Making apple butter is a 164-year-old family tradition

By on November 2, 2016

There are long-standing family traditions, and then there are really long-standing family traditions. Like the Wolf family apple butter tradition — which goes back 164 years — and which has used the same copper kettle since the tradition began, two years before the start of the Civil War.

George Wolf, an Akron Realtor, has been around for exactly half of those 164 years. The Wolf family patriarch knows the art and science of apple butter. The science is in the ingredients: three bushels of Lancaster County Smokehouse apples per batch, peeled, cored, quartered and with the brown spots removed; 22 gallons of apple cider from Daniel Shirk’s orchard, just down the road in Fairmont; 20 pounds of sugar; and maybe half a stick of butter, or maybe no butter at all. As the apples simmer in the copper kettle, they build up a head of steam. The steam can be troublesome if it can’t escape the kettle quickly enough, so Wolf may add butter to the mix. The butter reduces the surface tension at the top of the mix, which helps steam escape.

So there are the science and the recipe – apples, cider and sugar in the aforementioned quantities, one batch on Friday and another on Saturday, and a bit of butter if it’s necessary. No spices.

“People ask me why I give the recipe away,” Wolf said.

He replies that people are welcome to the recipe, but if they are seriously considering embarking on their own apple butter venture, they should first have a psychological evaluation to be sure they’re in their right minds to tackle the job.

“Getting ready for this day is a week-long process,” Wolf said. “We have to pick up the cider, get the apples, move my grandfather’s 1928 Oldsmobile out of the garage to make room for the kettle — there’s a lot of work.”

He gets help setting up from family and friends, and when cooking starts at five a.m. Friday of apple butter weekend, he gets more offers of help than he can really take advantage of. The weekend this year started Friday, Sept. 30, and ended the next day about four in the afternoon.

There were 172 people from eight states — Colorado, Texas, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania — and they came from every corner of Lancaster, Berks and Lebanon Counties. Wolf was pleased with the turnout. It’s good to see everybody, he said, plus they all bring food. All kinds of food, in crockpots, trays and baskets. There was made-from-scratch mac and cheese, taco soup, other soups, chili, baked beans, all kinds of home baked goods, cut up cheese, salty snacks, you name it. And the renowned-for-good-reason onion pie from Sandra Wolf.

The art of Wolf family apple butter, as opposed to the science, centers on the paddle that’s used to constantly stir the cider-apple-sugar mix as it cooks down to a pair of 40-quart batches — one batch on Friday, another batch on Saturday. The paddle has to stir through the steaming mix just so, in a figure-eight pattern, and it has to be sure to hit the bottom to dislodge the bubbles of steam generated there. As Saturday’s 40th quart was put into a jar, there was a pint left over.

“We try to hit a total of 40 quarts per batch, so today we got pretty close,” said Ryan Cochran, Wolf’s grandson, chief apple peeler and designated heir to the title of apple butter boss, should Pop Pop, the current boss, ever decide to step down which, according to Pop Pop, will be never.

Dick Wanner is a staff writer and photographer for the Ephrata Review. He welcomes reader feedback at



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