The Old Fashioned Way: Homemade Butter

Homemade Butter on TheHistoryKitchen.com #vintage #cooking #tutorial

I have recently gathered a talented team of contributors for The History Kitchen. I look forward to sharing their writing with you. Sharon Biggs Waller joins the team to teach us vintage and historical cooking techniques. Read more here. ~ Tori

Whenever I tell people I make my own butter they tend to look at me in wonder.  “Making butter? Sounds like alchemy,” one person said. Invariably I’m asked if I use a butter churn. Although the idea of sitting on my porch using an old-fashioned churn appeals to my inner Little House on the Prairie, I don’t collect enough cream from my dairy goat to use such a device, nor do I possess the funds to buy one. The truth is, butter is a simple thing to make with ordinary kitchen tools, and you don’t even need to own a goat or a cow.  You can make butter with store-bought whipping cream. But before we get into the details, let’s talk a bit about the history of butter.

People have been making butter for centuries throughout Europe and Asia. Humans initially used butter as a way of preserving the fat in milk. Butter rose to prominence as a spread and cooking fat in northern Europe during the Middle Ages, when it was eaten by peasants. The upper classes also ate it periodically, because it was the only animal fat allowed by Rome on days when meat was forbidden. In the 16th century it was allowed during Lent. In the early days, it took a little while to get enough cream to churn, and so it was collected over various days. Because the milk in these small old-timey dairies was not refrigerated, the lactic acid bacteria inherent in dairy would ferment slightly. This cultured butter has a very tangy and rich flavor, and is my personal favorite. Spread cultured butter on sourdough bread or a crusty baguette and you’ll know what heaven tastes like. Most butters made in Europe still taste this way, although they are made from pasteurized cream inoculated with lactic acid. Uncultured butter made from straight-up pasteurized cream is called sweet cream butter, and is what we’re used to in the United States. Pasteurization of the cream kills the lactic acid bacteria, however butter made from such cream lasts longer. True cultured butter, made from raw cream, turns rancid after ten days. If you want your butter to taste cultured, Ricki Carroll, author of the book Home Cheese Making, advises using unpasteurized cream and letting it ripen at room temp (72 degrees) for several hours. Or use pasteurized cream, let it sit for 12 to 24 hours, add mesophilic starter and let the cream set out overnight before churning. If you’d like to taste European-style butter without making your own, try the brand Plugrá. Although technically not a cultured butter, Plugrá uses natural flavors from cultured milk.

At its very essence, making butter requires nothing more than agitation. What you’re doing is separating the fat from the milk. You can use a blender, a stand mixer or hand mixer, or just shake by hand (if your child has a lot of energy, enlist their help; kid-power goes a long way!). I usually use my stand mixer with the whip attachment for making butter. I’ve also used a blender in the past and it worked just as well. If you use a stand mixer, be sure to place a kitchen towel over the mixer and the bowl to stop the buttermilk from flinging all over your kitchen, which will happen when the butter globules form.

You’ll notice in the pictures below that some of the butter is white, not yellow. That’s because I have a herd of goats, so I usually use the cream we collect to make my homemade butter. Goat’s milk is white because it doesn’t have the beta carotene that causes the yellowish blush in cow milk. A goat turns the carotene present in her fodder into vitamin A, which is colorless.

Here is the process for making homemade butter, step-by-step!

Homemade Butter on TheHistoryKitchen.com #vintage #cooking #tutorial

How to Make Homemade Butter

You will need

  • 1 pint heavy whipping cream
  • Large bowl of ice water
  • Salt to taste (optional)
  • Stand mixer, hand mixer or blender, or a jar with a tight fitting lid
Total Time: 15 Minutes
Servings: About 8 oz butter
  • Pour a pint of heavy cream or whipping cream into your device or into a jar with a tight fitting lid. If using a machine, turn on low speed, then raise to medium speed. If you're using a jar, start shaking (you'll need some serious elbow grease if doing it by hand). First, the cream will turn into whipped cream with soft, then stiff peaks. Keep going until the cream breaks. If you’re shaking the cream by hand, you’ll hear a sloshing, then you’ll begin to feel something more solid hit the sides of the jar. If you’re using a stand mixer, you’ll see the butter clinging to the beater. This usually takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes -- by hand may take longer. In this process, you are separating the butter fat from the liquid.
  • Once the butter has solidified, pour off the buttermilk and save it for baking (or drink it!). Scoop the butter into a bowl. Rinse the butter by pouring ice water over it and pressing the remaining buttermilk out with a small spatula or a spoon. Pour off the water and repeat the process. Keep rinsing and squishing the butter with the ice water until the water runs clear. The, add some salt if you like and work that through the butter.
  • There you have it-- old fashioned butter, no churn required! Spread on toast, corn on the cob, a baked potato, or whatever you like and enjoy!

