How to Make Butter

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A crock of homemade butter sits on a table with a plate of bread and two bowls with pats of butter.
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Butter-making utensils are soaked in a bowl of ice water.
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Buttermilk is being poured off after butterfat has formed.
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Butter is being washed to force out as much buttermilk as possible.
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Liquid is being pressed out so butter can form.
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Butter inside a bowl lined with paper towels allows it to drain.
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Homemade butter is placed in a bowl and refrigerated for a few hours or overnight.
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Homemade butter is being made in a stand mixer.
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Homemade butter is being made in a food processor.
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Homemade butter is being made using the jar-shaking method.
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Homemade Herbed Butter is shaped into a log.

Pure, unadulterated fresh milk from the farm is a luxury few of us remember, but it shouldn’t be. Homemade dairy products — made the old-fashioned way — may be your next goal as a homesteader, and for good reasons.

Arguably one of the best and most luxurious products to emerge from an animal is butter. Rich and creamy, butter is the perfect natural fat — loaded with omega-3s, Vitamin A, beta carotene, and the beneficial rare fat, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) — when made from the milk of a grassfed cow. Contrary to popular media hype, butter is good for you; it completely lacks trans fats, and it’s the healthiest option in the dairy case, particularly when it’s organic and made from the milk of pastured animals — cow or goat.

Butter makes everything better. In baked goods, it imparts flavor and is an excellent shortening. Slathered on homemade bread or fresh-picked corn on the cob, or used to sauté vegetables, butter can’t be beat.

Whether you have your own dairy animal, you purchase milk from a local farmer, or you just want to try making butter from store-bought cream, it’s worth the effort. You’ll learn about the properties of fresh milk and the various products that can be made from it, and you’ll enjoy the unique flavor that results from your hard work. 

Making butter from milk or cream

Butter is made from cream. While cow’s milk is the easiest from which to skim cream, goat’s milk also can be skimmed, but it will take more time for it to separate because of the smaller milk-fat globules. If you are using fresh milk from your own cow or goat, follow this method.

To separate the cream from fresh unhomogenized milk, allow the milk to sit in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 24 hours. Use a wide bowl and cover it tightly with a lid or plastic wrap to keep unwanted odors from infiltrating. The cream will rise to the top and form a layer of milk fat. If the bowl is clear glass, you’ll see the “cream line,” or “top milk,” as it used to be called. Using a large spoon, skim the cream off the top, trying not to disturb the milk underneath. You won’t be able to get all of it, but don’t worry about that. Transfer the cream to a freezer container. Once you have about a pint of cream, you’re ready to make butter. If you are milking and skimming cream every day, use multiple small freezer containers rather than adding to one larger container. Smaller containers will defrost faster than one large solid mass.

If you’ll be using store-bought cream for butter making, look for unhomogenized heavy cream, preferably organic. If you can’t find it, homogenized cream will still make butter — it will just take longer. Avoid the overcooked “ultrapasteurized” cream at all costs because it’s naturally thinner than regular pasteurized cream, unless lots of thickeners such as carrageenan and guar gum have been added.

Using this fresh cream, known as sweet cream, is one option for butter making. The other is to culture, or ripen, the cream by allowing the milk to sour slightly. For natural souring, place raw cream in a covered jar and let sit at room temperature (about 70 to 75 degrees) for 24 to 48 hours. You should end up with a mild acidity and a good aroma — similar principles to a healthy sourdough. There is always the risk of spoiling the cream with this natural method, and if it smells rancid afterward, throw it out. Natural souring can only be accomplished with raw milk/cream that contains no antibiotics. Pasteurization will have killed off all the natural souring bacteria.

The more common method of souring, used on pasteurized milk, is to add a commercial bacterial culture — available through cheese-making suppliers. Cultured starters render a clean, acidic flavor to butter while also slightly increasing the yield of butterfat. Using a commercial starter safeguards the butter against unwanted invading bacteria by the sheer number of good bacteria. After the cream has been cultured, refrigerate overnight, until well chilled. Now, you are ready to churn butter. A lovely byproduct of cultured butter is pure, cultured buttermilk without additives or preservatives — a product not available commercially.   

