Invariably, at some time between kindergarten and second grade, every Wisconsin child learns to make butter. I don’t think this is universal in other states – a quick poll of my contemporaries on the east coast yielded mostly fond, pity-the-rube chuckles and in one case, a pat on the head – but in Wisconsin, it is an essential part of the dairy industry’s youth indoctrination program. I’m not sure when California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation’s number one milk producer, but I assure you that California has not assumed the America’s Dairyland title, and it never will. That indelible association belongs to my home state, which will release its kung-fu grip on the moniker when California stops being the land of hippies and market-flooding high-alcohol Cabernets. (Crazily, Idaho is the nation’s third largest milk producer, right behind Wisconsin. Everyone knows that Idaho is the potato state, not the dairy state, so to avoid upsetting long-held commodity/geography associations and causing the universe to collapse on itself, let’s just shake our heads in disbelief and move on.)
Before you get too excited about Little House on the Prairie-like visions of Wisconsin children taking turns plunging a broom handle up and down an old-fashioned wooden butter churn, let me tell you how we did it in 1974, because the process probably hasn’t changed since then in first grade classrooms around the state. The teacher pours a quart of heavy cream into a giant bowl and plugs in an electric hand mixer. The kids crowd around in a circle and murmur excitedly at first as billows of whipped cream form. This early enthusiasm fades to disappointment and a certain loss of focus as the cream ceases to resemble Cool Whip. “Is it butter yet?” a kid invariably will call out after some minutes, tense and worried that the thick smear of cream will never become butter and that he’s going to have to stand there forever, watching the teacher circle the bowl with the beaters, and maybe miss recess. It is true that this intermediate stage takes kind of a long time. To keep this kind of kid from ruining everyone’s fond butter memories with crying, teachers with risk-seeking personalities may let the kids take turns holding the mixer and bowl. Mine did, which increased the fun quotient considerably, although in today’s bike helmet-wearing culture I doubt anyone would chance it. All of a sudden, the cream, which until that point had seemed to become thicker and thicker like whipped butter, collapses into a pool of liquid. The butter-making experiment seems to have gone horribly wrong. Moments later, though, a thin, milky liquid sloshes around the bowl and the teacher turns off the mixer. The beaters emerge, covered in butter, and after a quick rinse in the sink in the back of the room, everyone, including the panicky kid, lines up for a slice of bread with fresh butter and a little sprinkling of salt. And that, my friends, is how we party in Wisconsin.
Butter-making: so easy even a kid can watch a machine do it.
Of course, you can buy butter. Salted and unsalted, cultured butter, goat’s butter, the butter made from the cream skimmed off the milk used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, I know), organic butter, conventional butter. Why am I suggesting that you make your own, with all the options available? Because you owe it to yourself to taste just-made butter from fresh cream, before it’s had a chance to sit in some supermarket inventory for weeks, or even in your refrigerator, going rancid and absorbing all the weird smells of leftovers and vegetables going bad.
I’m not suggesting you make all or even most of the butter you use – that’s crazy talk, especially if you mostly use butter for baking or cooking, and you probably shouldn’t use house-made butter for baking because it’s just not cost effective. But if you compare the cost of house-made butter using a really good fresh cream with the cost of an organic cultured butter to spread on bread or finish a sauce, I think you’ll find that the cost is about even up or lower. For example, pints of heavy cream from Trickling Springs Creamery – an organic dairy just over the Maryland border in south central Pennsylvania – cost about $4.59 at my local organic market, but $2 of that is the bottle deposit, so the cream is just $2.59/pint. I used two pints – a quart, in other words – to make cultured cream, which I turned into almost a pound of butter. Eight ounces of organic cultured butter runs about $6 or so; my eight ounces of butter rang in at well under $3 after the bottle deposit. So this isn’t such a bad deal, and you get buttermilk as well.
Try not to make more than you’ll use in a week. This is about enjoying the freshest product, after all, and why let your delicious butter go rancid? If you make too much, though, it keeps well in the freezer, tightly sealed. Your butter yield will depend on the fat content of the cream, so go for something rich.
A load of rich creamery butter
Ever wonder why certain boxes of supermarket butter say “Sweet Cream Butter” and others don’t? “Sweet Cream Butter” is made from fresh, unfermented cream. Contrary to popular belief, the “sweet” designation has nothing to do with whether the butter has been salted or not – it refers only to the use of fresh cream. Sweet cream butter, when fresh, has a super-clean, pure taste and shouldn’t smell or taste “buttery” when cold; it will smell buttery once it meets a hot pan.
Cultured butter, sometimes called “European-style butter” in the United States, is made from cream that has undergone lactic acid fermentation, the same process that gives us crème fraîche, sour cream, and yoghurt. Cultured butter, when fresh, does have a little of that “buttery” smell and taste even when cold. That’s because lactic acid fermentation produces diacetyl, the compound responsible for butter’s “buttery” quality. In larger quantities – such as in rancid butter, or in artificial butter – it can overwhelm. Diacetyl is one of the principal components of artificial butter flavor; if you’ve ever wondered why movie theater and microwave popcorns have that too-pungent buttery character, blame the diacetyl. Rancid butter – sweet or cultured – also develops butyric acid, a sour milk-cheesy-barnyardy smelling compound. Butyric acid is nasty. So keep your butter in the freezer if you’re not going to use it within a week or so.
