Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Kitchen Staple: Sweet Cream Butter


(***NOTE FOR FACEBOOK READERS: This post includes extensive use of video, which will not show up in embedded blog posts. Please go to http://burningpasta.blogspot.com/2009/01/kitchen-staple-sweet-cream-butter.html to read it. I'm afraid that this post just won't cut it if you skip the fancy-pants moving pictures.***)



We all use it, we all love it, and it's a key ingredient in any kitchen. Branching over multiple cultures, used for purposes both savory and sweet, whether presented hot and served with lobster, or found as cold bits dotting pastry dough, butter is an invaluable tool for the modern cook.

And yet, all this being said, I don't know one person who makes their own butter. People have this impression that to make it, you need a big wooden contraption, several hours, and your hair up in Dutch pigtails. Pish-posh. (Poppycock!) With prices-per-pound creeping up past four dollars (while the ingredients to make the same amount from scratch remain around two dollars) , now is a good a time as any to learn how to churn your own. And believe me, it really, really, couldn't be any easier.

Sweet Cream Butter

Makes a scant pound of butter
(Keeps about a week, but freezes well)

1 pint Heavy Cream

See? I said it was easy. All butter is, in its most basic form, is cream that's been whipped to the point that the butterfat solids (that's the butter) separate from the non-fat liquid (that's the buttermilk). Now yes, a wooden churn, a dowel, and some nice upper-body strength will do the job, but so will almost any other mechanized machine designed to agitate and whip liquids.

I prefer the use of a food processor, an invaluable (and rapidly more affordable) kitchen tool that saves me time and labor in countless ways (grating, chopping, mincing, blending, emulsifying, dough kneading, soup pureeing) on a daily basis. Few tools get more use in my kitchen than the food processor. I highly recommend you buy one. Now, if you're still not convinced, know that your standard kitchen blender will also do a fine job when it comes to the butter-making business.

So, how do we get started? Well, rather than tell you, why don't you watch me make the butter, from start to finish:
(Editor's Note: Yes, this is four-and-a-half minutes of cream spinning in a food processor. If you have better things to do with your time, skip to the 3:00 minute mark).

Here's what the finished butter looks like. If you're serving it right away, on some toast, or say, together with some fresh radishes, you're all set to go. Spoon the butter out from the machine, and artfully sculpt it into a bowl.

If you're planning on keeping the butter for a few extra days, you'll need to "wash" it -- this eliminates milk proteins that can spoil over time, and firms up the final product. And don't worry; the washing process is very, very easy.

First, pour off the settled buttermilk at the bottom of the processor. I drank some of it before this picture -- you actually get a decent yield. This can go into mashed potatoes, be saved for pancake batter, be baked into biscuits...any number of uses. Grab a cookbook and go nuts. Remember, waste not, want not.

For the actual washing process, you'll need about four cups of ice water. Reserving the ice, pour the cooled water into the mixer, one cup at a time, processing for 10 seconds each time.

The liquid that survives should get progressively clearer as more and more of the diluted buttermilk washes out and the butterfat solids harden. At this point, it's up to what you're comfortable with, and how long you're planning on keeping the butter -- feel free to wash the butter for as long as makes you happy. The colder the water, the faster and more efficient the process will be.

A glamour shot of the final product:

Even the Pasta Burner is a fan:

And that's it! While I don't suggest you make your own butter each and every time you need a teaspoon to sauté something, making butter is easy, simple, and fun. It delivers a fresh, creamy, well...buttery product that store-bought sticks just can't measure up to, and it's incredibly versatile -- add a tablespoon of orange zest and two tablespoons of honey to make sweet orange butter for waffles, or chop up a teaspoon each of fresh thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage, and tarragon -- really, whatever you can get your hands on -- to make herb butter. How about some fresh, piquant garlic butter? I think you can figure out the process from here, yes?

Best of all, every last one of these variations can be easily rolled into logs, wrapped in plastic wrap, and placed into deep freeze for when you need them. Need some smoked paprika butter to finish off those haricot vert? Whip it up, roll it, freeze it, and slice a lump off of the log. How about some hot buttered rum to ward off the January cold? Good thing you made that cinnamon butter last week. The log will be waiting and ready.

I urge each of you -- please, try this, at least once. Use the food processor, a blender, heck, if you've got the time, even a mason jar filled with cream, if you shake it long and hard enough, will produce this golden, silken treasure.

Trust me on this one. Go forth and make some butter.

Music: A Tribe Called Quest -- "Butter"


  1. You've convinced me. I'll have to get a food processor, but it was on the list anyway. And I use buttermilk a lot, as I make my own pancake batter. But the buttermilk often expires before I use it all, so this looks like it could save me money.

    I recently made garlic-oregano butter to slip inside some chicken, but I used butter I already had.

    I do have questions about the washing, so you'll be hearing from me again.

  2. How is San Francisco? Annie keeps telling me she wants us to take a trip out there, if only to go to City Lights. I do love a good bookstore.

    The washing is pretty easy -- like I said, the more cold water you wash it with, the longer you agitate it, the "cleaner" (i.e. less milk, longer time before spoilage) the final product will be. You can also press the butter to get the liquid out -- squeezing the butter through a mesh strainer works wonders.


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