Years ago, I set out to make whipped cream but let the process go a little too far. The cream turned into butter, though I didn’t realize at the time that butter is what I had, and this mistake offered me a new ability and an enduring gift.
Sweet cream butter like the kind I got after over-beating whipped cream comes from churning or agitating ordinary heavy cream. European-style cultured butter is different; it’s churned from heavy cream that has been treated with live bacterial cultures, the same way yogurt is. The extra step of culturing cream before churning creates a more lavish butter with complex flavors and a longer shelf life.
You will love making cultured butter and, as a bonus, having the traditional thick buttermilk that is its by-product. These are foods that surpass anything you can buy in a store.
Step 1: Gather ingredients
The following ingredients will give you 1–1/2 pounds cultured butter and 3 to 5 cups buttermilk:
2 quarts heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon mesophilic butter culture. (You can purchase culture here: Get Culture. Be sure to freeze it upon arrival.)
1–1/2 to 2 teaspoons flaked, non-iodized salt, optional
Step 2: Culture the cream
1. Pour the cream into a heavy pot — I use stainless steel or enameled cast iron — and gently warm it to 80 degrees. This is the temperature that best encourages the growth of bacterial cultures that add flavor to butter. Cream heats quickly, so keep a close eye on the thermometer.
2. Remove the pot from the heat, and then remove the culture from the freezer. Pour the quantity of culture needed onto your measuring spoon. (Do not dip the spoon into the culture, as this may contaminate the entire package.) Sprinkle the culture over the cream and, to avoid it degrading, immediately return the package of culture to the freezer. Let the culture sit on top of the cream for about 2 minutes, then stir it in until it’s well mixed.
3. Cover the cultured cream and keep it at as close to 80 degrees as possible. You can culture the cream for as few as 8 hours, but 24–36 hours will give you a finer end result. After culturing, move the cream to the refrigerator and let it cool for at least several hours. If you like, you can refrigerate the cream for up to a week before making butter.
The culture you use to make your butter will affect the flavor and personality of the finished product and, other than the cream you start with, it is what will give your butter its defining characteristics.
Step 3: Make butter
1. Remove the cream from the refrigerator and let it warm to 65 degrees. Cream that is much colder will not efficiently turn to butter when you mix it, and cream that is too warm is hard to handle after it turns into butter.
2. When the cream warms to 65 degrees, pour it into the bowl of a stand mixer and, using a paddle attachment (the whisk beats in too much air), start mixing the cream on low. If you have a splatter shield, you will be glad for using it. As the cream starts to thicken, continue increasing the speed until you are mixing the cream on high. (Do not walk away during this step; I have spent many hours scraping butter off the ceiling when a batch has turned to butter more quickly than I expected it to.)
3. Within 5 to 10 minutes, the cream will begin its transformation into butter. At this point, gradually lower the speed of the mixer and watch carefully. As soon as you see traces of buttermilk in the bowl, along with small pieces of newly created butter, turn the mixer as low as it will go to avoid serious splattering. Stop the mixer 2 to 3 times to strain the buttermilk into a jar, and continue this process of mixing and straining until most of the buttermilk is released and your bowl contains a large round of fresh butter. Refrigerate the buttermilk.
4. Leaving the butter in the bowl, add about 2 cups of cold water. In warm months, you may want to refrigerate or add ice to the water you use for this step. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, press and squeeze the butter to release any remaining buttermilk into the water. Pour off the water and discard it, repeating this process several times until the water pours off mostly clear.
5. If you want salted butter, this is the time to knead in 1–1/2 to 2 teaspoons of salt, or to taste. If not, simply press the butter into a bowl or molds and store it in or out of the refrigerator.
You are now a butter maker! You can stop reading here, but continue on if you want to learn more about storing butter, and better understand the artisanal aspects of butter making, including starting with raw (unpasteurized) cream.
Notes on storing butter and buttermilk
Once made, you can either refrigerate butter or keep it on the countertop where, because it is cultured, it will remain spreadable and keep for several months. Buttermilk, when refrigerated, keeps for about 1–1/2 weeks. You can store butter in the freezer nearly indefinitely, but most frozen food diminishes considerably after about a year.
Note that light degrades fats and butter picks up odors, both of which should impact your choice of storage container. For the refrigerator or freezer, a glass or ceramic container works best. When storing butter outside the refrigerator, protecting it from light preserves its flavor and keeps it fresher longer. Room-temperature butter should be slightly cool, soft but not melty.
Notes on perfecting the process
Using cultured versus sweet cream butter. Adding a culture to cream before turning it into butter imparts depth and complexity by adding bacteria that promote thickness as well as acid development; the latter lowers the pH, which thickens and stabilizes the butter and extends its shelf life. Sweet cream, or uncultured butter, has a simpler flavor and lasts only as long as the cream would have lasted before churning. The sweet buttermilk that is its by-product is nonacidic. So, unlike cultured buttermilk, it cannot be paired with baking soda to leaven baked goods. To use sweet cream buttermilk in baking, substitute 3/4 to 1 teaspoon baking powder for every 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda called for in the recipe.
