I’ve made butter exactly twice in my life and only once intentionally. The first time, my 3rd grade teacher poured some cream into baby food jars and told us to shake them. After what seems like hours and much whining about tired arms, we took off the lids and found solid yellow clumps floating in a milky liquid. How’d that happen? We combined all our clumps and spread them onto saltines. We quietly crunched away, our eyes wide in disbelief. We made butter. It was mind-blowing and I was absolutely delighted. The second time I made butter, I was in culinary school doing what I continue to do even to this day – too much at once. In the time it took me to walk to the cooler and back, the cream meant for a cake was beyond overwhipped. I was not delighted in the least.
Butter and I have a love love relationship. Butter makes it better. It just does. I’ll never understand those people who insist upon margarine, fake tasting hydrogenated spreads and – gasp! – butter-flavored vegetable shortening. It makes me sad. You’re not doing yourself any favors with manufactured products. Just eat the damn butter. People would be so much happier if they just ate the damn butter.
Last summer while in France, I had some of the best butter of my life. Manna from the heavens. Boy, those French folks know how to do things right. Even the grocery stores had numerous options in beautiful, colorful packages. But the farm-made butter was the good stuff. At the Lavardac market, the cheesemonger had large paper lined baskets of handmade butter off to the side of his cart, behind the discs and wedges and enormous chunks of cheese and would slice off big pieces to order.
My favorite was a cultured version with big crunchy pieces of sea salt. I spread it on everything – bread, radishes, crackers. Yes, I even ate big swipes off spoons, forks, knives and even my finger. It was that good. So much more interesting and flavorful than any butter I’d ever had, almost cheese-like and crazily complex. The bits of sea salt strewn throughout were such a delicious surprise, adding great texture and a satisfying crunch here and there. I might have eaten my own arm if it it was slathered in this. Toward the end of my stay, I tried to figure out how to get some back to the States. Customs Officials would have frowned upon this. I was in mourning before I even left.
Back in Chicago at my farmers market, I made a beeline for one of my favorite dairymen, Al from Nordic Creamery. He already made a great butter, really delicious, and I thought I might be able to talk him into trying a cultured butter strewn with big pieces of salt. Turns out he was already working on it and having since tried his tests, I can tell you that it’s pretty damn good and a steal at less than 4 bucks.
But it didn’t stop me from thinking about that 3rd grade experiment. Would making butter myself just be ridiculous? Could I make butter as good as that man at the French market or Al? I take on silly things sometimes, relishing the challenge. Yep, this was going to be one. A plan was formulating. I did some research because I was really interested in the cultured part of it all and came upon a really simple recipe from Melissa at A Traveler’s Lunchbox. So I tried it.
Turns out, it is really easy. Ridiculously easy, especially if you have a stand mixer. Just one step beyond making crème fraîche, which I do all the time. I bought the best cream I could find, beautiful organic stuff from Kilgus Farms but you can use regular grocery store cream if that’s all you can find. I added some buttermilk and left it out on the counter overnight to develop a more complex flavor (aka the culturing part) though the original recipe says you can use yogurt or crème fraîche instead of buttermilk if you like. Just try to stay away from products with gelatins and stabilizers. The next morning I stuck a thermometer in the bowl and popped it in the fridge for several hours to chill.
Once cool – about 60°F – I put it in the mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment then wrapped the mixer in plastic wrap for easy clean-up. Truthfully, since I whipped the cream on a low-ish speed it wasn’t that messy but I know if I hadn’t wrapped it, disaster would have ensued. That’s just how things go for me so I tend to favor the preemptive strike.
At first you don’t think anything is going to happen: whipping cream, big whoop, nothing to see here. Then the mixture goes grainy and then – boom! – it separates into clumps of butter and a rich liquid buttermilk. I was the fascinated 3rd grader all over again.
Then you have to knead the stuff to remove any traces of the buttermilk and extend the shelf life. The recipe recommended using a fork but I found my cool hands and the help of a flexible bowl scraper worked best. Just keep adding ice water and working it through a few times until it runs clear. My inner pioneer woman was very pleased.
Next in went some big, chunky magical sea salt that I happened to buy while in France to really bring the whole thing full circle. I promptly smeared a big golden yellow spoonful, right out of the mixer, on some bread I baked special just for the occasion. OK, they were biscuits but that’s the next post. Warm buttered biscuits. You know what happened next. Even though I had dinner plans in two hours, I ate four of those damn biscuits with a good portion of that butter. Remarkable in so many ways.
Yes, maybe I did feel a little Laura Ingalls Wilder. Who makes their own butter? Apparently I do and you should too. Release that inner 3rd grader. Make this with your kids; they’ll really get a kick out of it. It truly is a cool thing. If you don’t have a standing mixer, use a deep bowl and a hand mixer or even whisk it by hand. Earn those calories, girl. Or better yet, divide it between several canning jars, screw the lids tightly and give it to the kids to earn their keep.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: HOMESTEADING HIGH FIVE. Sure it’s one of those things that seems silly to make, like your own laundry soap or embroidered toilet paper (Ok, I made that one up.) Do it anyway because homemade butter will rock your world. It tastes a million miles apart from that store brand stuff you’re currently spreading on your toast. It’s shocking. Plus it’s fun and extremely satisfying. Is it more economical? Hell no. That cream cost me 10 bucks and I got about ¾ pound of butter. But that’s not really the point here. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in making something that most people don’t have the slightest idea how to do. Or even knew was possible. And you’ll earn a Scout badge in some wonderful parallel universe for even attempting this.
CULTURED SALTED BUTTER adapted from A Traveler’s Lunchbox
Makes about ¾ pound + 2-3 cups of fresh buttermilk
4 cups heavy cream (best quality and highest butterfat you can find)
1/3 cup buttermilk
sea salt, to taste (flaky fleur de sel or Maldon salt is great)
- Culture the cream: In a glass or ceramic bowl combine the cream and buttermilk.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave on the counter overnight. The ideal temperature is around 75°F, but try to stick under 80°F.
- After 12-18 hours, the cream should be noticeably thicker and should taste slightly tangy. You’ve basically made crème fraîche FYI.
- Transfer the bowl to the refrigerator for several hours to chill the cream to 60°F.
- To whip the cream: When you’re ready to whip, fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside until needed.
- Place the cream in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and if you like, wrap the open gap between the top of the bowl and the top of the mixer with plastic wrap. (This will keep the mess to a minimum.)
- On medium-low to medium speed, whip the cream to stiff peaks.
- When the cream reaches stiff peaks, reduce the speed to low. At this point interesting things start to happen; first the mixture will start to look grainy. After a few seconds, the mixture will break. Make sure you’re on low speed or the buttermilk will go slosh everywhere (this is where the plastic wrap comes in handy).
- Stop and carefully pour off the buttermilk, holding back any butter clumps. Save the buttermilk for another use.
- Kneading the butter: Next you have to knead the butter to remove any excess buttermilk and extend the keeping qualities.
- With your hand, a flexible bowl scraper or a fork, pour some of the ice water into the bowl and knead/stir vigorously. The water will turn cloudy as you work out the buttermilk.
- Pour out and discard the liquid and continue the kneading process a few times until the water runs clear and as much liquid as possible has been worked out of the butter.
- Season: Stir in the sea salt to taste. I particularly like a large grain salt and start with ½ teaspoon and go from there.
- Store: tightly covered, in the refrigerator or freeze for longer storage.