Butter and Buttermilk

I think as children most of us were taken to historical sites like Fort Edmonton to learn how the settlers made wool and horseshoes and butter. Even so, I’ll start at the beginning.

You make butter by agitating cream.

It works like this. The fat in cream is in tiny globs, each covered with a membrane that prevents the fat globs from joining together. When you agitate cream, you break these coverings, releasing the fat globs, which all rush out to join their fatty brethren and form a solid mass of butter.

To commence butter-production, fill your container half way with heavy cream. Add a pinch of salt, secure the lid, and start shaking. You don’t have to strain yourself, just use a gentle shake that you can sustain for maybe ten minutes. After a while the cream will thicken: the contents will be noticeably less fluid, and there will be less sloshing. At this point you’ve simply made whipped cream:

The cream, thickened by agitation
Once whipped cream has formed, it’s a little more difficult to keep the cream moving in the jar. Perform a couple minutes of aggressive shaking, which will separate the butterfat and buttermilk:

The separated butterfat and buttermilk

Buttermilk: A Digression

While the resulting liquid is technically buttermilk, it does not have the tanginess that we usually associate with buttermilk.  Why do we think of buttermilk as sour?

An old-timey counter-top butter churn.When my mom was growing up in northern Ontario, they kept dairy cows.  They had a butter churn. Not the tall wooden ones you see at historical villages, but a large glass jar with a crank that spun paddles within.  Once the day’s cream had turned sour, they would pour it in the jar.  Once the jar was full they would make butter.

Whoa. Hold on. “Once the day’s cream was sour?”

I know.  In the age of pasteurization “sour milk” means “spoiled milk,” ie. a putrid mess of mold and coaguluum.  But before milk is pasteurized it contains a community of friendly bacteria called lactobacillus that are able to get a strong foothold on the milk before any other microbe. In my mother’s day sour milk was exactly that: sour. It wasn’t harmful, but if incubated too long could be too strong tasting.  This is what they used to make butter.  Both the butter and the buttermilk would have had the tangy taste of culture milk.

These days commercial buttermilk is made from pasteurized whole or partly-skimmed milk that has been inoculated with lactobacillus and incubated.

Back to the Butter…

The butterfat that has clumped together must now be worked to remove small pockets of buttermilk that remain within. When making such a small amount of butter, you can just use your hands. Knead the butter. You should see droplets of buttermilk come out.

At this point the butter is usually pressed into a mold to form the familiar bricks. Or in my case, hockey pucks:

The finished butter in a round ramekin

My finished butter was made with store-bought cream, so it has little to distinguish itself from store-bought butter, besides a slightly richer dairy flavour. It’s very good, but the benefits aren’t great enough to convince me to start churning cream for my daily supply of butter. (Maybe once I have my own cow…) It’s still a good experiment to try once, if only for general knowledge and appreciation of this rich but humble staple.