Churning Cultured Butter at Home
Copyright 1994, 2001, 2002 Jonathan S. White -all rights reserved
(previous versions of this article appeared in Chocolatier and on Chowhound.com)
Butter was the first food to fall victim to the industrial revolution. In the case of butter, it was more of a devolution. When freshly churned from high quality cultured cream, butter has a rich, flavorful glow, which illuminates the foods that are baked with it. Poor quality butter, however, merely adds fat. For pastry work, a fresh, rich, flavorful cultured butter of 86% fat is a joy to work with: the intense flavor, lower water content, and the particulars of how the water is distributed within the fat all make it easier to work, with a profound difference in the finished product.
The History of Butter
Traditionally, buttermaking began with the separation of cream from milk by gravity. Just after milking, the milk was allowed to sit in pans or cans until the cream, being lighter, floated to the top of the milk. The cream was skimmed off and stored in a cool place for a few days. When several days' cream had accumulated, it was churned into butter.
By the time the cream reached the churn, the harmless bacteria naturally present in healthy mammal's teats multiplied in the cream, consuming the milk sugar, lactose, and converting it into lactic acid, which soured the cream. The increasing acidity caused the cream to "set", or thicken. The result was called creme fraiche in France, racreme in Scandanavia, and was known in England and America as clabber cream. ("Clabber" is an archaic word for a cupboard or pantry.)
Churning cream into butter is a mechanical process that frees the cream's milk fat from its bondage to lecithin, an emulsifier that nature thoughtfully placed in milk to prevent milkfat from solidifying in the teat. Myriad cultures developed myriad techniques, but the principle is always the same: thrash the cream around until it foams, then thrash it more until eventually the foam "breaks": the fat-lecithin system falls apart, and you are left with clumps of solid fat bobbing in a sea of liquid buttermilk.
The solid phase, the butter, contains mostly fat, with droplets of water, some residual protein, and the byproducts of fermentation, including lactic acid and about 40 flavor compounds. The buttermilk contains all of the water from the cream, the lecithin, plus some minerals and proteins.
Once the butter breaks (in most languages other than English, the verb is "comes"), the butter needs only to be rinsed free of buttermilk, bumped around to remove as much water as possible, then chilled and formed.
Commercial butter production
Commercial butter is produced in a high speed continuous churn. Sweet, uncultured cream is subjected to high-temperature pasteurization, then pumped into one end of the machine, and butter and buttermilk come out the other end. The final stage of the continuous churn is where much of the damage occurs: water (and in most cases, salt, flavoring, coloring and preservatives) is beaten into the butter to dilute it down to the absolute legal minimum fat content. In Europe, the minimum is 82%; in the US it is 80%.
What's more, most commercial butter is made in what the dairy industry refers to as "balance plants", that is, plants that take up the slack when surplus milk is on the market. These plants buy milk and cream from the spot market by the 5,000 gallon tanker, truck it hundreds or even thousands of miles, repasteurize it, and then make butter. By the time the cream is churned, it may be a week old or worse, having been repasteurized several times!
Why bother making your own butter?
While you are reading the procedures below, you'll probably wonder if the ends will justify the means-is your homemade butter really going to be that much better? If so, why?
First of all, your butter will have more flavor, because it is made from better cream, because the culturing of the cream intensifies the flavor of the butter, and because you'll not add any of the "natural" flavorings that most commercial producers use. The array of flavors that result from the fermentation of the cream give the cultured butter a complexity of flavor that can not be reproduced with one or two flavoring agents: it is like comparing Rachmaninov's Third to "chopsticks" on the piano.
Next, your homemade butter will be about 6 points richer, 86% to the 80% of commercial butter. but beyond these numbers, there is also a difference in the distribution of the water: commercial butter has its 20% water homogenously mixed in, while artisanal butter has its 14% water marbled in, with tiny lumps of nearly pure fat surrounded by regions of higher humidity. This marbling gives the butter a better texture for laminating mille fieulle (puff paste) and croissants: marbled fat "flattens out" when you roll or pound it, while homogeneous butter oozes and squirts.
Making butter at home
My buttermaking career began as a hobby. David Amram, my friend and neighbor, kept some cows and goats on his farm to keep himself busy, in case composing, conducting, touring, lecturing, writing, and raising three children wasn't enough.
As any dairyman knows, you either have too much milk or too little, and David quickly developed a surplus. I had long wanted to make cheese, but commercial milk makes lousy cheese, so this was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
David was milking four Alpine goats and a Jersey cow. I started making cheese with the goat milk, but I could not keep up with the cow's output, so I began skimming the thick, yellow Jersey cream, leaving much of the milk for the chickens.
Cream cheese began to fill our fridge, then all of our friends' fridges, etc. After a few weeks, it was time to make butter.
My first churn was a food processor. Actually, a mason jar is a passable churn, if you have a large audience of people to recruit as shakers, which is exactly what I do at my buttermaking demonstrations. But for making butter yourself, a food processor is easier on the arms.
The hardest part of making good butter is finding good cream. Most of the cream sold in this country is ultra heat treated (UHT), which means that it has been heated to just below the boiling point, annihilating the flavor. Other commercial cream may be HTST pasteurized (185F for 20 seconds), which is better, but still tastes cooked.
The best cream is vat pasteurized cream, which is heated to only 165F for 30 minutes. But vat pasteurized cream is harder and harder to find: try calling your state department of agriculture. The Milk Control office can tell you if and where vat pasteurized cream can be had in your state.
