Some kitchen magic today – butter making! The process of turning cream into golden butter is something akin to alchemy. From goats’ milk churned by swinging in skins hanging from sticks, through ritual lamp burning in India, to a Napoleonic crisis brought on by its shortage, butter has played a hugely varied role in humanity’s history.
Like many agricultural developments, butter has its origins in the Middle East thousands of years ago. There are references made to butter in many Greek and Roman texts as well as Arabic and early Eastern writing. Seen as inferior to other culinary oils, it was mainly used for fuel and ritual purposes – the ancient Greeks used ‘butter eaters’ as a derogatory term for Thracians. As something made almost accidentally from cream and prone to spoiling in heat and sunlight, it’s easy to see why it was of little importance in this part of the ancient world (though clarified butter became increasingly used in cooking as it can be kept longer and heated higher). Further north it kept longer and added welcome fat to the cuisine. There are incidences of Norse and Celtic burials where butter was included in the grave goods, and the recovery of ancient ‘bog butter’ in Ireland shows the length our ancestors went to in order to preserve it.
Many of us will have made butter (or almost butter) completely accidentally by over-whipping cream. If you’ve reached that point where your wonderfully fluffy whipped cream starts to look a little granular, then you’re one step away from butter! When cream is whipped/ beaten/ churned for long enough the fat globules will eventually become damaged and begin to stick together to form a solid mass. What was cream a few seconds earlier is now lumps of butter swimming in buttermilk (or the liquid part of the cream that’s left).
As with anything, the quality of the raw ingredients can make a huge difference to the final product but I think butter is particularly rewarding as it is possible to make something at least as good as basic shop-bought with pretty basic resources. I would love to say I make my butter every time with straight from the farm gate raw cream. I don’t. I am lucky enough to have access to fantastic raw milk but really can rarely be bothered to let it stand and then skim off the cream. Using raw cream, especially when it has stayed out overnight to enhance the flavour, makes for incredible butter; but regular cream from the supermarket will still give pretty decent results.
The yield will vary depending on the cream and its butterfat content. I’ve found that typical double cream gives about 50:50 butter to buttermilk. So 1 litre of cream will give around 500g of butter and 500ml of buttermilk.
You will need…
- Cream (any kind, though of course single will yield less butter than double)
- Salt – I mostly use normal table salt, but if you were feeling flash then something like Maldon salt gives a lovely texture.
- Large bowl (remember that the cream will substantially increase in volume as it becomes whipped)
- Electric whisk
- Butter paddles/ wooden spoons/ wooden spatulas
- Greaseproof paper
- Pour the cream into the bowl and begin to whisk into whipped cream. I put a clean tea towel over the bowl and around the mixer which helps guard against pebble-dashing your entire kitchen with whipped cream.
- Keep whisking past the whipped cream stage until it begins to look granular. Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides so you don’t miss any bits.
- The cream will start to change colour, going increasingly yellow as the coagulating fat reflects the light differently. There will be tiny yellow grains that get larger as you whisk.
- The butter grains start to come together and a translucent liquid will start to pool in the bottom of the bowl.
- Whisk for as long as you can until there is a solid lump of butter sitting in a pool of buttermilk.
- Pour the contents of the bowl through a sieve, collecting the buttermilk in the jug.
- Rinse the butter in very cold water, squeezing and kneading as much buttermilk out as possible.
- If salting, weigh the butter and measuring out 1/4 tsp salt for every 110g butter. Flatten the butter out, sprinkle over the salt and knead it into the butter.
- Using butter paddles (or something similar, though it should be wood so it doesn’t conduct the warmth of your hands) shape the butter into blocks and wrap in greaseproof paper. Unsalted, it will keep for 4 or 5 days and salted will keep for around 2 weeks.
But what about the buttermilk?! I hear you cry…
Slightly milky, slightly acidic it’s not a wholly unpleasant drink but I think it’s way more useful in the kitchen. It makes an excellent marinade to tenderise chicken – think real, Deep South fried chicken. Its acidity works well with raising agents in baking, especially in American style pancakes or (as I made) in place of milk in scones.