When the other kids in preschool were eating peanut butter and jelly, I was munching on butter sandwiches. Our family had a separate freezer growing up just for butter—my mother bought 75 pounds every time it went on sale (who knows when you might need a few hundred cookies or a half-dozen quiche crusts, right?). So it’s not surprising that today I’m pouring brown butter pan sauces over fish, churning up butter ice cream, baking brioche, even threatening my husband and friends that I’m going to throw a “butter party.” I. LOVE. BUTTER.
And while I love it for sautéing and baking, a good butter—I mean a really good butter—can stand on its own as well as any cheese. We’re not talking Land O’Lakes here, but the European-style cultured stuff. As in yogurt or crème fraîche, cultures added to butter give it tang and depth and, combined with the character of the cream that’s used, give every batch its own detectably distinct flavors and nuances.
Recently I had what seems an obvious thought: Why do I keep buying this stuff? I suddenly realized, if I love it so much, I should just make it myself. How hard could it be, right?
A little research revealed that making butter, even cultured butter, isn’t that hard. Take 48 hours, and just about 30 minutes of hands-on time, and presto, you can have homemade butter. And guess what? You also get homemade, old-fashioned buttermilk out of the deal (this is not the fake cultured skim milk à la the grocery store, but the genuine article).
Some tips on buying an ideal cream for your homemade butter: I’ve read that ultra-pasteurized cream won’t culture properly (because more of the bacteria that help along the culturing has been killed off in the high-heat processing), but I gave it a shot and didn’t have a problem. However, I do agree that the less processed the cream, the better (if you have access to raw milk, you don’t even have to add any cultures; it will culture on its own when left to sit). It’s also not surprising that a few tests with various brands of cream proved the obvious: the better the cream, the better the butter (and buttermilk). Butter made from generic store-brand cream turned out pale, uninteresting butter that really wasn’t worth the trouble. Whole Foods 365 Days pasteurized heavy cream gave me lightly golden-hued butter with a nice tangy flavor that was definitely worth the effort, though of course the rich, golden butter I made from cream from a local dairy was packed with nuanced flavor and richness that made it the big winner, a true “munching butter.”
Like nearly every other recipe I can think of, a good homemade butter will beat a “good” store-bought butter any day of the week, hands down; not to mention, making it is just plain fun. So let’s get churning.
Butter is churned from cream, so the first step to cultured butter is, naturally, culturing cream. To end up with about ¾ lb of butter (and about 400 ml of buttermilk), start with 4 cups of heavy cream.
Pour your cream into a large glass container that has a lid. I found a 64-ounce Mason jar works well and allows room to give the cream a good thorough shaking in the next step.
Add ⅓ cup of good-quality, plain, whole-milk yogurt—preferably without preservatives or gums—or buttermilk, or crème fraîche (you need something with live cultures), then put on the lid and give it a good shake to thoroughly combine the contents. I stuck with yogurt because it’s easy and affordable. Stonyfield Farm’s Plain Cream Top Yogurt worked well for me; I also tested Fage Greek Yogurt (labeled “Total”) once, and it took longer to culture but still turned out great tasting butter.
Remove the lid and cover the jar with a clean kitchen cloth. You want to keep it clean from any debris that might try to venture in, but the cream needs some air to culture properly.
Put the jar in a warmish part of your house; around 75 degrees is a good temperature, and leave it there for at least 18 hours.
After 18-24 hours, it might have a bit of a foamy “head” on it. Give it a stir and a taste. You are after a thick, silky consistency, a tangy flavor, and if it’s really cultured well, a slightly sour smell (think yogurt or buttermilk). Trust your instincts; if you think it smells or tastes very funky or off, throw it out to be safe (for the record, this happened to me once in about a dozen tests). If it’s not there yet, re-cover the jar with the cloth and let it sit some more. One of my batches took 48 hours to properly thicken.
Once the cream is thick, put the lid on the jar and put it in the refrigerator for a bit, maybe an hour or two. It will churn best when it’s slightly cool, in the ballpark of 60 degrees. You can leave the cultured cream in the refrigerator several days if you aren’t ready to churn it, but then you will need to let it sit out to warm up before churning.
