 2-3 hours. Larger batches can take 10-12 hours.
Fresh apple butter will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. For longer storage, can your apple butter using the hot water bath method.
Variations: In the Oven or In the Slow Cooker
If you're making a very large batch of apple butter - say, from a bushel of apples - we find it easier to cook the sauce in the oven. Set your oven to 300° with an oven rack positioned in the bottom third of the oven. Cook the sauce in a dutch oven or other big baking dish with the lid off, and stir every half hour or so until the butter is done.
We've also cooked batches in the slow cooker. Set the slow cooker to the longest time setting and leave the lid ajar so that steam can escape. Still remember to stir the butter every so often so that it cooks evenly.
Do you like apple butter? What do you do with it?
(Image: Emma Christensen)