By Sharon Biggs Waller
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!
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- 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. Then 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!
Belanger, Jerry (2001). Storey’s Guide to Raising 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