mmm... butter

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Handmade Organic Cultured Butter
Why would you want to make your own butter? Not a bad question, but as you will soon be find out there are quite a few perfectly legitimate reasons to do this:

  • Butterfat Content
    In the US, butter must contain 80% minimum butterfat by law. Since water is cheaper than butterfat, most commercial butter is blended down to 80% post churning. Cultured small batch butter ends up at more like 86%. The higher fat butter is more plastic at low temperature, which makes it easier to use in pastry, and the higher fat content also helps to make pastry flakier and brings a more full flavor.

    There are several brands of butter that don't blend down to 80% which are popular with bakers, the best known one is probably Plugra, which is made in the US and available at Whole Foods and Trader Joes. There are also some more local brands in my Whole Foods that report high butterfat content.

    Home churned butter will be right up there in the 86% range

  • Texture
    Commercial butter is a very uniform dispersion of water in oil. The 80% target fat level and continuous churn processing require such a product, but even higher end butters end up this way due to the requirements of industrial production.

    Home churned butter has a more marbled texture, with grains of pure fat mixed with areas with higher water and milk solids. This improves the performance in pastry and makes for a more interesting spread.

  • Flavor
    Just using run of the mill cream from the store probably means that you are starting off with better ingredients than the average butter. But if you can find non-ultra heat treated cream from pastured cows, that will vastly improve the flavor. I use non-UHT organic cream from Butterworks farm in Vermont, which strangely is stocked by my local Shaw's supermarket. This cream is deep ivory since it is from pastured cows (the plants they eat have higher beta carotene, which colors the cream more than grain), and the butter made from it is luminously yellow and smells insanely buttery. This cream is from Jersey cows, which kick out a higher fat content milk to begin with, plus the fat is dispersed in larger globules than milk from other types of cows (which helps it churn to butter more easily). When you open it up, it is all thick in the top part of the bottle; it practically seems halfway to being solid already. Its expensive, but worth it.

  • Culturing
    For quite some time I have noticed that the table butter at nice restaurants often seems much more delicious than the typical butter you buy at the supermarket. Once I tried a high end artisan imported butter at Whole Foods but it was pretty rank and very cheesy.

    Then a year or two ago I wanted to get into cheesemaking. I didn't have great luck with mozzarella, but my creme fraiche and derivative products turned out excellent. I tried making mascarpone by draining creme fraiche for 12 hours, and made some nice tiramisus and fresh berry tarts with the resulting tasty cheese. I also tried churning creme fraiche in the food processor to make cultured butter and buttermilk, which turned out wonderfully as well.

    Cultured butter is not popular in the US, so it can be difficult to find. The culturing intensifies the butter flavor itself and also introduces a number of subtler secondary flavors that greatly enhance the overall butter experience. The action of the lactic bacteria also help break down some of the structure which keeps the fat globules apart. This increases the yield to butter over sweet cream and also makes the butter come much quicker when churning.

    For your homemade butter, you have complete control over the type of cultures used for ripening the cream and how long you let them work before churning.

  • Fresh Buttermilk
    Another side benefit of churning your own cultured butter is that you will end up with fresh real buttermilk. This buttermilk is excellent for baking, has a complex tang, and is full of the natural emulsifiers which help keep the butterfat in suspension in the cream (and which are lacking in commercial buttermilk, which is actually just cultured skim milk). These elements are why buttermilk was a prized ingredient in many baking recipes for adding flavor and helping to produce a smooth batter. You can use this buttermilk in place of water to make pie crust, and the lactic acid in the buttermilk will help tenderize the crust. Or use it in pancakes, waffles, biscuits, or a cold cucumber soup.

  • Impressing your friends
    I thought this one was a sure thing, but let me tell you talking about the details of handmade cultured butter is not going to get you any friends at a party. People will just think you are weird and their eyes will glaze over. Trust me on this one. Seriously.

The ideal cream is non-ultra pasteurized, high butterfat content (36-40%), organic, and from pastured cows. I've read that Jersey cream makes churning faster, due to a larger mean size of the butterfat globules. One local product I can find is Butterworks Farm organic Jersey cream, but in general it is very difficult to find non ultra heat treated cream. I've read that you can call your local 'Milk Control Office' and find out where vat pasteurized cream is sold. I've actually used Stonyfield Farm ultrapasteurized cream, and while it didn't have the same depth of color or flavor as the Butterworks Farm cream, it turned out pretty well.

Starting Material

The idea here is not to make a strongly cheesy butter, but a complex and delicious product which will churn easily and give a high butter yield. To this end, use a blend of mesophilic lactic cultures like the standards s.lactis and s.cremoris, with l.b.diaetylactis and m.s.cremoris if you want to go a bit further. I find the 'creme fraiche' direct culture pack from cheesemaking.com does a very nice job. I've also used their 'Buttermilk' and 'Mesophilic' packets with good results. I think I slightly prefer the creme fraiche and buttermilk blends.

The Lactic Bugs



The most obvious requirement. The simplest solution is to just use a jar or other container and shake or rock it. I've read that this is great for entertaining kids and works well with sweet cream, but I'm not sure how it would pan out with a gloopy block of cultured cream.

