Few other culinary ingredients conjure up comfort the way butter does. It is creamy and unctuous, savoury and sometimes even sweet. Its golden allure is the foundation of cuisine the world over, whether spread on freshly baked bread or as the base for a glistening sauce. Quite frankly, there’s no substitute.
But that didn’t stop food corporations from trying. Touting the alleged health benefits of a range of chemical and vegetable-based substitutes, corporations put butter in their crosshairs. In the latter part of the 20th century, butter bore the brunt of a smear campaign in the name of ‘healthy eating’.
Recently, as local diets become more popular and awareness about real, whole food is increasing, things have begun to change for butter. Studies are now showing the health benefits that butter has over margarine. Without taking a deep dive into the science, what is sure is this: moderation is the key to enjoying butter. And if you can make it yourself, you’re able to better control levels of sodium and avoid any additives.
Making butter requires just one ingredient: cream – preferably organic cream, from grass-fed cows. While this could be a challenge, pretty much any cream will do, as long as it is not ultra pasteurized. Basically, the better your cream tastes, the better your butter will be.
A lot of people ask whether raw cream is necessary to make butter. It’s not, but if it happens to be available, the result will be superior. (Note however, that it is not legal for a farmer to sell raw milk or cream directly to consumers in Canada. While there are many advocates for raw milk, they have yet to be successful in changing that law.)
In layman’s terms, butter comes from forcing fat molecules to abandon their suspension in liquid (the cream) and clump together into a solid.
Everyone knows that butter spreads smoothly at room temperature. So before forcing your cream to yield its golden lipids, bring it to room temperature. Sure you can use cold cream, but it will take longer and be more work.
Step 1 – Agitate
Traditionally, a butter churn was used to agitate cream. For the modern home cook, a food processor or stand mixer does the trick. If you’re really motivated and don’t have a mixer, put the cream in a mason jar and shake away until it starts to separate. Either way, the cream will get thicker and thicker and eventually will separate into its constituent parts – fat and buttermilk.
If you’ve ever made whipped cream, you know that you beat the cream until it forms stiff peaks. To make butter, keep going beyond those stiff peaks until the cream breaks down and gets grainy. It will go from white to pale yellow and eventually the solids will separate from the liquid.
Step 2 – Separate
The easiest way to separate the buttermilk from the solids is to pour the contents of your agitating vessel (blender, mixer or mason jar) out into a large bowl. Traditionally, butter paddles were used to remove solids from the buttermilk, but hands or a mesh strainer will also do just fine.
As a side note, the buttermilk resulting from this process is really buttermilk, compared with the commercial buttermilk you buy in stores, which is usually created with various bacterial cultures. Natural buttermilk will keep in the fridge for about a week and can be used in baked goods or to make pancakes. Alternatively, if you have chickens, they will love it as a treat!
Step 3 – Final preparation
To finish the butter, gather together the solids into a ball and rinse and squeeze the ball under cold water to remove any residual buttermilk. Continue to knead the butter until the buttermilk is expelled and the water runs clear. Depending on the size of your ball, this can take a while.
If you prefer your butter salted, knead in about ½ teaspoon kosher salt until it is fully incorporated. Taste the butter and adjust salt levels to your preference.
Prepare to store your butter by portioning it into usable pieces and wrapping each portion in parchment paper. Your homemade butter will keep in the fridge for about a week or in the freezer for a month.
Monika Benker is the co-owner of HillTop Farm, a small family farm in Nova Scotia’s Lunenburg County where voluntary simplicity is the motto.