If I am cooking, you better believe that I’m using butter. Think of me like a homecooking Paula Deen, but without the racism scandals. Butter is magical to me, so I was surprised to learn that I could easily prepare the ambrosial, creamy goodness in my own home kitchen.
Butter has a rightfully epic history throughout the course of human civilization. Archaeologists found the first record of butter making on a 4,500-year-old tablet. In some ancient cultures, butter was considered sacred (as it is in my household). Ancient Sumerians offered gifts of butter to their fertility and harvest goddess. Irish bog butter, wooden buckets loaded with butter and buried in swamps as an offering to the gods, has been discovered dating back as far as 400 B.C.
By the Middle Ages, butter was popular among peasants and nobility alike, prized as a cheap source of nourishment and a flavorful fat that was sinfully delicious. Until the 1600s, butter-eating was banned during Lent, but wealthy butter-lovers paid the Church a fee to look the other way during the days of self-denial. In northwestern France, the Rouen Cathedral’s Tour de Beurre (yes, that translates to “Butter Tower”) was financed through these payments.
The pilgrims brought the love for butter across the Atlantic and, over the next three centuries, butter became a staple of the American diet and culture. Churning butter is just about the most quintessential homesteading westward pioneer afternoon activity I can think of. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans’ annually consumed 18 pounds of butter per capita.
The Great Depression and World War II brought butter shortages and rationing. Margarine — a Napoleon-era invention once made with tallow and later with vegetable oil and yellow food coloring — became a cheaper option for American families. As dieticians and the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted low-fat diets throughout the 1980s, butter fell out of fashion in favor of the processed stuff.
Now, butter is making a comeback, hitting decades-long record consumption highs every year for the past few years. Ironically, companies are now marketing butter as a safer alternative to the trans-fatty processed foods like the once-heralded margarine. Through small-batch production and experimentation, artisanal butter producers have even returned to traditions like slow-churning and hand packing.
For home chefs, the jury is out on whether making your own butter is worth it given the many inexpensive and delicious store bought options. Bon Appetit, my usual go-to source for all things food, deemed homemade butter an unnecessary effort when it came to taste and cost. Plus, homemade butter is not all that much healthier than store bought butter, though you can control its salt content. Others disagree. One blog, Savor and Savvy, calculated that homemade butter would save about 7 cents an ounce compared to an average of the cost of three butters, which she totaled at almost $30 a year in savings.
The potential for deliciousness was too tantalizing to me. I headed to the store to get some heavy whipping cream and try making homemade butter for myself.
Learning to try
Scientifically, the key to making butter is agitation. Cream is a colloid, a liquid with 15 to 25 percent suspended fat globules, which are tiny membranes filled with fat molecules. The bigger the globules, the thicker the milk or cream. When shaken, the globules crash together and burst. The fat spills out of the broken membranes and clumps together. As this process continues, the fat separates from the liquid and forms solid butter as well as a liquid byproduct in the form of buttermilk.
When it comes to making butter, the quality of heavy cream matters — your butter is only as good as the cream you start with. Cream with higher fat content will make more delicious butter faster (apparently, the high-fat milk from Jersey cows is primo stuff). I don’t have a cow, and I didn’t really have the budget to blow on unpasteurized, raw cream, so I just got the Hannaford brand heavy whipping cream and hoped for the best.
The first method I found for making homemade butter was simply by shaking a little bit of cream in a jar by hand. Apparently, many elementary schoolers will do this as a small science project, but I guess mine missed the memo. Never too late to start, I suppose.
I read (and heard from my colleague Aislinn Sarnacki, who apparently went to a cool elementary school) that smaller jars are better from a grip perspective, so I chose to use the 4 ounce jars from when I made onion jam (like most speciality food items, the onion jam did not last long in my house). Because you can only fill the jar halfway in order to leave space to agitate it, it would only make a little dab of butter — a perfect sample size.
I knew the jar method would be a lot of physical labor, but I was more than used to homesteading tasks that require a lot of upper arm strength, like grinding sausage or chopping beeswax for candles. Still, in case my biceps weren’t up to the challenge, I decided to try a slightly less effortful method as well: churning butter in a food processor.
Once you prepare the butter, you strain it (I grabbed a mesh strainer and cheesecloth; too much butter milk left in the butter will make it go rancid faster), rinse it (a step that, I will admit in advance, I skipped in the flurry of butter making) and flavor it (I had to resist the urge to make flavored or compound butter this time). Voila! Homemade butter that will keep in an airtight container for two to three weeks.
A trying experience
First, I attempted the jar method for making butter. I simply filled the four ounce mason jar halfway with heavy cream, screwed the lid on tight and shook it up. As I expected, it was quite an arm workout. Who needs a Shake Weight when you could just shake a jar of heavy cream?
I kept checking the butter every few minutes and took note of the different stages of butter formation. First it was a foamy cream, and then it was a more viscous spread. After about 10 or 15 minutes of shaking, a solid, independent curd had finally taken shape. The consistency was slightly less solid than store bought butter, but frankly, I was too tired to continue shaking. Perhaps I should have chilled the butter before serving to achieve the right consistency, but I was too eager to taste it.
There was barely any butter milk, so I skipped the cheesecloth (and the rinsing — whoops) and drained the butter milk into a measuring cup (of course, spilling some in the process).
There was only about a pat of butter, so I decided to spread the entire thing over toast and eat it. It was love at first bite. Store-bought butter can’t compare to the creamy delicious spread I made with my own two hands. I scarfed the whole thing down.
With a belly full of butter, I moved on to the less strenuous food processor method. Instructions across the world wide web recommended running the food processor at moderate speed until the butter solids start to separate from the liquid, but I only have two speeds on my food processor: chop and puree. After a bit of indecision, I went with chop.
After a few minutes, the butter started to take shape. I got tired of pushing down the button for the food processor so I taped it down. Pretty soon, though, the ball of butter that had formed was so large it started knocking my food processor off its axis and it needed my hand to steady it.
I tried to strain the butter with the cheesecloth and it squeezed out through the fabric like Play-Doh. Eventually, though, I was able to separate the butter from the butter milk, though I lost a fair bit to the sink.
My food processor had the capacity for more heavy cream and, thus, made much more butter. Even after sampling it, I had plenty leftover to have for breakfast the next morning. The jar butter was a little creamier (probably because I didn’t agitate it as much by hand as the food processor was capable of doing automatically), but both were delightfully delicious.
My tried-and-true takeaways
Making homemade butter is easy, tasty and fun. It is also inexpensive, though whether it is as cost effective as simply purchasing butter from the store depends on the cost of the cream that you buy (as well, perhaps, as the quality of your usual preferred butter brand). With homemade butter, though, you do have more control over the salt content, consistency and flavor. Next time, I would let my flavor freak flag fly, perhaps adding a little orange zest, honey and cinnamon, or fresh herbs and smashed garlic. The possibilities are endless.
Do you have a butter churn, or know something else that Sam can try? She can be reached at email@example.com.