The following is an excerpt from The Householder's Guide to the Universe by Harriet Fasenfest (Tin House Books, 2010).
As you may know, raw cream butter, whether sweet or cultured, is completely unavailable in the United States and very rare even in Europe these days. Once you learn to make it yourself, you will be amazed by its thick, creamy texture and lovely fresh taste. This is butter as it was meant to be. But be advised, it will take a little doing. Butter making is a labor of love. I don’t mind, although I don’t do it every week—only when I have more cream on hand than I need for everyday cooking.
Making butter from raw milk starts with skimming off the cream. Raw milk benefits from sitting at least twenty-four hours in the fridge to let gravity separate the cream from the milk. The longer it sits, the more it separates, but I would not go beyond two or three days.
In preparation for the skimming, boil a quart jar, a lid, and a small ladle to make sure they are sterile. Use the ladle to skim the cream off two half-gallon bottles of milk. (I receive mine in wide-mouth half-gallon jars, which makes this task very easy. If you get yours in narrowmouth jars or plastic jugs, pour the milk into a wide-mouth vessel before separating.) Depending on the season, I get anywhere from a pint to a pint and a half of cream from a half gallon of raw milk. Ladle the cream into the boiled jar and add to each pint of cream a tablespoon of storebought “cultured” buttermilk. Make sure the buttermilk has not reached its sell-by date; you want the culture in it to be very active. Cream that is slightly acidified comes together as butter easier than fresh sweet cream.
You want your cream to be at room temperature for the fermentation process. Old-school butter makers used to just let their cream sit overnight at room temperature to allow it to culture naturally (raw milk will sour or clabber naturally and quickly). When they did that, the cream would not only ferment but also reach room temperature. To be safe, instead of letting the and ferment, I take the chill off the cream by pouring it directly into the bottle, which is still a little warm from the boiling, and stir in buttermilk for a quicker fermentation time (four to six hours).
To assist in the culturing, I put the cream in an insulated cooler that has enough warm, seventy-five degree water in it to cover half of the bottle. If it is warm enough in the house, I let the mixture sit out. At this point, the entire process has taken me only five minutes. That’s the fast part.
Whether I have placed the mixture in the cooler with warm water or left it out at room temperature, I allow it to sit about four to six hours. If I start culturing the cream in the morning, I will be able to make, or “churn,” butter by noon.
After the “culturing” stage, I put the bottle of cream in a bowl with ice water to cool it a bit. Cream should be warm during the culturing process and cool when it is churned. Let it sit until it is cool, which, depending on the starting temperature, could take no more than ten minutes. The cream does not need to be completely chilled, but it should be down to sixty degrees or so to make churning easier. Do not chill it further, as it will negatively affect the churning.
After letting the cream cool to sixty degrees, I shake the bottle (lid attached) up and down to begin the agitation of the fat globules. Shaking the bottle, instead of using an electric beater, incorporates more air and produces greater volume. Using a mixer just gets cream everywhere. It is much better to keep it contained in a bottle.
Churning butter in a bottle will take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, sometimes less, if all the conditions for proper churning are aligned. Be patient and don’t give up. It will happen. Slowly, you will see little butter globules forming. At first they will be loosely suspended in the separated cream (which is now becoming either butter or the surrounding buttermilk), but after another minute or two of shaking (start slowing down the speed of your shaking toward the end), the fat globules will have separated from the buttermilk and cohered completely. When you open the bottle, you will see a separated mass at the top. That is your butter.
Pour the entire contents of the jar through a sieve that has been lined with a boiled and cooled, wet sheet of muslin and set over a bowl. You can use the same muslin over and over, but make sure it is boiled both before and after using it. This muslin (or butter cloth, as it is sometimes called) has a tighter weave than cheesecloth. An old and slightly worn sheet will do the trick if it has been cleaned and boiled, and its color has set. (A friend of mine once had her cheese turn multicolored when she used a piece of cloth with unset dyes.)
After the buttermilk has flowed through the cloth-lined sieve, you will have a soft wad of butter remaining in the cloth. The buttermilk will be left in the bowl beneath. Gather up the corners of the cloth to create a sling for the soft butter, submerge the parcel in an ice-cold water bath, and move it back and forth to remove the milk solids that are still attached to the butter. Removing all these milk solids gives the butter a longer shelf life, because it is these solids that quickly go rancid. Repeat this process a number of times with clean ice water, just dunking and swishing the butter parcel around in the bowl to “wash” and at the same time chill the butter. When the water runs clear (is no longer cloudy with milk solids) and the butter is cool, empty the contents of the parcel into a clean bowl. At this point, you are going to remove whatever remaining liquid (milk and water) is left in the butter.
To do this, take a spatula (also very clean) and start pushing the butter back and forth until you see a puddle forming in the bottom of the bowl. Tilt the bowl to pour off this liquid and start again. Do this four or five times; you can even blot the butter with a paper towel if you see water droplets on it that will not pour off (save that paper towel for greasing a pan or muffin tin, if you like).
The less water the butter contains (and “European-style” butter can have 10 to 20 percent less than many American brands), the flakier pastry made with it will be. Actually, I don’t use my homemade butter for baking, for the same reason I don’t make hard cheese: I don’t have enough cream or milk available to give me the quantities I’d need. I’d rather spread my homemade butter on toast.
After all this work, I generally end up with no more than a half cup of butter. What a lot of work, you are thinking. Yep, I agree. But I also have the buttermilk, which I turn into other things, both for drinking and baking. The buttermilk you buy in the store is really pasteurized skim milk that has had a culture introduced into it. That is why it is thick. Old-fashioned buttermilk is the liquid that is left over after the cream has been turned into butter, and is loose in texture. I am sure I could “culture” my cream with the “old-fashioned” leftover buttermilk (assuming I used it within a week), though I have never done it.
Though it is time-consuming, making butter will return you to the spirit of regional cooking. It is about making good use of what you have on hand, and sometimes embellishing it. When I am feeling really frilly, I press my softened butter into molds meant for candy making and chill them in the freezer (which makes for easier removal). When they come out, they bear the mark of the design and are cute beyond compare. Flavored with something exotic, like truffles or lavender, or something common, like garlic and herbs, these butter parcels become worthy gifts. But be forewarned, serving them alongside dinner rolls will generally elicit something akin to eye-rolling, particularly if your guests are not of the householding universe. Be steady and serve them anyway, because these babies are damn cute.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Harriet Fasenfest. Reprinted with permission of Tin House Books, LLC.