Regency Christmas Traditions: Black Butter

Black butter was another traditional Christmastide treat.

Jane Austen mentioned black butter in a letter to her sister. One might infer that she liked it on the whole, but was rather unimpressed with this particular batch of it.


December 27, 1808:
The widgeon (a kind of duck) and the preserved ginger were as delicious as one could wish. But as to our black butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone. The first pot was opened when Frank and Mary were here, and proved not at all what it ought to be; it was neither solid nor entirely sweet, and on seeing it Eliza remembered that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made, you know, when we were absent. Such being the event of the first pot, I would not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy; and though not what it ought to be, part of it was very butter on bread

At first blush, black butter might sound like a rather unappealing burnt mess, but it improves upon learning that it contained no butter, but was more akin to modern apple butter than anything else.

The recipe for black butter traces back to medieval times. After the winter crop was picked, huge quantities of black butter were made in Jersey where twenty percent of the arable land was made up of orchards. So many were involved in the process that it became an annual social and festive occasion. The traditional Jersey recipe included apples, sugar, lemon, liquorice and spices.

Other period recipes did not include these distinct flavors. Sarah Hale (1839) offers this very simple version:

Black butter from 1839

This is thought to be Jane Austen’s recipe for Black Butter.
Take 4 pounds of full ripe apples, and peel and core them. Meanwhile put into a pan 2 pints of sweet cider, and boil until it reduces by half. Put the apples, chopped small, to the cider. Cook slowly stirring frequently, until the fruit is tender, as you can crush beneath the back of a spoon. Then work the apple through a sieve, and return to the pan adding 1lb beaten (granulated) sugar and spices as following, 1 teaspoon clove well ground, 2 teaspoons cinnamon well ground, 1 saltspoon allspice well ground. Cook over low fire for about ¾ hour, stirring until mixture thickens and turns a rich brown. Pour the butter into into small clean jars, and cover with clarified butter when cold. Seal and keep for three months before using. By this time the butter will have turned almost black, and have a most delicious flavour. – (Hubert von Staufer, 1995)

If you’d like to try a more modern recipe, this will probably do the trick:

Black Butter

• 2 pounds of fruit-strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, pears, peaches, plums, currants, or gooseberries in any combination you like.
• 2 cups of sugar

Peel the fruit and chop into small pieces. Place fruit in a large saucepan. Mix in the sugar. Cover, and heat the mixture slowly to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes until the fruit is soft, stirring frequently.

Take the mixture off the stove and let cool for a bit. Pour into a blender and pulse for about 10 seconds or use a hand blender to achieve a smooth consistency. Can in jars or refrigerate! (Bite from the past)

Not only can you spread this on bread, but, in a pinch one day, I substituted some for applesauce in a low-fat banana bread recipe and it came out amazing! Probably not the sort of thing Austen would have done, but I have to believe she would have approved.

To read more about the Christmas Feast click here.

To read a scene of Christmas Dinner at Longbourn click here. 


“Jane Austen’s Black Butter Jam.” Bite from the Past. June, 29, 2013. Accessed May 7, 2013. 

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters: Letter 63, Tues-Wed, 27-28 Dec 1808, Castle Square. Accessed December 4, 2017.

Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell. The Good Housekeeper, or The Way to Live Well and to Be Well While We Live. Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Company, 1839.

Hubert von Staufer, Maria. “Black Butter.” The Christmas Archives. March 1995. Accessed December 4, 2017/

Merkies, Anje. “BlackButter (1839)” Kitchen Historic: Exploring historical cookery. June, 2012. Accessed May 7, 2013.

Sanborn, Vic. Black Butter “A Christmas Recipe Popular in Jane Austen’s Day.” Jane Austen’s World. Dec 12, 2009. Accessed May 7, 20133.

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    • Adam Q on December 9, 2017 at 12:23 pm
    • Reply

    In modern Britain, cider is an alcoholic drink, unlike North American non-alcoholic cider. So do we know whether the cider mentioned in Jane Austen’s recipe was alcoholic or not?

    1. I could not find any reference to that point. It’s a good question.

    • J. W. Garrett on December 10, 2017 at 4:56 pm
    • Reply

    This recipe sounds delicious; thanks for sharing. As to the previous comment. Fruit will ferment over time. My relative used to make an ambrosia with various fruits and fruit juices and just kept adding more fruit to it and over time it got stronger and stronger. Pretty soon it took on that distinctive bite of alcohol. I’d say the British version carried a punch [no pun intended].

    1. I think there’s a very good chance of it, especially considering it would help it to last longer.

    • june on December 12, 2017 at 1:29 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for the recipes! Your modern version sounds yummy. I don’t think I could wait three months to eat it – I think I could wait only until it cooled!

    1. Me too! I really need to try to do some of this. Sounds perfect to adapt to a crock pot recipe. I make an onion jam when the really sweet onions come out in the crock pot and it’s an awesome relish on meat and sandwiches.

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