I have been making homemade butter for over a decade. It’s always interesting to see the variety of internet information on the subject, but let me tell you a secret. Instructions like, “Pour cream into a jar and shake until it turns into butter” are not a serious take on butter making–unless you are talking a fifth grade history lesson.
My love of homemade butter began many years ago when I was introduced to raw milk–that is milk that is not pasteurized or homogenized. I started using raw milk to get the benefits of a grass fed diet, but quickly recognized the better flavor. Before long, I began to appreciate an additional fringe benefit–the delicious cream that floated to the top of the non-homogenized product . Although many proponents of raw milk suggest shaking before each use to blend, my kids were never going to do this. So I started skimming off the cream to use for butter, or whipped cream, or pot de crème, or any of a whole variety of dishes that cream is a delicious part of. But butter was my mainstay.
If you don’t have access to raw milk, heavy cream (even UHT cream) right out of the grocery store can also be used to make butter. (I even found half gallons of organic heavy cream in our Costco recently at a more economical price.) Once you’ve located the cream, the rest is a snap. Note: If you are using cream from raw milk, it can be frozen while you accumulate enough to make butter.
How to Make Homemade Butter
Butter is made by agitating cream (I use a mixer) until clumps of butter separate from the buttermilk. Then you pour off the buttermilk (saving it for other uses) and rinse the butter thoroughly in very cold water. Finally you knead the butter to push out any trapped buttermilk, salt it (if desired) and you have butter.
It is possible to make butter by shaking cream in a jar, but it is much more effective to use mechanical methods. I burned out an inexpensive freestanding mixer in my early years of butter-making so I now recommend using a higher end mixer. Others report success with a blender or food processor (though I haven’t personally tried either). A cover or splash guard is a plus and at least one home butter-maker covers her mixer in plastic!
The temperature of the cream you start with is another factor to consider. If the cream is too cool, the butter takes longer to separate and if too warm, the butter can actually melt as it forms (the bigger problem of the two–ask me how I know). Research tells me that the ideal temperature is between about 50 and 65 degrees (though I don’t measure mine).
At an intermediate point in the churning process, the cream will turn into whipped cream. I think this is the most fun part of the whole process! If I want a little treat, I turn off the mixer, scoop some out, and add vanilla and sugar! I don’t even need to serve it on anything!
Not long after the whipped cream stage, the butter will separate. Then you pour off the buttermilk and rinse the butter (I use a strainer) under very cold tap water.
When the rinse water starts to look clear (versus looking a bit milky), I put it on a plate and knead it to push out any remaining buttermilk. Although butter has a fairly long shelf life, buttermilk spoils quickly and can cause the butter to become prematurely rancid if you don’t get enough out. A surprising number of small pockets of buttermilk can be hiding inside freshly made butter!
Finally, when the buttermilk seems to be mostly removed, I knead in some sea salt (optional). I usually store my butter in the refrigerator (or freeze if I make a lot) to reduce rancidity problems from any buttermilk I may have missed.
The other common misconception regarding butter making is about the liquid that you pour off the butter. While this can truthfully be called “buttermilk,” it bears little resemblance to store-bought buttermilk. Store buttermilk is a cultured product like yogurt (often containing live cultures too) and the flavor and texture are very different from the liquid you pour off your butter (unless you culture your cream first–see below).
In any case, your buttermilk leftovers are nutritious and can be used in place of milk in baked goods. You may also read that it can be used to produce ricotta cheese but there are some inherent limitations to this. Making any reasonable quantity of ricotta this way requires gallons of buttermilk and there are other methods that are more productive if ricotta is your goal.
In the end, if I am really pressed for ideas, I use extra buttermilk to water my outdoor (to avoid odor issues) plants followed by a water chaser (to avoid any acidity problems).
Tangy and flavorful, cultured butter is a popular option in Europe. In the US, however, it tends to be more of an artisanal product. But if you consider how yogurt gains flavor through the addition of beneficial bacteria, cultured butter starts to make sense. In fact the opportunity to make cultured butter has put many a reluctant home butter maker over the edge.
To make cultured butter, you add live cultures to your cream (before churning) then let it sit at (warm-ish) room temperature until thickened, about 12-24 hours. As an added benefit, if you culture the cream, the buttermilk you pour off will be thicker and have more of the cultured flavor that store buttermilk has.
I have made cultured butter using kefir and buttermilk for starter cultures. It is my favorite approach if I have the extra time. (Note that in producing any cultured product at home, discard any results that appear “off” because it is possible to culture the wrong bacteria by mistake).
Using homemade butter: eating, cooking, baking
Homemade butter is a taste delight, especially paired with fresh homemade bread. It is also delicious in cooking, but it may not perform the same as commercial butter in baking. The water content tends to be higher (no matter how much I knead it) which can be a problem if a baked good is sensitive to the moisture level (e.g. cookies which may spread too much–some brands of commercial butter may have this problem too).
Homemade butter is such a special treat, however, that I usually recommend eating it fresh or in butter-rich dishes like green beans almandine! If I take a hot loaf of bread out of the oven the same day I make butter, my kids think I’m the best Mom ever!
For another perspective see this article at Organic Gardening.