Choosing a culture. The culture you use to make your butter will affect the flavor and personality of the finished product and, other than the cream you start with, it is what will give your butter its defining characteristics. This makes it especially important to learn about or sample several cultures from a supplier before settling on one for long-term use.
Handling the culture. Purchased culture should always be stored in the freezer, where it should stay until the moment you are ready to use it. Shake the container well, pour the amount of culture needed onto your measuring spoon, and then immediately put the culture back into the freezer. I have learned the hard way not to dip the spoon into the culture or leave the packet sitting at room temperature, as either could contaminate it.
Crème fraîche. At the end of culturing, before making butter, what you have is Crème fraîche. This is cream that is thickened and given a tart, buttery flavor by the cultures added for butter making. Less sour than sour cream, you can use it the way the French do as a substitute. Crème fraîche also works as a base for sauce because it doesn’t curdle; or you can serve it over fresh fruit or add it to soup or mashed potatoes.
Scaling up the recipe. If you want to scale this recipe up to make more butter and buttermilk, continue to use 1/8 teaspoon culture for quantities of cream under 2 gallons (8 quarts). For 2 to 5 gallons of cream (8 to 20 quarts), increase the quantity of culture to 1/4 teaspoon.
Churning butter by hand. It’s possible to make butter without a stand mixer, though it will take more time and muscle. Start with a glass jar one- third filled with cream that is about 65 degrees. Shake the jar, watching for butter to form and buttermilk to separate. You may need to shake for quite some time before this happens. When you are sure you have butter, stop shaking, drain off the buttermilk, and rinse the butter as described in the recipe.
Adjusting the salt. If you begin making butter with more or less cream than is called for in this recipe and you want to make salted butter, use a quantity of salt that equals 1 to 2 percent of the finished butter weight, measured in grams (my own preference is for 1 percent). It’s best to use a flaked, non-iodized salt or cheese salt since granular salt crystals can get “caught” in the butter and fail to dissolve. Sea salt may work, although organisms in the salt can have a negative impact on flavor. Experimentation will be your best guide.
Making butter from raw (unpasteurized) cream
Before dairy was industrialized, fresh milk from the evening milking was commonly left out overnight for the cream to rise. Left at room temperature, the milk and cream became populated with with microorganisms that soured it slightly and created cultured, or clabbered, cream. This tangy mixture formed the basis of butter making.
Later, pasteurization was introduced, a process that prevented milk and cream from souring naturally. As a result, sweet cream butter came to dominate the market.
Since in most parts of the country unpasteurized raw cream is legal and available, we have the option of making butter the old-fashioned way. Culturing raw cream is easy to do, with or without a commercial culture, because raw cream is biologically active and full of beneficial bacteria that ferment and sour cream naturally if left at room temperature.
You have everything you need to culture raw cream before churning it into butter, just as people have had for all time. What purchased commercial cultures do for you is help you control the ripening process, allowing you to choose the qualities you want to impart.
To use a purchased culture, follow the instructions above. To culture raw cream without a purchased culture, remove the cream from the refrigerator, pour it into a bowl or jar (I use a half-gallon glass canning jar), and cover it with a double layer of cheesecloth. If your kitchen is especially cool, you may want to heat the cream to 80 degrees. Otherwise, you can let it warm naturally.
Allow the cream to rest at room temperature for at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours, depending on how ripe you want the cream to be. If your kitchen is very warm, you may want to place the bowl or jar of cream in a container full of cool water to keep it from getting much warmer than 80 degrees.
You can use the cream for butter making at any stage of fermentation. When you are pleased with its flavor, cover the cream with an airtight lid and move it to the refrigerator, where you can store it for days or up to a week. As it ripens, the smell and taste should continue to be pleasing and become more interesting. The longer you ripen the cream before churning, the more intensely flavored your butter will be. Although I have never had this happen, if your cream curdles or smells or tastes “off,” discard it and begin again.
What’s nice about relying on the wild cultures in your own environment is that it’s easy and economical. The results, however, can be unpredictable. When you use wild cultures, you cannot be sure what qualities your butter will possess because the bacteria within your environment change all the time. So you might like the results one week, and not like them as well the next. I have also found that the buttermilk I get when I rely on wild cultures is thin and watery compared to the thick, rich buttermilk that commercial cultures give me. One is not necessarily better than the other, but my own preference is for a full-bodied buttermilk, and in my kitchen I have needed commercial cultures to create it.
You may want to think of it this way: Within your home environment, you have everything you need to culture raw cream before churning it into butter, just as people have had for all time. What purchased commercial cultures do for you is help you control the ripening process, allowing you to choose the qualities you want to impart and ensuring which beneficial microorganisms dominate.
Handcrafting any food is art as much as science; there is no precise formula. So the best approach may be to experiment to find the method you like best.
(Health-supportive chef & food educator, Ellen Arian teaches Online Sourdough Bread Baking and Butter Making Classes.)