If you do have a cow, or, better yet, a neighbor with a cow, you can make your own cream as follows:
1. Milk the cow, following good sanitary practice.
2. Pour the milk into half gallon mason jars through a strainer and immerse in cold water (a stream bed is ideal).
3. When cool, put in fridge.
4. When you have two days' milk, carefully pour off the cream that has risen into another jar.
5. Pasteurize the cream as described below.
If you are starting with pasteurized commercial cream, I strongly urge you to repasteurize before culturing. Many organisms can survive pasteurization or are reintroduced during bottling that can spoil your cream during the culturing process.
To pasteurize, heat the cream to 165F degrees, stirring continually. Use a stainless steel pot and spoon. When the cream reaches 165F degrees, turn off the heat, cover, and set a timer for 30 minutes. When the time is up, put the pot in a sinkful of cold water and stir until the cream cools toF 75 degrees.
In order to ripen the cream, you need to add a starter culture to the pasteurized, cooled cream. A cupful of clabbered cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, or sour cream is a good starter culture. Use a good brand with as few ingredients as possible, and always use a newly opened container. Before adding the starter, slacken it by diluting with some of your cooled cream, being sure to break up any lumps, then
mix the dilution into the big pot. A wire whisk is ideal for this job.
Once the starter is added, cover the pot and keep it warm for 12 hours. This can be accomplished by wrapping the covered pot in a down coat or comforter, or by placing it in a warm place. The ideal temperature to maintain is 75F, but in no case let it fall below 72 or above 85.
After 12 hours, the cream should be noticeably thicker and have a well developed aroma. It should taste delicious, slightly sour, and have no aftertaste. If the cream is bubbly, or smells yeasty or gassy, you have a contamination problem: throw the cream away!. The problem was caused by one of the following:
Insufficient heating of the cream during pasteurization (unlikely if you used a thermometer)
Contamination after pasteurization from unclean jar, utensil, or sneaky fingers
Contaminated starter culture
Before churning, the cream needs to be cooled to 60F. You can accomplish this with a sinkful of ice water. The easiest way is to chill the cream overnight, then reheat it to 60 in the morning. You might want to fill a small cup or jar with cream and chill it to use at the table as clabber cream.
Pour the 60-degree cream into the food processor, filling it less than half full to allow for foaming. Start the motor, and watch carefully. At first, the cream will swirl around as a liquid. After a minute, as the cream begins to foam and become more viscous, it forms a doughnut, with the blade hub in the hole. The surface of the doughnut will be smooth at first, then develop ripples as it rises higher and higher. The ripples will get larger and larger, and then, suddenly, the doughnut collapses into a slushy mixture of butter particles and buttermilk. The whirring will have changed to a sloshing. Stop the machine immediately.
Remove the cover and look closely at a spoonful of butter slush: it should look like soupy polenta, with discernible granules of distinctly yellow butter in white buttermilk. If the grains are too small, the whole admixture will appear primarily white, so buzz the machine for a few more seconds and look again. If you see real yellow, you're there.
Once the butter has come, drain the buttermilk off into a jar and measure its volume. Measure a quantity of strained icewater equal to one and one half times the quantity of the buttermilk. Pour the icewater into the processor, replace cover and run it for one minute. Drain off the rinse water. (Do not add this rinsewater to thebuttermilk: it is good for the compost pile, though.)
If your icewater was cold enough (33 degrees), your butter should be firm enough to not be sticky or greasy. Dump and scrape it out of the processor into a clean, chilled bowl. Use a potato masher, pastry blender, clean rubber spatula, or two forks to knead as much water out as possible. If you prefer, a large jar or bucket with lid can be used to tumble the butter dry: hold the bucket with one hand on the cover and one on the bottom, and shake vigorously in a circular motion, causing the lump of butter to thump around the circumference of the bucket. Open and pour off the water about once a minute. When no more water comes out, you are done.
The butter is now ready to be shaped, and is at the right temperature for shaping as well. If you put it in the cooler now instead of shaping it, you will have to warm it back up before packing it, and this will destroy the butter's unique mealy texture. As is so often the case in life as we know it, when making butter you get exactly one shot at doing it the easy way, and if you pass it up, the process becomes more difficult at an astounding rate!
Shaping the butter can be as simple a matter as packing it into ramekins, rolling it in freezer paper, or filling moulds.
Storage and serving
Freeze all of the butter that exceeds a few days' supply. Freezing butter does it no harm: butterfat crystalizes at about 60F, so taking it from 35F in the refrigerator and chilling it down to -20 in the freezer does not change its texture. Freezing butter will forestall the absorption of other flavors from the refrigerator (the mire poix, the veal stock, kimchee, etc), and keep the butter's flavor a clean and intense as when it was churned.
I like to bake with cold butter, but I prefer to serve it warm and at room temperature. In my house, we take out a day's worth of butter at first light, and it stays out on the counter, under glass, until it is gone. The flavor of cultured butter improves at room temperature over the course of the day, and the live cultures help to protect it from spoilage bacteria.
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Grassland Cheese Consortium was founded by Jonathan White, Cheesemaker and Nina Stein White, Dancemaker , who established Egg Farm Dairy in 1994. They left Egg Farm in June 2000, and started the consortium, in order to share their cheesemaking experiences with others.
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Text Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002 Jonathan S. White - all rights reserved
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