Research Sources

Belanger, Jerry (2001). Storey’s Guide to Raiding Dairy Goats. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA

Carroll, Ricki (2002). Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA

McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner, New York, NY

About Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller writes about historical and vintage cooking techniques for The History Kitchen. She is a historical young adult novelist and freelance magazine writer for Urban Farm, Hobby Farms, Hobby Farm Home, and Chickens. Viking/Penguin will release her debut historical novel, A Mad, Wicked Folly, in 2014. Read more...

Comments (79)Post a Comment

  1. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    you can do this in a food processor, too! it’s amazing in 5 minutes you have some butter. I remember my grandma putting carrots in her milk to color it yellow a bit before making it

    1. Hi Rose Anna. Go ahead and put any seasoning in at the very end, before you spoon it into the container.

  2. When I was teaching kindergarten, we always did a unit on nutrition. One activity was to make homemade butter and it was always so much fun! I poured some heavy cream into a clean jar (like from baby food) and had each child in the group shake, shake, shake the jar and pass it around the circle. We usually had 4 or 5 groups shaking at once…lots of fun and we had homemade butter within 5-10 minutes. We served it on crackers and shared with the neighboring classes and office staff…always relating how we made it step by step!

  3. Love making my own, when I do….made the best batch of butter biscuits, using the butter and the “buttermilk”…now I just need to remember how I made them…they were a heart-attack waiting to happen, but OH SO YUMMY!!! My husband loved them! <3

  4. I learned how to do this when I was making whipped cream and got distracted by a cow that got loose. When I got back from sending the dog to get her back in, the whipped cream was this fine butter. Also had some buttermilk for making pancakes too.

  5. I was an educator at our state’s former Ag. Museum. We would do a program on wheat, from making test tube necklaces with wheat seeds, thrashing, winnowing and grinding. The kids on our tours got to do every step by hand. The final stage would be whole wheat pancakes. While I made the pancakes, the kids would make the butter. We took small jars with a wooden ice cream spoon, added heavy cream and handed the jars to the kids and let them shake. Even the parents were delighted to try fresh made butter, and the kids were amazed to see what they had made. Thanks for the post, it made me smile to remember.

  6. It started when I taught Kindergarten and we read The Little Red Hen. We made bread (in a breadmaker) and our own butter, which the students took turns shaking in the jar. Then it became a yearly activity even when I taught other grades.

  7. This just brought back such an ancient memory. We made butter in kindergarten (1957) and all got to sample some on a saltine. (Quaker schools were big on self-sufficiency, even back then.)

    I’ve always loved herb butters and will make this with fresh tarragon, chives and garlic. My question is the same as Rose Anna’s: when should the added ingredients go in? Also I’d think the salt would blend better if added during the churning process rather than after.

    1. Hi Paul– Tori here. Sharon wrote this article, but I think I can answer your question. My guess is that the salt and flavorings are added at the end is because during the churning and washing process, a lot of the liquid is squeezed out of the butter… and with that liquid, a lot of the flavoring would be squeezed out, too. Also, to add the flavorings during the churning would render the buttermilk flavored… most people would prefer their buttermilk plain, I’m guessing, not tarragon flavored or salty. Let us know how your herb butter turns out!

  8. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Remember making this as a kid and can’t wait to try again. So excited to experiment by adding honey and whatever else inspires me. Thanks for the great starter recipe!

  9. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tori, Good call on the salt/herb addition. I would have had to chuck the otherwise very tasty buttermilk. And, YO, if using a stand mixer, put the splash guard around the top of the bowl. When the butter starts to separate, things get a bit messy. My final product was a shallot and tarragon butter which goes great on warm, crunchy baguette.

    Now, on to that almond ricotta pound cake. Looks great!

  10. Hi Tori,
    I love the flavor of goat butter and I can usually find goat’s milk in the local grocery store. But how do you collect the goat cream to make butter since the milk is naturally homogenized?

  11. iam an 8th grader at Einstein middle school in sacramento California and me and my friends are doin a project on butter and we need different ways to make butter and saw this website to help mkla ebutter thank you for this website

  12. Wonder how chocolate chip cookies would be with this homemade butter? Lots of my quick breads also call for butter, scones to….looks like i need to do some experimentation. Lol

  13. I have been enjoying making as many things from scratch as possible lately. Even my laundry soap and lotions. I am so excited to make this butter with my kids. I just spent $8 on hormone free butter. I can make my own from cream now. Thank you for thorough directions and photos. I am hesitant about the ice water bath pushing out butter milk step. I think it will make sense when I do it and see how it works.thanks again!

  14. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    What a great blog. I’m looking forward to reading more. I can’t believe how easy it is to make butter! I’m excited because raw, organic butter is pretty expensive to buy in the store. I’m looking forward to making my own now and I bet the kids will have fun shaking the jars when they need to get their wiggles out! (However, I’ll be making mine in my stand mixer. haha!) Thank you!