I started out buttermaking using the food processor as a churn. This works ok for small amounts of butter, though I've read on the web that high speed churning with metal blades affects the flavor in a negative way. You can also use a stand mixer or even a hand blender.

In my opinion, for a medium sized batch of butter the best option is to get a handcranked jar churn. Lehmen's sells one new, or you can find an antique one on ebay like I did. Dazey was a very popular brand for many decades, so there are lots of those out there. These were perfect for homes with one or two cows, and also for households with milk delivery (i.e. everyone).

My churn is a Dazey #40, which is probably from somewhere around 1920 and holds 4 quarts. I picked it up on ebay for $58.

Using cultured Butterworks cream, my hand churn actually works faster than the food processor, with 3x the quantity. The butter literally comes in 5-10 minutes or moderate speed cranking. Amazing!

Plus, hand cranked food processing equipment has a special place in my heart.


For measuring cream temp to prepare for culturing, and before churning. I prefer a K type thermocouple based meter, but I'm an engineer and thats how I like to roll. A good dairy, brewing, or food thermometer will work too. Strainer, pots, plastic containers, big spoons, spatula

For straining buttermilk from butter, double boiler for warming the cream, etc.


If you want to shape your butter to look good when you are done. I picked up a few molds off ebay, where many are sold every day.


The first step is to culture the cream. First, use iodophor, bleach, or boiling water to sanitize anything that will touch the cream. This includes the container you will let it ripen in, a stirring implement, and your thermometer. If you are a homebrewer or cheesemaker you should already be familiar with the relevant ideas here.


Use a double boiler set up to heat the cream to 86F. I just use the jar from my churn to both heat the cream and hold it for ripening.


When it reaches temp, remove from heat, add the culture and stir to disperse. Put a lid on the container and let it sit at room temp (around 70F) for about 12 hours.


It should be very thick, like yogurt, and smell tangy. You can adjust how far you let the culture go to suit your own preference. When you are happy with it, put it in the fridge until you are ready to churn it. By the way, you can use this creme fraiche for cooking or topping, or drain it in cheesecloth to make mascarpone.



Before churning, let the cream warm up to 55-60F. In this pic, I've taken some of the 6 pints of cream I had in the jar out since I was worried about overflow. In retrospect I don't think I needed to do that.

Getting to work

Churn away. Eventually you should see the cream start to get grainy. In my hand churn, you also start hearing a shushing noise. This is the butter coming, or the cream breaking into butter particles and buttermilk. You can start to smell a buttery scent at this point as well. Why does it smell different than the cream? Strange.

About 5 minutes later

About 2 additional minutes more...

If you keep going, the butter particles will agglomerate more and more. If you stop before they get too big, it will be easier to wash the butter.


Washing and Working

Pour out the churn through a seive or cloth lined collander, and save the buttermilk. Put the butter back in the churn with about as much cold water as there was buttermilk, and churn for a bit. Pour off this wash water in the sink and repeat a few times; the wash water should start getting clear rather than milky. Washing and working the butter helps to remove buttermilk and consolidate the butter. Apparently if you leave buttermilk in the butter it will go rancid more quickly. My churn has a little screen at the top which allows me to pour out wash water without unscrewing the lid, which is a nice feature.


Dump the butter out on a board or in a bowl, and start working it with a wooden implement. Press it, smoosh it, fold it, to get as much water out as you can. I've read that overworking or underworking can lead to texture problems, but I have no experience to tell me what is the right amount.

This is also normally the stage for salting if you want to add salt. I kept most of this batch unsalted for baking. Salting does make it taste nice on bread and keep longer.

Half of the butter

I ended up breaking this spoon


Measure the butter out by volume or weight. I think it is easier to do by weight since then you don't have to scrape fat out of measuring cups, which I personally can't stand to do.

165g = one pie crust

This butter is destined to get combined with leaf lard to make lattice crusts for six fresh picked sour cherry pies. I've squished out the packs so that later on I can easily cut the butter into cubes for crustmaking. I didn't have a nice butter mold at this point, and they were only going to be around for a few days, otherwise I would have made them look better.

Ready for pie making

If you want, you can mold the butter into nice looking blocks or pats. I got this antique 1lb mold off ebay. These pictures show me testing out the mold with the leftover chunk of butter that I didn't need for pies. I salted it and molded it to someday eat at the table. Since I'm on a bit of a diet right now though I put it in the freezer. I taste tested it on a rice cake, and it was awesome!

Ready to mold

Insert butter

Compress with handle

Eject from box

Peel pat off mold plate

Butter, you look so sexy to me

Of course you can use this butter for anything you like. It is excellent in pastry as outlined in the first section. I feel like it melts a bit easier than regular butter, which is nice for spreading and mouth feel, but makes pastry a bit more challenging. I noticed I needed to put my crusts back in the fridge more often than usual, but then again it's summer time.

I'd like to use this butter to make puff pastry, tamales, and cakes too.

Like all butter, it can be frozen if you are not going to use it right away.

Good place to buy cultures and cheese making supplies; also check out their newsletter and recipes section:

Excellent article on the history of Dazey butter churns:

A few good sites with homemade or small scale butter info:

Design partially original and partially ripped off from other websites
by Holly Gates