Methods of churning

An important factor in butter making is temperature control. Temperature of the cream and the ambient temperature of the room will factor into how quickly cream turns to butter, and the quality of the finished product. When researching butter-making literature, most sources advise starting with cream that is between 55 and 65 degrees. However, in a modern kitchen — which is typically kept around 70 degrees — and when using electric appliances like a food processor or stand mixer, the temperature of the cream will rise quickly due to the friction produced. So start with cream that is about 45 degrees, and work in a kitchen that is as cool as possible. Don’t attempt to make butter on a hot day in a hot kitchen. Chill the cream, the bowl and the utensils before starting, and most importantly, work quickly.

If you want to use old wooden butter paddles, molds or stamps, sterilize them first by placing them in a pot of boiling water for one minute. Cool them by running cold tap water over them, then place them in a bowl of ice water before proceeding to butter making. The following methods yield about 4 ounces of butter — which is equal to about 1⁄2 cup or 1 stick — with the exception of the stand mixer method, which yields about 8 ounces — equal to 1 cup or 2 sticks. Unsalted butter will keep up to a week in the refrigerator, and salted butter will keep up to three weeks.

Stand mixer

Refrigerate the bowl of your stand mixer for an hour or so before beginning. Then, place 1 quart cold cream in the bowl. Using the whisk attachment, beat on medium speed until thickened (it will go from soft peaks to stiff peaks). Continue whipping until the whipped cream disintegrates into yellow butterfat globules (this looks like scrambled eggs); the buttermilk is released and sloshes around in the bowl. (From start to finish, this will take 10 to 15 minutes.) Place a clean bowl under a sieve and drain. Set the buttermilk aside for another use. Clean the mixing bowl and put the butter back into it. Beat for another minute to release more buttermilk; drain again.

Place the butter in a large, clean bowl and “wash” it. To wash, cover the butter with cold water, then, using your hands, butter bats or a rubber spatula, knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. Drain the water and wash the butter two more times, or until the water runs clear. Pat dry the butter with paper towels, then knead in salt if desired. Mold the butter into sticks or place in a container or custard cups. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

Food processor

Place 1 pint cold cream in the bowl of a food processor, and process until the cream thickens (this will happen fast). It will soon break down into yellowish granules. Pulse the machine until the buttermilk releases and sloshes around, and you see clumps of yellow butter. (From start to finish, this will take less than 5 minutes.) Scrape out the contents into a strainer set over a large bowl. Dump the butter into another clean bowl, and add 1⁄2 cup cold water. Using a wooden spoon, rubber spatula or your hands, form the butter into a mass and knead out any remaining buttermilk. Drain, then add clean water and continue washing the butter until the water runs clear. Pat the butter dry and work in salt if you like. Place the butter in a container or form into a stick and wrap. Store in refrigerator.

By hand

If you really want to test your homesteading and cooking skills, try making butter by hand. This is insanely laborious, but it will leave you with an intimate knowledge and appreciation for butter making. Try enlisting a few family members to take turns at the whisk!

Place 1 pint skimmed cream or store-bought cream in a large glass bowl that has been well chilled. Whisk the cream rapidly until you start to recognize whipped cream. Keep whisking until the cream is so stiff you can hardly get the whisk through it. Keep whisking until a thin, whitish liquid (buttermilk) seeps from the heavy foam, and the foam turns into a grainy yellowish substance (butter). Form the granules into a ball and continue beating the butter with a large wooden spoon, butter paddles or a rubber spatula to further separate the liquid from the butter. Drain the buttermilk into another container if you wish to save it, and keep paddling the butter to further force out any more liquid. Wash the butter by adding about 1⁄2 cup cold water and continue pressing the butter. Pour off the water, and keep forcing out any remaining liquid. It’s important to get as much liquid out of the butter as possible because any liquid remaining will cause it to go rancid quickly. Place the butter in a paper towel and pat dry. If you like, transfer the butter to a clean bowl, add 1⁄4 teaspoon pickling salt, and work it into the butter using a rubber spatula. Transfer the butter to a container and refrigerate.

