Who makes their own butter anymore?
Hardly anyone, and that may be because there was a time when the only way you could get butter was to sit in front of a churn and pound away at it until your arms were numb.
Yet making your own butter is extremely satisfying and connects us deeply with our most basic ingredients. Watching the alchemy of cream transformed is like being present at the creation. And that's a miracle of kitchen science that I wanted the kids in my "food appreciation" classes to witness first-hand.
How does cream turn into butter? Heavy cream typically contains somewhere between 36 percent and 44 percent fat. When it is churned, the fat globules are damaged and the liquid portion of the fat "flows together to make a continuous mass," in the words of Harold McGee. The mass grows as the churning continues, and at a certain point, the water portion of the cream drains off. This is what we have come to call "buttermilk."
"Cultured" butter, found more commonly in Europe, is made by fermenting the cream somewhat before churning it.
Making your own butter isn't hard. Perhaps you walked away from some cream in a mixer too long and came back to find butter at the bottom of your bowl. Happens to the best of cooks. You can also make it more deliberately, either with a mixer or by hand with a whisk. It takes a lot of whisking, but it creates a true intimacy between you and the cream. And that's the experience I wanted my kids to have.
We used a heavy cream that had been pasturized but not "ultra-pasteurized." The kids were amazed--and a bit repulsed--to see me digging solid clots of it out of the container after I'd drained the liquid. As far as I'm concerned, that's the sign of an excellent cream. After I'd whipped it into soft peaks, we passed the bowl around and each kid took a turn. And if it wasn't butter by the time we reached the end of the line, we started again.
There's a certain point when the cream passes the whipped stage and starts to look like slush. Then it begins to form pebbles. And then, as if by magic, it is actually butter. At this point it will begin to exude a white liquid. Drain it off through a strainer. Strangely, if you continue beating the butter, more liquid appears. We collected nearly a cup from one pint of cream.
When the butter is all balled up inside the whisk, stop, remove it and begin to fold and shape the butter in the bowl with a wooden spatula. The butter will resist and want to break into pieces at first. But if you keep working it, pushing it together, folding it over onto itself, eventually it will become a smooth and consistent mass, ready to be shaped into a small brick or rolled into a log.
The kids were anxious to taste it. I passed around the spatula so they could all take a sample. "It needs salt!" several of them noted. I explained that salt is not a necessary ingredient in butter. But in olden days, it was added to keep the butter from spoiling. We've simply aquired a taste for it. But in baking, unsalted butter is preferred.
Meanwhile, we had peeled some potatoes and had them boiling in a pot. We drained them off, tossed them with some of our hand-made butter and seasoned with salt. Never did a spud taste so good.