There are a few things to get set up before you put the cream in the bowl and start making butter. First, you’ll need a fine-mesh strainer, lined with cheesecloth and set in a large bowl, which you will use to strain the buttermilk from the butter. You will also need about 4 cups of ice water. You can get the ice water ready to go and just put it in the refrigerator until it’s time to use it.
You can churn butter using several methods. I tried both the food processor and the stand mixer with the whisk attachment and tend to favor the latter (partly because I hate cleaning a food processor, but also because I felt the butter from the food processor required more rounds of cleaning in the later steps). I’m sure a hand mixer would also work; it might just be a little messier. Whatever way you choose, transfer your thickened cream to a large work bowl.
Eventually the cream is going to separate into butter and buttermilk, which means you are going to have some buttermilk splattering around toward the end. I kept things tidy by covering the open space between the mixer head and work bowl with plastic wrap.
Turn your mixer on high. The cream will go through several stages, and if it’s properly thick, the whole thing will take less than 5 minutes (I’ve read it can take 10 minutes, but I never found that to be the case). At first it will just look like whipped cream.
Keep going. Pretty soon the color will turn more yellow and it will begin to look a little chunky and like, well, overwhipped cream.
Keep going. When you start seeing buttermilk splatters on the plastic wrap, you are probably done. Stop the mixer and take a look. You are finished when you see yellow curds sitting in white liquid. Voila, that’s your butter and your buttermilk.
It’s time to drain off the buttermilk. Using the cheesecloth-lined strainer, pour off as much buttermilk from the butter as you can, letting it run through the strainer and into the bowl below.
Next plop all the butter into the strainer. Let it sit for a minute to allow it to drain on its own.
At this point there’s still a fair bit of buttermilk left in the butter. Gather the edges of cheesecloth up and around the butter, then push the butter down into the bottom of the cloth into a ball and start squeezing. You want to squeeze out as much buttermilk as you possibly can. Not only because you want as much buttermilk as you can get (for making waffles, pancakes, pies, dressing, not to mention drinking on its own), but because buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to go rancid more quickly. I also push on the sides of the butter toward the end.
I typically end up with about 400 ml of buttermilk. What you are getting here is the thick, old-fashioned buttermilk that you hear your mother and grandmother talk about. It’s so good, it is almost a better outcome for me than the butter itself.
What you have left in the cheesecloth is a lovely butterball. But you aren’t finished yet.
There’s still buttermilk lurking, so you have to wash the butter several times with the ice water. Place the butter in a clean large bowl, then pour about ⅓ cup ice water over the butter.
Now start smashing the butter and folding it over onto itself to squeeze out the buttermilk. Tilt the bowl if it helps cover the butter with a little more water. At this point, the butter is fairly soft, and I found it easiest to do the folding/smashing with a spatula.
Pour off the milky-white liquid, then repeat the washing step—pouring water over the butter, folding and smashing the butter and pouring off the liquid—until the water stays clear. It should take about 6 washes. It should firm up as you go since the ice water will chill it, at which point it will probably be easier for you to just use your hands to do the folding.
After you’ve drained off the last of the water, and maybe given it one last good squeeze and smash to get rid of any last bits of liquid, it’s time to add salt if you want salted butter (you don’t have to). I found that ¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt was plenty. After sprinkling on the salt, incorporate it into the butter with the same folding and smashing technique.
Now you’re ready to make logs of butter. I have been dividing the batch in half, but you can make your logs—or whatever shape you want (a cow, perhaps, if you are feeling clever?)—however big or small you like. So take a hunk of the butter from the bowl and drop it onto the top third of a piece of wax paper or parchment.
Use your hands to form the mass into some semblance of a log.
Then fold the paper over the top of the log and start rolling it into a tidy, smooth form. One way: Simply using your hand to roll it back and forth.
Another way: After folding the paper over the rough log, use a straight edge and push into the bottom of the log, then inch back the top piece of paper with a downward pushing motion (sounds hard but actually feels natural once you get started). This will push the butter into a smooth log.
You can tape over the edges and keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it (it will keep about a month or so, and I’m still testing the freezing lifespan), or better yet, dig in. Slather it onto a hunk of bread, or follow my lead and just grab a chunk straight off the knife. Homemade butter is pretty remarkable stuff.