I love butter. I don’t use it all of the time or on everything, but most dishes benefit from good butter. I paid a little less than $10 for a 2-pound salted Amish butter roll. The price recently increased by $2 and made me rethink whether I really need it. There is also a local cream that cost a little less than $10 for a half-gallon (4 pounds). I’ve heard you can get inexpensive, quality butter from the Amish, so I started thinking that making butter myself and seasoning it to my taste sounded like a good idea. The process is not hard. If you have a mixer or a set of beaters, you can make butter in about 10 to 15 minutes.
Whole milk fresh from a cow separates, which most of us don’t see anymore. Almost all milk sold now is homogenized, filtered and emulsified to keep from separating. The cream in un-homogenized milk separates and rises to the top. Quality heavy whipping cream is about 40 percent fat; whole milk is only about 3.25 percent. The large amount of fat in cream allows it to be whipped so that air is suspended in the whipped fat. Add a bit of sugar for sweetened whipped cream with delicious desserts.
When you continue to whip the cream, it transforms from a smooth, inflated whipped topping to a lower-volume gritty liquid. The volume keeps dropping and the mixture starts to look like wet sand. The mixture eventually breaks down completely, leaving a clump of fat and the thin milk that has separated. That separated fat is butter. Rinse the butter with ice water to remove as much of the remaining milk as possible, thus extending its freshness.
The butter “extracted” from cream is about 80 percent fat, 18 percent moisture and 2 percent milk solids. The butter can be left as is — “sweet” butter — or “salted” or flavored to your liking. Compound butters are easy to make and offer a tasty addition to your meal. They can be savory or sweet and made with just about anything you have in the kitchen or the garden. Try something as simple as parsley, lemon juice and salt, or add honey for a sweet butter. Fresh butter will keep in the refrigerator for two to three weeks and from three to six months in the freezer, if wrapped tightly.
The “butter milk” byproduct from this process is not like the buttermilk you find at the store. In some methods such as European butter, the cream is allowed to sour for a few days (similar to making crème fraîche). The natural increase of lactic acid during this time speeds up the separation and sours the milk. When making butter from fresh cream, you get nonacidified buttermilk that has about the same taste and consistency as 2 percent milk.
The first few times I made butter, I was not sure if I was saving money or time. After a half-dozen tries, I now can finish in fewer than 20 minutes, with 2 pounds of butter and a quart of milk for my efforts. The butter freezes well, and the milk is quickly consumed.
Fresh Sweet Cream Butter
Makes about 2 pounds
½ gallon heavy cream
Salt, aromatics, spices or sweeteners to taste
In a 4 to 6 quart mixer with a whip attachment, whip cream at medium to medium-high speed. As the cream starts to thicken, turn speed to the highest setting until the cream goes from stiff peaks to slightly grainy. Once the cream starts to look like wet sand, it is close to breaking. When the mixture breaks, stop the mixer and pour off the buttermilk to keep it from splattering out of the bowl.
Continue whipping the butter at high speed. Periodically, stop to pour off any additional milk that comes out of the butter, returning any butter chunks to the mixer. When no more milk extrudes, scrape the butter into a bowl and form a ball. Place the ball of butter in a bowl of ice water, kneading the butter to rinse off all excess milk. Change the ice water 2 or 3 times until the water is clear after rinsing.
If desired, return the butter to the mixer and add flavoring. Feel free to add salt, pepper, herbs or lemon juice, or just add honey to make honey butter. Place unflavored or flavored butter into a container or wrap in plastic wrap. It will keep fresh in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks or in the freezer for 3 to 6 months.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.