  15. One important point. I don’t think you could use the “buttermilk” this produces to replace buttermilk in recipes. Since this is not cultured, and thus no lactobacillus, that liquid won’t be nearly as acidic as “real” buttermilk, and you won’t react properly with baking soda and get a good rise on biscuits etc. If you make a cultured butter, different story.

    1. You can, “clabber” the resulting butter milk with a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar.
      I make a lot of quick breads and muffins, and when I have no real buttermilk I put a spoonful of vinegar or lemon juice in the milk that I’m using in the recipe and leave it set for a 15-20 minutes. The acid in the vinegar or lemon juice will thicken the milk slightly and create a soured taste. And work with the baking soda.
      This has always worked for me and it’s quick and easy.
      I don’t make rolled biscuits so, ymmv! Works fine for whatever I have baked

  16. I am on holiday in the US and keep getting given this in restaurants, thought you could buy it in supermarkets but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. We have very rich double cream from the cattle in Jersey can I use this or will I need to use the whipping or single varieties. Looking forward to trying it out when I get back.

  17. I just tried this with whipping cream and it did not work out. I had regular whipping cream so I thought I would give it a try. Does it have to be “heavy” whipping cream? I lost my job last September and have been making and canning anything possible. Just made homemade ketchup and it is awesome! I would like to get the butter down too!

    1. Hi Virginia, heavy whipping cream is best. How long did you whip it? It really needs to be whipped quite a long time to make the transition to butter, so perhaps you didn’t go long enough. What was your exact result– too watery? Not thick enough?

  18. I whipped it for about 12 minutes because 8 minutes in I got it to separate and thicken up but I did not get any buttermilk to drain from it.

  19. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Back in Jersey following a brilliant holiday in California.
    Went to one of the local farm shops and bought 3 cartons of organic whipping cream which has made gorgeous butter and left me with a carton and a half of buttermilk. Will add flavours as required so that was a good thing to know in advance. The other good suggestion was to put a cloth over the bowl as I was using a hand whisk you can imagine what sort of a mess there would have been. Thank you for your guidance.
    Will enjoy this tomorrow on scones with jam and dare I say clotted cream!!

  20. One of the many jobs a Thermomix makes really easy. Done in 5 minutes. Here in Tasmania we have a terrific local producer of milk, cream and cheese (Ashgrove), and their cream is just brilliant turned in to butter.
    Strongly recommend a Thermomix!

  21. Good, safe butter is super expensive and hard to find here in Beijing. But good, safe whipping cream is easy-peasy! So thanks for the recipe, for now I shall have plenty of butter for all of my baking and cooking endeavors!

  22. WATCH OUT! some cream is now “ultra” pasturized, so will NOT make butter or buttermilk… It will however, keep fresh for over a month.. sigh… just look for REGULAR, single, pasturized cream.. hope that helps!

  23. I made for the first time a few minutes ago an used a little Himalayan pink crystal salt to taste.Then found your website and it says to wash the butter off which my recipe didn’t!! i hope this won’t affect the butter. I made into small pats and froze all but one so hopefully that will help it keep longer as I didn’t wash it off.

  24. Hi there, I have a question. I have a friend with a cow that we get our cream from for making butter, but the butter we make usually turns out hard, even at room temperature. Is there an addition we can make to the butter before it goes into the fridge that will fix that so that it’s easy to spread? I’ve seen a lot of recipes for making butter spreadable by adding oil but they all start with butter from the store, or with butter like this that is made from cream from the store. Will that work with real, fresh cream? I assume it would, but I can’t find anyone with any experience in making it that way.

  25. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    This was a great read – history-wise! My mother used to make butter when I was a girl – nothing like that whipped sweet cream butter. You have inspired me to make my own again!

  26. I grew up on a farm, we had fresh milk till I was 24. Now I always made butter. Well, I have a ?. I just bought a quart of fresh raw cream and raw milk. But when I mixed the cream with my mixer, it took (and I am not kidding), 2 1/2 hours to get the butter made. It started to whip and get a little thicker than really thin, what was I doing wrong? And I have a comment. I fell on the ice really hard on my hip, did not break a hip, I contribute it to having the fresh raw organic milk till 24 when we had to move from the farm. I wish we all could have access to the organic milk.

    1. Hi Donna, I asked Sharon (the author of the post) about this, here is her response:

      It might have been too hot or too cold. 50-to 60 degrees is the best temp. That extra time mixing it probably caused the butterfat to become liquid instead of solid. ou can fix the problem by sticking it back in the fridge until it’s cold and then starting again.

      Hope that helps!

  27. Made this for my class of elementary students. We’re studying pioneer history, and this fits right in! This butter and some of my homemade sourdough bread . . . doesn’t get any better!

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