Boiling water. Scalding oil. Razor-sharp blades. Those are the biggest kitchen hazards, right? Nope, that honor goes to butter, the only thing in my twenty-plus years of professional cooking experience that I’ve known to have removed not one but two fingers from the hands of the people who had been making it.*
*This story is 100% true, and also a good example of why no one should use anecdotal experience as evidence of anything except that weird things happen sometimes.
Okay, so technically the butter itself didn’t sever any fingers, the machinery used to make the butter did. I was working on a family farm in the southwest of France where they beat cream in a huge churn and then formed it into 500g logs by pushing the butterfat through an auger-driven press. Both the press and the churn were wooden, and very antique. Both devices had originally been powered by manual crank, but to make things easier the farmers had at some point fixed electric motors to each. Making butter was a frequent chore for the family, and, as happens when people do chores frequently, things got a little lax. First the matriarch put her right index finger too close to the press’s auger, and POP! Off it came! Then a couple years later, one of her daughters-in-law made the exact same mistake with the exact same finger on the exact same hand.
Betty Botter’s butter may have been bitter, but bitter butter is a bit better than bloody butter, isn’t it?
All of this has very little with how to make butter, but since I’m stuck with a permanent mental image of logs of butter extruding from a press with gory digits embedded in them, I figured you should too. And it’s probably a good reminder to keep your paws away from the butter when your machinery is at work.
How Butter Is Made
One day, when I was in kindergarten, we all sat in a circle and passed around a jar of cream, taking turns shaking it. After a while, a magic thing happened: It turned into butter. Or it seemed like magic, at least. But I was five and I assume most of you reading are much older and know quite well that butter is made by beating cream, and that there are faster ways to do it than passing it around in a jar and shaking it—such as using a stand mixer (my preference), a food processor, or even just a whisk.
The science of it is fairly straightforward: Cream has a high percentage of butterfat in it, and as you whip and beat cream, those fat globules smash into each other and stick together, accumulating into larger and larger blobs of fat, much the way planets and moons formed from our early solar system as dust smashed into dust to make rocks and then planetesimals and then protoplanets and now here we are sitting on rocky-planet-number-three comparing butter to all of that.
Eventually (though thankfully not quite as long as it takes a solar system to form), the emulsion that is cream breaks as the yellow fat becomes visible crumbles in a milky sea of relatively low-fat liquid that one would correctly call buttermilk. You can read about it in more depth in our article on the science of cream whipping and butter, if you so desire. Or just take a moment to gaze into the night sky and imagine all those stars are really just bits of butter waiting to be brought together.
Okay, back to the butter. After it breaks out of the emulsion, the next step is to wash the butter by kneading it in a couple changes of cold water. This removes trapped pockets of buttermilk that can hasten spoilage. The butter is then seasoned with salt, if desired, formed into a compact mass, wrapped well, and stored for later.
Is it Worth Making Butter From Scratch?
“Worth” is a subjective term, but I think it’s safe to say it can be worth it. For one thing, as my kindergarten butter-making experience (and the fact that I still remember it) shows, it’s a great little cooking science project to do with kids that can help them to understand a whole bunch of cool concepts like emulsions (yes, that yellow butter has been hiding in the cream all along!) and deepen their understanding of common ingredients.
It’s arguably also worth it if you find yourself with more cream than you know what to do with, though that’s not a problem I can ever remember having. It’s also worth noting that heavy cream is your best option in terms of yield, as whipping cream contains even less fat and therefore will produce less butter per volume.
And while the price of cream changes over time and also from brand to brand, it can be cheaper to make butter than to buy it, at least based on some quick math I just did: At the time of publishing, one quart of heavy cream costs about $5 where I live, and you can get about a pound-and-a-half of butter out of it. Since a pound of butter currently also costs about $5, you’re getting roughly 50% more butter for your money by making it yourself. Not the worst deal ever, but also nothing that’ll make you rich unless you’re able to scale your little home butter operation up quite a bit.
There is a catch, however. The butter we buy at the store is produced under more controlled conditions, and therefore has a more consistent fat percentage (because butter is still an emulsion with some water and milk proteins and sugars in it) than whatever we might whip up at home. That won’t matter much when spreading it on toast or making a sauce, but it could change how baked goods turn out. Better to use the store-bought stuff where precision matters.
How Do You Make Cultured Butter?
Everything I’ve described so far is to make what is called “sweet” butter, which, no, is not butter that’s been sweetened with sugar, but instead is butter made from fresh cream, which has a sweetness all its own. To make wonderfully tangy cultured butter, what you need is cultured cream, which is precisely what crème fraîche is.
Crème fraîche, however, can be quite pricey—about $10 for a pint’s worth, based on a quick Google search. A half-pound of cultured butter, meanwhile, is about $5. Since a pint of crème fraîche yields a little more than a half pound of cultured butter, you’re paying a bit more to make it from scratch, although I suppose you do also get true tangy buttermilk as a byproduct of this process, so maybe it’s not the worst deal ever.
Better, though, would be to make crème fraîche from scratch, which is easy to do using just heavy cream and a bit of store-bought buttermilk to inoculate it. Once whipped, you get truly flavorful butter plus true buttermilk, all for the cost of some fresh cream.
In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a food processor or in a large mixing bowl with a whisk, beat cream until it reaches and then passes the whipped stage, large globules of butterfat coalesce, and liquid begins sloshing all around it. The timing for this can vary depending on the tool used and the type of cream used, but can take up to about 15 minutes in a stand mixer (crème fraîche, in our experience, turns to butter much, much faster).
Drain buttermilk from butterfat, saving buttermilk for another use (such as to drink). Place butter in mixing bowl, fill with cold water, and gently knead, forming butterfat into a single mass as you wash away any remaining buttermilk. Drain and repeat washing in cold water until water is clear.
Drain butter one final time, then gently knead on a clean work surface to express any remaining water, blotting with clean towels to dry as needed. If seasoning butter with salt, sprinkle salt on top and knead it in until evenly distributed.
Form butter into an even, compressed shape, such as a log. Wrap tightly in plastic or waxed paper, and keep refrigerated.
Stand mixer, food processor, or whisk
For sweet (that is, not tangy) butter, use fresh cream. For tangy cultured butter, use crème fraîche.
Make Ahead and Storage
Tightly wrapped butter can be refrigerated for at least one week; discard if it grows sour or moldy.