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Let me be the first to say how happy I am you want to know how to make butter. But first things first, equipment must be scrupulously clean. Before and after each use, scald any wooden equipment, including spoons and the inside of churns. Scald repeatedly, if necessary, until there is no butter smell left in the wood.
To make sweet cream butter, use fresh cream, skip the culturing instructions that follow, and go directly to Step 1.
To make cultured butter from raw cream, pour the cream into a bowl and cover with a double layer of cheesecloth or a clean towel. Leave out in a cool room. If your room is warmer than 60 degrees, set the bowl of cream in cool water. Become familiar with what is happening to the cream as it ripens (sours, ferments) by tasting it every six to eight hours. Raw cream can be used at any stage from fresh or lightly fermented (e.g. eight hours) to heavily fermented (e.g. a week).
To make cultured butter from pasteurized cream, you have two options: You must inoculate the cream with either a mesophilic bacterial culture (from a specialty shop), or a store-bought cultured product that contains live cultures. If you go the specialty route, purchase a culture for crème fraiche, sour cream, or buttermilk, and follow the instructions. If the commercial culture also contains rennet, your cream will set up slightly, but otherwise will achieve the consistency of soft yogurt.
If using a grocery store product as the inoculant (starter), strengthen the starter by leaving it out at room temperature for approximately 8 to 12 hours, and then add a tablespoon per cup of cream. If you are sure of the inoculant’s strength, just 1 teaspoon per cup should be sufficient. Leave the cream at cool room temperature for one to three days.
With either method, you can further develop flavor by leaving the cultured cream in the refrigerator for days, or even a week or two. The ripening cream should have a pleasant smell and develop a slightly tangy taste, sharpening with time. As the cream acidifies, it becomes hostile to toxic bacteria, but should the cream curdle, or smell or taste bad, discard it. The longer you ripen it, the more clear and distinctive the flavor of your finished butter will be. Butter churned from long-ripened cream is a butter of perfection, like a perfectly ripened fruit.
How to Make Butter, Step 1: Pour sweet or cultured cream into the churn. Step 2: Churn the cream to separate butter from buttermilk. It’s fun and practical to use small hand churns, but food processors work well too.
Photo by William Rubel
1. Pour sweet or cultured cream into the churn, leaving headroom for the cream to expand when whipped.
2. Begin churning. As you churn, cream goes through three distinct phases. First, it becomes a snowy white whipped cream, then turns yellow and granular, and lastly “breaks” into clumps of butter swishing around in buttermilk. Churn a bit longer to be sure the butter has clumped, then stop. Observe what is happening throughout. Look, listen and feel what happens as the cream goes through these phases so you develop an intuitive feel for the butter-making process and your own equipment. Cream churns best between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but will break eventually even if it’s warmer. And cultured cream breaks faster than sweet cream.
How to Make Butter, Step 3: After the butter has broken out of the cream, you can drain off the buttermilk. Be sure to save it for delicious buttermilk recipes!
Photo by William Rubel
3. Drain the buttermilk to reserve for baking. Remove the butter from the churn to a steep-sided bowl. Hold the bowl at a steep angle, and gather the butter into a ball. Using the flat of your fingers or the back of a wooden spoon, spread and press it against the side of the bowl to squeeze out buttermilk. Still using the flat of your fingers or the spoon, fold the butter in half over itself, and press down again. Repeat until little or no buttermilk squeezes out. When done, remove the butter to a plate, drain the buttermilk into your buttermilk container, rinse the bowl, return the butter to the bowl, and cover with cool water.
How to Make Butter Step 4: Now press out even more buttermilk with the back of spoon or your clean hands. You want to remove as much buttermilk as possible to prevent your fresh butter from going rancid.
Photo by Tabitha Alterman
4. Wash the butter covered in cool water using the flat part of your fingers or the back of a spoon. Repeatedly press, fold and turn to wash the butter free of buttermilk. Change water as needed, until it remains clear. Another option is to replace the last change of water with a flavored water — rose water for butter to be used in sugar cookies or shortbread, or salted water in which a sprig of rosemary was boiled, for an unusual savory butter circa 1615. Remove the butter to a plate, wash your hands, and drain the bowl. Note: If you are working with a large quantity of butter, an effective alternative to hand washing is to return the butter to the churn and churn with repeated changes of cool water until it runs clear.
5. To remove the rest of the water, return the butter to the bowl and hold it at a steep angle. Use the back of a spoon to spread and re-spread the butter repeatedly against the side of the bowl to force out trapped water. When no further water can be pressed out of the butter, remove to a plate. Note: If seasoning butter with salt, sprinkle it onto the butter at the beginning of this step. I suggest erring on the side of undersalting and would not exceed 1 percent salt, which is a scant one-quarter teaspoon per 4 ounces of butter.
6. Eat up! The butter can now be used immediately. It will be soft and supple. Always wrap butter before refrigerating. Parchment paper makes a nice wrapping. Try to use the butter within a week. Homemade butter is rarely washed free of buttermilk as effectively as commercial butter, and thus seldom stores well. Homemade butter freezes well, but the point of homemade butter is to use it when it’s fresh!
William Rubel is an author and cook specializing in traditional cooking. He is the author of The Magic of Fire.