Alert follower Jenn writes,
“I was surprised to see no post on fresh made butter in the UrbanMonique archives. Chris got me a rotary butter churn for Christmas and it’s been one of my favorite gifts in memory. Of course, we’ve done fresh pepper butter, dilly butter, rosemary and lemon peel, and obviously brown sugar and cinnamon. I know it can be done with ease in a stand mixer, but the rotary is fun to pass around at brunch parties or before dessert is served. I’m just curious to see what you’d put in butter given your expansive spice collection and superior wisdom.”
Knowing this young Texan as I do, I’m still not sure if that last line is her being a smartass or not… In any event, I’m cool with it, because she sent me filé that she grew and dried and powdered her very own self, and she’s a hell of a good cook to boot.
She’s also got an excellent point. Having relocated to an area rich in local dairy, we revel in fresh milk, cream, butter, and eggs. If you can get your paws on fresh cream where you live, making your own butter and compound butters is easy, and a true delight. We’ll cover both herein, as well as delving into the history and chemistry a bit.
First, let’s address a couple of core issues.
The Butter Is Evil mantra. If you’re late to this party, let me formally state for the record that it’s simply not so. The premise raised in the ’60’s and touted for several decades, to the effect that animal fats cause heart disease, has been roundly rejected. While it’s true that there are plenty of fine alternative vegetable fats, the artificial pantheon that replaced butter has been banned from our pantry for all time. The facts bear out that food from properly pastured animals is actually quite healthy. In particular, butter from grass fed cows is high in nutrients like vitamins E, A, beta carotene, and essential fatty acids. That last caveat, grass fed, also happens to yield butter that is notably tastier than that from grain fed cows.
The Cow Monopoly. There are thousands of species of mammal across our world, and all of them produce milk, yet here in the U.S.A., roughly 97% of our dairy products come from cows. Even at our quite enlightened local Co-Op, there are only a couple of goat milk options. Granted, when we turn to cheese, we find offerings from goat, sheep, and buffalo, but cow is still the king, hands down. Elsewhere in the world, folks drink camel, yak, water buffalo, elk, reindeer, and even mare’s milk on a regular basis. 99.9% of those critters are ruminants, mammals whose four-chambered stomachs yield prodigious quantities of milk from high-fiber, low-nutrient pasturage. On top of that feat, ruminants sport large, graspable teats that makes milking easy for humans, (hence, cats and dogs are safe for the time being). Goat, sheep, and cows were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 years ago. While all three have since been intensively bred to improve temperament and output, cows have far and away ruled the roost.
The Middle Eastern ancestor of the milk cow was the auroch, which went extinct in the 17th century. While wild aurochs were a handful, domestication quickly yielded a critter that quietly lines up to be milked, and produces about 100 pounds of milk a day. That docile nature sets cows apart from most other ruminants, including, as a for instance, the water buffalo. Bred for milking to this day in Italy and India, water buffalo are notoriously cranky, and considering their size, quickness, and very large horns, they’re potentially downright dangerous to the milker.
Here in America, the last great ice age that swept through around 20,000 years ago effectively removed all large ruminants, with the exception of the bison. When Europeans showed up with cows, they not only did just fine, they genuinely thrived. The easy separability of cow’s milk lends itself to a broad spectrum of things humans like to eat, the fat content is quite close to human milk, and it’s widely tolerated by human digestive systems. Goat’s milk, on the other hand, is richer and more complex in flavor, predominately because the cream does not separate as it will in cows milk. Goats produce the most milk of any ruminant by body size, but they’re so much smaller than cows that the advantage is null. That lack of cream separation also means that goat milk won’t readily make butter, either. As for the third member of the Fertile Crescent troika, almost nobody in this country drinks sheep’s milk. With twice the fat of cow and human milk, it’s far too rich to be popular, and the overall low yield weighs against them from a commercial production standpoint. That fattiness does make sheep’s milk near and dear to cheesmakers, however, for obvious and good reason.