Use the buttermilk for baking – biscuits, cornbread and scones are delightful made with buttermilk. Or drink it — it’s delicious! Buttermilk will keep refrigerated for four to five days.

Jar shaking

Slightly easier than making butter by hand is the jar-shaking method. Place 1 pint cold cream, just out of the refrigerator, in a well-chilled 1-quart glass canning jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake or roll the jar briskly for 15 to 20 minutes (remember this exercise in class as a child?). First, the cream will whip and be so dense it won’t have much room to move around. Keep shaking until you see yellow granules have formed. Pour off the buttermilk and transfer the solids to a large bowl. Add 1⁄2 cup cold water to the bowl, and press butter with a large wooden spoon, a rubber spatula or butter paddles to keep expelling buttermilk. Pour off the liquid, then add more water and keep pressing out the liquid. Keep doing this until the liquid remains clear. Place the butter in a paper towel and pat dry. If you like, add 1⁄4 teaspoon pickling salt and work it into the butter. Mold the butter in a container or ramekin and cover; or mold into sticks or logs and wrap in parchment paper, waxed paper or foil, twisting ends to seal. Store in the refrigerator.

Flavored butters

Flavored butters are a wonderful accompaniment to grilled meat, fish, bread, potatoes, and all manner of vegetables.

Herbed butter

Place 4 ounces (1⁄2 cup) butter in a large bowl. Using a hand mixer or a whisk, whip the butter. Add 2 tablespoons of your favorite fresh herbs — such as tarragon, basil, parsley, thyme, chives, mint, rosemary, dill or cilantro — and a few drops of fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Blend until evenly distributed. Place butter in a covered container, or form into logs and roll in parchment paper or aluminum foil, twisting the ends closed. Refrigerate until firm.

Honey butter

Place 4 ounces butter in a large bowl. Add 1⁄4 cup honey, and whip until thoroughly combined using an electric hand mixer. Place butter in a covered container and store in the refrigerator. Serve with muffins, pancakes and cornbread.

Garlic butter

Place 4 ounces butter in a large bowl, and whip using an electric hand mixer. Add 2 tablespoons pressed garlic and 1 tablespoon of your favorite fresh herb, minced. Blend until evenly distributed. Place butter in a covered container, or form into a log and roll in parchment paper or aluminum foil, twisting the ends closed. Refrigerate until firm.

NOTE: For extraordinary garlic bread, slice a crusty baguette and spread each slice with garlic butter. Wrap in aluminum foil and heat in a 350°F oven for about 10 minutes. 

Mushroom butter

Recipe adapted from The Complete Dairy Foods Cookbook by E. Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols (Rodale, 1982).

Mushroom Fumet:

4 ounces mushrooms
1 1⁄2 tablespooons fresh butter
Dash lemon juice

Mushroom Butter:

8 ounces butter
1⁄3 cup Mushroom Fumet
1⁄3 cup lemon juice

To make the fumet, place the mushrooms in a small saucepan and just cover with water. Simmer, then add the butter and dash of lemon juice; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the liquid into a bowl; save the mushrooms for another use. Return the liquid to the saucepan and cook until reduced to 1⁄3 cup. Cool.

To make the mushroom butter, place 8 ounces butter in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer. Gradually blend in the Mushroom Fumet, followed by the lemon juice. Place mushroom butter in a covered container and refrigerate.

Types of butter

• Sweet cream butter is made from the butterfat of fresh cream, and is left unsalted.

• Cultured butter is made from ripened cream, or cream that has been acidified through the natural or deliberate introduction of benign bacteria — starters or cultures.

• Salted butter is made from either fresh or ripened cream, and has salt added in the final step. Add 1⁄4 teaspoon pickling salt for every 4 ounces of butter. Using your hands, a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula, work the salt into the butter before shaping or molding it. Salt preserves the butter, so salted butter will keep for up to three weeks.

Read More: Find easy bread recipes in Easy Homemade Bread Recipes.

Karen Keb is the co-author with her husband, Oscar H. Will III, of Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society Publishers, 2013).

Published on Aug 13, 2013

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