One pint of cold heavy cream (50% or more butterfat)
Fine salt (sea salt is best)
3 tbsp cultured buttermilk or 2.5g dried yoghurt starter culture [optional]
To prepare cultured butter, bring the cream to 110F and add the buttermilk/yoghurt starter culture. Place in a jar or similar container and leave at room temperature for 8-10 hours (wrap well in kitchen towels). If the idea of doing this freaks you out, use a yoghurt maker. At this point, you will have crème fraîche. Refrigerate well before using. Feel free to skip this step entirely if you want to make sweet cream butter.
If you have a stand mixer with a whip, use it. And if you have one of those mixer bowl pouring shields (I don’t), use that as well. You’ll see why later. Otherwise, use a large bowl – as large as you can find –and a hand mixer, electric or otherwise.
Pour the fresh cream or crème fraîche into the bowl. Begin beating (I like speed 6 on the KitchenAid; you don’t gain anything by going slower and I do think you run the risk of warming the cream if you go faster). The cream will form soft peaks, then stiff-ish peaks, and then become overbeaten. In this step, the fat particles form a network with air bubbles.
Continue beating. The cream will continue to thicken and form a mass resembling buttercream, or whipped butter, around the bowl. In this step, the fat droplets clump together and the air bubbles pop. You can scrape it down with a silicone spatula from time to time, but you don’t have to.
Eventually – if you use speed 6 and don’t scrape the bowl it takes less than ten minutes from the start of the process – a thin, milky liquid will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl and the cream will become more clotted-looking. In this last step, almost all the fat has clumped together, and separated from the non-fat liquid. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep going. Soon after, the solids will collapse into the buttermilk. Don’t freak out – it’s just because the speed of the mixer temporarily has distributed the fat particles throughout the buttermilk. It hasn’t turned back into cream and you won’t have to start over.
Within a minute or two, you should experience a great sloshing as the butter clumps together, sticking to itself in the bowl and around the whisk or beaters. This is where the pouring shield comes in handy, because the sloshing can make quite a mess. Turn off the mixer.
Place the whisk or beaters in a clean bowl full of cold water and pour the buttermilk through a chinois or fine sieve into a jar. Save the buttermilk. Combine the butter solids with the rest of your butter in the bowl of cold water.
Remove the butter from the whisk and combine into a mass. Rinse well several times in ice water until your water runs clear. Knead the butter into a smooth, pliable lump, expelling as much liquid as possible. This is a good time to add sea salt, maybe ½ tsp, if you want salted butter. Rinse again.
And there’s your butter. You should have about 8 ounces from a pint of 50% butterfat cream. Don’t throw out the buttermilk!
The buttermilk that remains after butter-making is called “churn buttermilk.” It doesn’t really resemble the stuff you buy in quart containers in the store, which is just nonfat or low-fat milk that’s been cultured with bacteria to initiate lactic acid fermentation, and thickened with carrageenan (a naturally occurring hydrocolloid which forms gels in the presence of calcium and is a popular dairy thickener for this reason), and locust bean gum. Churn buttermilk is less tart than this so-called cultured buttermilk (even if a byproduct of butter made from cultured cream), and is thin, like milk, not thick. Most churn buttermilk is freeze-dried for commercial food processing and baking.
You can drink it, of course, or you can use it to make buttermilk biscuits. Or use it to make fried chicken, or buttermilk ice cream!
Buttermilk fried chicken
One whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half with a cleaver)
3-4 c buttermilk from above recipe
1 tbsp kosher salt (plus 1 tsp if using 4 c buttermilk)
1 tsp garlic powder
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2 c flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper
Vegetable oil or lard
Combine the buttermilk, salt, garlic powder, thyme, and bay leaf. Mix well, ensuring the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken, cover the container, and refrigerate overnight.
Combine the flour, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne in a large bowl. Prepare a sheet pan with a rack. Place a heavy and 2 to 3 inch deep pan (such as a sauté pan or cast iron pan) over medium heat with about ¾” oil. Bring the oil to 365F/185C. Unless you intend to cook in batches, you may wish to cook in two pans.
Drain the chicken but do not pat dry. Dredge each piece in flour, coating completely (leave no wet spots) and shaking off excess. Lower the chicken pieces into the hot fat. Do not crowd the pan or pans. Fry until golden on one side; turn over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn over twice to crisp. The chicken must have an internal temperature of at least 165F/74C at the bone but you may prefer it somewhat more done. I like chicken around 170F/76C. Remove from the oil with a wire skimmer or tongs and drain on the racks (don’t use paper towels; they can trap steam and make your crust soggy). To keep warm, place the racks in a 250F/120C oven.
Serve with biscuits and pickles.
Buttermilk ice cream
Use buttermilk instead of milk in this light, refreshing ice cream, a natural with fresh berries. I prefer the Philadelphia-style ice creams – containing no egg – to the custard type, so like most of the ice creams I make, this one contains no egg. Without the heavy, rich egg yolk coating your tongue, everything else has a more intense taste.
2 c buttermilk from above recipe
2 c heavy cream, as rich as possible
1 ¼ c sugar (caster/superfine sugar is best)
Zest of one lemon, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp vodka
Combine buttermilk, cream, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to 170C, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Add the lemon zest.
Cool quickly in a bain marie full of ice and, when cool, stir in the lemon juice and vodka. Whisk well to incorporate. Freeze as appropriate for your ice cream maker and scoop into two pint containers. Transfer to the freezer and freeze hard for at least 4-6 hours.