On then, to butter, a part of the human diet for nigh onto 7,000 years. Through 99% of history, butter was cultured to enhance shelf life. Culturing allowed milk gathered in multiple milkings to last longer in the days before effective refrigeration; it also encourages cream to separate relatively quickly when churned. Raw cream is blessed with ample benign bacteria, so it will ferment and sour without the need for added cultures. This natural fermentation notably alters its chemistry, generating much more complex and subtle flavor profiles. One such flavor note stems from lactic acid, so cultured butter tends to taste tarter than uncultured, or sweet cream butter.
Chemically, butter is a relatively stable mixture of triglycerides from several fatty acids – predominantly oleic 31%, myristic 19%, palmitic 15%, and stearic 15%. The natural color of butter derives from trace amounts of carotene. Over time the glycerides break down, releasing free fatty acids; two of these, butyric and caproic acid, are largely responsible for the nasty smell of rancid butter.
Butter is made by churning cream. Exactly how and why churning works is still somewhat of a mystery; if that sounds unlikely, rest assured that it’s not. Delve into the chemistry of churning at the university level, and you’ll find analyses filled with detailed supposition and almost universally followed by the phrase, “not well understood.” While the process is ages old, there’s still a PhD up for grabs there. What we surmise is that air is incorporated into the liquid matrix of cream as it begins to turn into butter. A foam forms, and fat globules collect in the walls of the bubbles. Churning warms the cream slightly, to the point that those fat globules soften and liquify. Further churning bounces the softened fat globules off each other enough to break their protective membranes, and liquified fat cements the exposed droplets together. Material from the broken membranes helps in this process, as it contains emulsifiers such as lecithin. Once enough of the liquified fats have been freed by the churning process, the air foam collapses and butter granules form into larger and larger masses.
Once thickened and separated into butter grains and buttermilk, the buttermilk is poured off. 50° F water, at 20% of the volume of the cream used, is then added to the fresh butter; this ‘wash’ helps it separate thoroughly from the buttermilk. Churning continues until the butter granules are about the size of wheat grains. As with many kitchen processes, precision is important, and often enough, the difference between a pro and an amateur. Making butter is easy; even little kids can do it. Making great butter takes a bit more discipline. If you buy really good, local Jersey cream as we do, you’ll find that it’s not cheap; it certainly deserves extra attention. Of course, back when everybody did this at home such knowledge was not as arcane as it is today.
A bit more on nomenclature: Sweet Cream Butter means simply butter made from cream that has not been fermented, or cultured. When first introduced to Americans in the late 19th century, it was not popular because consumers thought it tasted ‘flat’, a sentiment raised by the lack of complexity found in cultured butter. Nowadays, sweet cream butter in some form or another rules the supermarket roost, but not all are created equally. Sweet cream butter is the taste of the cream, pure and simple. If you make butter with fresh, local cream, you get the flavor of that particular terroir – The grass, sun, water, everything. It’s sublime and truly lovely. As the seasons change, so will your butter. Change sources, and you’ve got a whole new pallete; taste, smell, and color will all vary. This is how it was before industrialization, when all butter was made locally. Back then, early spring butter commanded and received a higher price than any other.
Making butter at home, starting right now, will bring you back to where you belong; trust me when I say you’ll be buying far less commercial butter in the days to come. From buttered veggies, to homemade baked goods, everything is notably better. And speaking of baked goods, expect the biggest difference therein. Homemade butter totes a higher percentage of butterfat than the industry standard 80%, so your baked goods will taste and feel better as a result. Cultured butter can also be made at home. If home made sweet cream butter is champagne, homemade cultured butter is caviar. Those subtly complex flavors must be experienced first hand. Doing so really isn’t very much more work than making sweet cream butter, so do try it once you get in the swing of the basic process.
So, we need good cream to make all this wonderful stuff happen; the fresher, the better. If you have a choice, donor cow breed matters somewhat. Our favorite local dairy, Twin Brook Creamery, milks Jersey cows, the winner of the milk fat award. According to Iowa State University, (A pretty good judge of things dairy), Jersey’s weigh in just shy of 5% fat in raw milk, as compared to Holsteins at 3.7%, which rounds out the two most popular milking cows – or put another way, the most popular breed’s milk contains about 30% less fat than those Twin Brooks Jerseys. While there are other breeds making inroads, it’s likely to take some time – the U.S.D.A. reports that Holsteins account for 90% of the U.S. milk cow population, followed by Jerseys at 7%, with all others at a paltry 3% combined.
