Getting your hands on some butter is as easy as popping in the grocery store. But why buy what you can make? Homemade butter is creamier than the store-bought stuff and boasts a richer, more complex flavor. It’s not as difficult to make as you might think, and there’s more than one way to milk this particular cow.
Choose the modern method, and you’ll transform easily available ingredients into butter in a matter of minutes. Try the old-fashioned way, and while you’ll need a few specialized tools, some time, and a little brow sweat, proving you could have survived the pioneer life (at least part of it) will be as sweet a reward as that first bite of your butter.
THE OLD WAY
Why do it this way? Because while churning butter can be a little time-consuming and takes some elbow grease, it can be a wonderful, hands-on way to teach kids about patience and persistence, as well as our agricultural heritage. And, yes, you can count it as your daily exercise!
You’ll need a butter churn with a top. See if you can borrow one. I bet your aunt or mom or grandmother has one, even if it is currently only serving a decorative purpose—and they’ll happily let you borrow it if you return it with a block of fresh, hand-churned butter! I borrowed my mother-in-law’s that had been sitting in a corner of her kitchen, unused, for years.
You’ll also need a dasher. Lots of churns turned plant-holders or corner-space-taker-uppers lost their dasher long ago. But you can make one with a wooden dowel and some lumber pieces from your local hardware store. There are detailed instructions all over the internet.
Finally, you’ll need a large section of cheesecloth for straining later, as well as your ingredients.
If you want to be authentic, use raw milk, straight from under a cow. Don’t own a cow? Try the next best thing: organic, pasteurized but non-homogenized whole milk. Check your local area to see if you can find a dairy that sells direct to customers nearby. You’ll need several gallons to get the right amount of cream.
If you can’t get your hands on either of these options, do what I did. The first time I made butter, I used a mixture of heavy cream and cut it with a little whole milk. I used four quarts of heavy cream and added about one quart of whole milk.
If you use raw or pasteurized but non-homogenized milk, start by skimming the cream off the top of the liquid and place it in your churn. You’ll want to fill the churn about halfway. If you use cream and whole milk, you can skip this step and pour all of your liquid directly into your churn. Again, it should fill it about halfway.
Next, let the liquid in the churn sit at room temperature to “clabber.” This is an important step and could take anywhere from several hours to overnight, so plan ahead. Test it regularly with a meat thermometer, and when it is about 55–60°F (a little cooler than room temp), you’re ready to start the fun part: churning.
Place your dasher in the churn and place the lid on top. Move the dasher up and down, trying to keep a consistent, rhythmic motion. Sing a little song if it helps; the backs of your arms will probably soon be singing too. Churning is laborious, but strangely relaxing at the same time. I usually drift into a daydream, imagining my great grandmother on her porch, rocking while she pumps her dasher on a sticky Mississippi summer evening.
In as little as fifteen minutes, you’ll start to feel a difference in the liquid, a thickening.
Watch the hole in the churn’s top and the sides of the dasher. Once you see small “grains” of butterfat (probably in 30–40 minutes), you’re almost done. Take the top off for a look inside, and you’ll either see a nice big blob of butter floating in liquid (also known as buttermilk), or you won’t. If you do, move on to the next step. If not, keep a-churning ’til you do.
Retrieve your butterball from the remaining buttermilk in the churn and place it in a large section of cheesecloth to strain. Squeeze it to remove as much liquid as you can, then place the butter into a clean bowl with a little ice water. Roll it around and push it against the sides of the bowl, squeezing any more liquid out. This washing process will help keep the butter fresh. Pour off the water and do this at least one more time.
Your butter is done! You can salt it if you like. Press it into pretty molds if you have them. Immediately slather it on some hot toast or a warm biscuit. Or just wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate. It will keep one week in the fridge or up to six months in the freezer.
Why do it this way? Because you crave the simple, smooth pureness of homemade butter but have zero patience and even less time.
Add two cups heavy cream to your electric mixer’s bowl and turn it on. Let it blend on medium speed and watch the transformation with wonder. You’ll see the soft peaks of whipped cream first, then stiff peaks. These will then fall and become a thicker mixture with small beads and blobs of butterfat pulling away from the liquid.
Soon these beads will come back together while the liquid, which is basically thin buttermilk, stays in the bottom of the bowl. Turn the mixer off and pour off the liquid.
Press the butter together with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and place it in cheesecloth so you can squeeze any remaining liquid out. Put the butter back in the bowl and add a little ice water while rolling it around and squeezing it against the sides of the bowl to “bathe” it. Do this at least twice, squeezing out all the liquid again each time. Put it in the cheesecloth for one last really good squeeze if needed.
And there you have it: butter. The next steps are the same as for the old-fashioned way. Salt it if you wish. Mold it or wrap it in plastic wrap, and pop it in the fridge or freezer.
YOU’VE MADE YOUR BUTTER, NOW EAT IT TOO
Mission accomplished. You did it. And if you did it your great grandma’s way, double congrats! You can rest easy knowing that if left to your own devices a century or two ago, despite the fact that you can’t build yourself a home or sew your own clothes, you would’ve had plenty of homemade butter, so at least you wouldn’t have starved.
You can survive on just butter, right?