A Family Tradition: Apple Butter Churn Part One

It was 4:40 AM and 53 degrees on a Saturday morning in early November. I was in desperate need of coffee. The roads were empty, the sky was dark and I wondered if I dressed warm enough for the occasion. I also questioned why I left my cozy, soft bed to sit outside in the cold for 14 hours. As I made my way from sea level up to the rolling hills of Frederick, Maryland, I watched the temperature drop slowly with each passing mile. According to the mass stream of emails leading up to this day, there was a strong chance for rain and there was no postponing the Apple Butter Churn. It would take place rain, sleet, hail, snow or shine. Please, let there be shine!


My mother and I arrived late to the party late. To be fair, we were turned around twice in the same spot. I was listening to the GPS as opposed to reading the signage. We should've arrived at 6:04 AM, but our Ground Hog Day detours put us at my Uncle Anthony and Aunt Sue’s house around 6:27 AM.

I will let it be known our tardiness did not go unnoticed. Timekeeper Tony, aka Uncle Anthony,  may have provided us with a few friendly reminders that day and again in a text the next morning. Who knew making apple butter was so regimented?


My cousins, Valerie and Jake, Uncle Robert, Uncle Tom, Uncle Anthony and Aunt Sue were already immersed in apple peeling and stirring. Mom jumped on apple peeling duties while I decided to learn some history from the guy who shared his family tradition with us. This was my first year attending my family's 4th annual Apple Butter Churn and I wanted to educate myself for this post. I headed over to the fire pit. Tom was stirring the pot while Anthony stoked the fire.


There was a chill in the air, the sun hadn’t yet risen and it wasn't raining. Tom was about an hour into stirring the pot of apples with a long wooden paddle. He was more than happy to explain all about what he was doing and why. He proceeded to disclose that there were 15 copper pennies placed in the pot. The pennies aide in scraping the rounded bottom pot to keep the apple butter from burning. Tom expressed using peach pits, instead of pennies, is a common and more natural option. He just hadn’t saved enough peach pits this summer which leaves the pennies in charge of scraping duty.


The copper pot used for this year's churn was borrowed from Tom’s cousin, Bruce. It's been in the family for over 40 years. This yearly tradition started with the Tyree family in West Virginia, but no one could remember exactly when it began. Tom’s sister, Florence, remembers being a young child participating in an Apple Butter Churn.

Uncle Tom and Aunt Shawn brought this tradition to the Kunze family three years ago. West Virginia still represented with the presence of Tom’s sister, Florence, her daughter Betty Jean, and grandson Tommy. They were a crucial part in the day’s events, reminding the newbies of what to look for throughout the day.


The West Virginia Tyree style of apple butter making is still the same after all these years. With compliments of the Kunze brood, a few other traditions have been added.

Who’s bringing the Fireball? A constant theme throughout the emails leading up to the churn. I am not sure who actually brought the handle of Fireball this year, but there it was in all its glory waiting to be poured into shot glasses honoring the yearly family gathering. Nobody had to wait long. Shots of Fireball were flying around before the sun came up. Breakfast of champions!


Another addition to the tradition is Aunt Shawn's sausage gravy and biscuits. A perfect breakfast for that brisk November morning. The host of the Apple Butter Churn is in charge of lunch. Aunt Sue and Uncle Anthony were this year's hosts and they made some awesome chili dogs!

Even with the scare of rain in the forecast and the early morning start time, the mood when I arrived was contagious. Everyone was excited to be there even if their poor fingers were freezing from the combination of cold weather and apple juices. No excuses for the apple peelers, 5 bushels of apples waited to be peeled and chopped.


Here is a tip for all you inspiring apple butter churners: cut those apples up as small as possible. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the apples break down and dissolve into silky smooth apple butter. Even though the same amount of water has to evaporate, larger pieces just got Anthony all twisted. Talk of using a blender and hand mixers threatened to muck up a very traditional way of making this apple butter. Tom had is eyes on you Anthony!!


My day may have started at 4:15 AM and I didn't get home until well after 6:30 PM, but I will say this was the most fun 14 hour party, EVER! I learned how to knit, sort of. How many people can say they learned how to knit during an outdoor November party? My cousin Scotty tried to teach me during the off hours from stirring duty. It didn't go so well and I need a lot more practice.


Even the little kids took advantage of the big yard, playing in piles of leaves and an empty canoe. The atmosphere, not just the Fireball, was intoxicating for everyone.


"Becky" became the butt of many jokes and there were discussions regarding words that would make you shiver.  An overuse of hand gestures and recurring outbursts about "hating ducks" filled the time between regimented duties.  Time seemed to fly by.  And, the second best part about the whole day, it didn't rain! Well, at least not until we had finished canning our last jar of apple butter and started packing up. Then it rained.

Did I mention there were shots of Fireball?


I wish I could give you an exact recipe for the West Virginia Apple Butter. It really is based on the senses. What I can help you with are my take aways from the day and give you baseline for making apple butter on your own.


First, let's start with the pot. Copper pots, like the one we used, can run upwards of $600-700 dollars. You're looking for a good quality, heavy gauge, round bottom pot. Search the internet for a used pot, they're out there.

The paddle is an important instrument. As I mentioned before, the paddle and the pennies constantly scrape the bottom of the pot to keep the butter from burning. I wish I took a picture of the paddle to give you an idea of what it should look like, but the paddle didn't come out of the pot! Even during a group photo, someone kept stirring. By the time the apple butter was packed up and the rain started, I forgot to snap a picture. It's best described as a 2" x 6" piece of lumber fastened to the end of a stick.  There is a slot running along the center of the paddle to aid in the mixing of the butter.


Get your wood pile ready! Upwards of 16 hours worth of fire is needed to make this butter.  Split seasoned wood into small skinny pieces. You want the flame "licking the bottom of the pot,"per my Uncle Anthony. The smaller pieces make it easier to manage the flame. Start the fire around 4 AM.


Did someone say it's time for shots of Fireball?


The amount of jars you will need for your apple butter will depend on how much apple butter your copper pot can hold. Anthony did the math and figured the copper pot was somewhere between 12-13 gallons. Then he calculated how many jars were needed to hold that amount.  An email was circulated in advance to inventory jars on hand and ensure there were enough at the churn.


You're not having an Apple Butter Churn without the apples. More calculations to consider. Anthony got his apples from Billy Brent's Orchard, Fairfield, PA. I suggest finding and working with an apple orchard to procure your apples. Anthony purchased 5 bushels containing a variety of flavors of apples and they were delicious. A quality apple provides more flavor for your final product. Apples are still in season for those who are inspired by this post and the next.

Thank you for reading part one of the Apple Butter Churn. Learn more about the Apple Butter Churn timelines, taste tests, the canning process and how we named this year's batch. CLICK HERE FOR PART 2