Some of that milk gets made into cream, and at your local store or coop, the one you want for making butter is Heavy Cream. You may have heard or been told that this is synonymous with Whipping Cream, but it ain’t necessarily so. To be called Cream in this country, dairy must contain no less than 18% milk fat. Half & half can run anywhere from 10% to 18%, so it’s right out for butter making. Whipping Cream is at least 30% milk fat, and rarely more than that. Heavy Cream is no less than 36% milk fat, and that’s our cream. If you’re allowed to buy raw cream where you live, by all means do it. Raw cream needs nothing to yield all the glory of real, live butter. It’s literally biologically active, packing its own culture, and it is absolutely redolent of its terroir. Your primary guide for what to buy is, naturally, what tastes best to you. Keep your cream refrigerated until you’re ready to churn, and do so right away; time is the enemy of freshness.
OK, let’s make butter.
In addition to cream, you need some form of churn. That’s literally anything that can agitate the cream in until butterfat comes out of suspension and separates from the buttermilk. You can use a blender, mixer, food processor, canning jar, or a dedicated churn, (Lots of places sell manual and powered versions). Whatever you use should be in good working condition and clean before you start. I use a small processor powered by a stick mixer; it holds a pint of cream perfectly. I recommend a blender if you have one – they work well and keep everything nicely contained.
House Made Butter
1 Pint fresh Heavy Cream
Option: Pinch of Sea Salt
1/3 Cup 50° F Water
Remove cream from fridge and allow to stand at room temperature, in its carton, until cream temps at right around 60° F; the optimal range for butter making is 55° F to 65° F.
Pour cream into blender vessel.
Turn to highest setting that won’t splatter the cream and keep a close eye on things.
Within a couple minutes, the cream will begin to thicken visibly – Increase blender speed a notch or two.
You will see butter begin to form, as you do in the image below; turn the blender speed down several notches. As butter formation increases, you may need to use a spatula to scrape down the butter as it forms. This process will take about 3 to 5 minutes, maybe a bit longer.
When butter is well formed and buttermilk is clearly separating, turn blender off and transfer butter to a mixing bowl.
Add 50° F water and knead butter by hand, thoroughly washing the butter.
Pour off the water and buttermilk, and continue kneading by hand, removing very bit of moisture you can find – Both water and buttermilk will cause your butter to spoil relatively quickly, so be diligent in this process.
If you wish to salt, or add other ingredients to make compound butters, now is the time. Note: Finishing salts with distinct flavor profiles make fabulous salted butters.
When done, transfer butter to clean glass or ceramic containers and refrigerate.
Butter should last about a week, providing you were diligent about removing the buttermilk.
Ready to try your hand at cultured butter? Cultures that work on butter are referred to as mesophilic, meaning they will activate in relatively cool temperatures, (As opposed to the thermophillic, or high temperature cultures we use in cheesemaking). Again, raw cream cultures naturally, but most of what we have access to has been pasteurized, and as such, it will require additional cultures to come alive. Outfits like New England Cheesemaking Supply and Leeners sell a wide variety of cultures that will work for butter, but it is easier and cheaper to use good quality, local cultured yoghurt, buttermilk, or kefir; just make sure that what you buy specifically reads that it contains live cultures. Allowing pasteurized cream to just grab whatever comes along is not a good idea: Pasteurization kills all cultures, including the good ones, so without it, cream is stripped of its natural defenses – This is why a known, quality controlled culture is your best bet. Here’s how to do it.
Use one of the following options to culture your cream;
For pasteurized cream, add 1 Tablespoon of live culture yogurt, buttermilk, or kefir to each cup of heavy cream, and whisk gently to incorporate. Allow to culture for 12 to 24 hours.
For raw cream, culture for 12 to 48 hours.
Use a clean glass bowl or jar with a clean cloth or paper towel rubber banded to cover. If you use canning jars, boil them to sterilize, then allow to cool to room temp prior to filling.
Culturing needs to be done between 70° F and 75° F for the stated intervals. If it’s not that warm in your house, you’ll need to gently heat the cream in a sauce pan over low heat, to about 75° F before transferring it to a bowl or jar and adding culture. Find a warm, quiet spot for the process to work, (On top of the stove works nicely.)
When the cream has successfully cultured, it will be notably thicker.
Stir cultured cream gently but thoroughly, then put it in the fridge to cool down to around 50° F; this will stop the culturing process and prepare the cream for buttermaking. Once it’s cooled, churn it as per instructions above.
Note that you will typically not get enough buttermilk from a pint of cream to be worthwhile, but if you love the tangy richness of that wonderful stuff as much as we do, you can also use your favorite milk to create homemade.
1 Cup of cultured Buttermilk
3 Cups Whole Milk
Pour buttermilk and milk into a sterilized quart canning jar and seal tightly.
Shake vigorously to incorporate, then leave jar to sit at room temp for 12 to 24 hours. When properly cultured, the fresh buttermilk will nicely coat the sides of the jar when shaken.
Refrigerated, it’ll last a good week or so.
And finally, compound butters, or beurres composés, are simple mixtures of butter and whatever else floats your boat. They’re ridiculously easy to prepare, making them a nice, quick way to add a custom touch to many, many dishes. They’re perfect as a general flavor profile enhancer, or used as a sauce/condiment all by themselves.
Freshly made butter is in perfect condition to make compound butters. We boil half pint jam jars with our pint butter jar, and use the smaller for compound butters. You can also go the more traditional route, and wrap them in waxed paper – Either way, pop them in the fridge until they’re nice and firm.
Proportions and constituents are up to you. Plan on doing some tasting to get things where you like them, (darn…) I use a fork to whisk everything to a nice, uniform consistency, then scoop them into jars or waxed paper. You can use them to top hot meats or veggies, or as a base or finishing elements for a sauce.
Here are a few classics, as well as some our favorites; the rest I leave up to you – It’s a very personal decision, and too much fun to just use somebody else’s ideas. All are prepared as described above.
Classic French Compound Butters
Beurre d’Ail – Garlic Butter
For every 1/2 cup of butter, add
2-4 cloves of pressed or smashed garlic and blend thoroughly.
Beurre a la Maître d’Hôtel – Hotel Butter
To each 1/2 cup of butter, add
1 good pinch of sea salt
A couple twists of white pepper
Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon
2 tablespoons of finely minced, fresh parsley.
Beurre de Citron – Lemon Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add the
Zest of 1 small, fresh lemon and blend well.
Note that any other citrus zest you like will also be delightful.
Beurre de Frais Herbes – Fresh Herb Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, start with a couple teaspoons of whatever fresh herb(s) you have on hand – Rosemary, parsley, chives, lemon thyme, marjoram, basil, tarragon, or oregano are all wonderful.
And here are a few of our faves.
Cherry Vanilla Compound Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add
2 tablespoons minced Montmorency Cherries
Seeds from 1 freshly scraped Vanilla Bean.
Deep Citrus Compound Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add
Zest and juice of 1 small Lemon
Zest and juice of 1 small Lime
1 teaspoon powdered Kaffir Lime leaves
About 3″ of fresh Lemongrass, minced.
Add juice, zest, and lemongrass to a small bowl, mix well and allow to steep for 10 minutes.
Add butter and all other ingredients and mix well.
Squeeze butter by hand to remove all excess juice
Smoky Compound Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add
1/2 teaspoon Smoked Salt
1/2 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 teaspoon granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon granulated Onion
1/4 teaspoon fine ground Black Pepper
Best Veggie Compound Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1 teaspoon Savory
Zest of 1 small Lemon
Pinch Sea Salt
Jenn’s Filé Butter
For each 1/2 cup of butter, add
1 Tablespoon filé powder
1 pinch Sea Salt
Add to sauces, stocks, or soups as a thickener, or at table side for use in individual bowls.