A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on my blog about making homemade butter. At the time, the process was a revelation: not only was I completely gobsmacked by the delicious result, but I also felt oddly self-sufficient and pilgramy, like I had just stepped into another time and unlocked a lost but fabulous cooking secret.
It shouldn't have been surprising to me — but it was — that butter has one simple ingredient (cream) and, at it's most rustic level, requires no special equipment to produce (a large glass jar with a leakproof lid, and the willingness to shake-shake-shake for about 10 minutes straight will get the job done).
But this basic homemade butter is really only half the story. The rest is all about ... fermentation.
Fermented cream, to be exact. That's right, I said fermented. Just sit back and take a deep breath. It isn't gross, I promise!
Cultured butter, a product of which is what milk wants to be when it grows up. And this post is a two-in-one: the byproduct of making cultured butter is cultured buttermilk — buttermilk you can drink (if that's your thing) and bake with ([nods] now you're talkin').
But first, let's get a little technical and review the science of milk.
Or, how about *I* get technical and you just relax and take it all in. Okay? Yeah, that's better.
Milk drawn directly from a cow is drinkable, but controversial. Raw milk contains bacterial microbes, as you would expect. All animals on this planet — and that includes you and me, as well as Bessie over there in yonder pasture — are full of bacterial microbes, some beneficial (such as L. acidophilus, the commonly known probiotic), some not so much (pathogens like salmonella and E. coli). These microbes — good and bad — are secreted by cows into their in milk.
Enter pasteurization. Pasteurization — the process of heating edibles to a temperature that inhibits microbial growth — was developed in the 1700's, and first applied to milk in the late 1800's with the groundbreaking intent of extending milk's shelf-life.
Later, ultra high-temperature (UHT) pasteurization was developed to further extend that shelf-life from mere days or weeks to months, making long-distance, cross-country transport of milk possible.
Now, without diving into the controversy of raw milk vs. pasteurized, I'll simply say that the net effect of pasteurization is that beneficial microbes are inhibited or destroyed. And definitively so in UHT pasteurization, which is applied to the vast majority of the milk you'll find in your grocery store (next time you visit, check the labels - look for "UHT" or "ultra-pasteurized").
In addition to the many, um, internal plumbing benefits that humans derive from beneficial microbes — or, to use the food industry's familiar packaging term, "live cultures" or "active cultures" — these microbes kick off the fermentation process that gives yogurt, sour cream and crème fraîche their wonderful, tangy-smooth flavors. These are cultured products that could not exist without beneficial microbes.
And cheese? No beneficial microbes = no fermentation = no cheese. That's right, the amazing Parmesano-Reggiano that you carefully grate over your lovingly created risotto would not exist without fermentation.
Fermentation is a good thing, not a gross thing.
Which brings us back around to butter. I'm sure you've guessed by now that cultured butter undergoes ... say it with me ... fermentation. Yes! This process gives butter a rich, just-short-of-tangy flavor that totally kicks regular butter to the curb. If you've ever had European butter, you know what I mean — unlike the U.S., butter is almost always cultured in Europe.
Sweet cream butter — the majority of the real butter found in grocery stores — is made from any ole milk, including UHT pasteurized milk — much like what I first made years back. Cultured butter, on the other hand, is beneficial-microbe-enriched milk that's allowed to ferment for a short period of time before churning into butter.
Think of the flavor difference between sweet cream butter and cultured butter as you would sauteed onions and caramelized onions. Sauteed onions are great, but if you add a little red wine vinegar, a little salt, and let those babies simmer in the pan for a while, you achieve a whole new level of onion goodness.
My lesson on pasteurization, beneficial microbes and fermentation all leads to this: to make cultured butter, you need milk and you need a source of beneficial microbes, which, due to pasteurization, must come from a source other than the milk itself, such as yogurt (raw milk with its beneficial microbes intact can produce cultured butter). (Microbes can also be purchased for purpose of inoculating your pasteurized milk to make cultured milk products, but here yogurt will serve just as well).
Enough science! Let's get this cultured party started!
First, select your cream. Choose the freshest, least pasteurized cream you can find, which, granted, is quite the challenge. I'm lucky enough to live in the same state as Snowville Creamery, a small dairy that produces minimally pasteurized milk from grass-fed cows. Holy cow [... you know I had to go there sooner or later ...] their stuff is good and makes fantastic butter, cultured or not. (If you've had Jeni's Splendid ice cream, then you, too, have enjoyed the amazing milk from Snowville — they're Jeni's supplier). I hope you are similarly local-dairy fortunate. (If your selection is coming from the grocery store shelf, look for "heavy cream.")
Next, your yogurt. Read the label: ideally, choose a brand that is made from only milk (and may or may not contained added live cultures, which is fine). Avoid brands with preservatives. Make sure the container reads "live cultures" or "active cultures."
Mix the two together, at a ratio of 3 tablespoons of yogurt per 1 cup of cream, in a meticulously cleaned glass or glazed ceramic bowl (no plastic - it's porous and can harbor pathogens). Cover and leave in a warm spot overnight to ferment and thicken.
Churn as you would regular butter, using a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. During the churning process, the fermented cream will proceed from liquid to glossy whipped cream to a disturbingly scraggly mess. Keep going. Eventually, the solids break from the liquid. Ta-da! You have butter. Now knead the butter to remove as much liquid as possible (reserve this liquid, along with the liquid in the mixing bowl — that's buttermilk!). Mix in a little sea salt, if you'd like.
The result is silky, smooth, and so wonderfully fragrant. If you could gather up silk into a solid, balled mass, it would feel like cultured butter.
And the flavor ... [swoon]. Schmear it on homemade scones or multigrain toast. Butter heaven!
Visit SoupAddict.com for detailed recipe instructions and storage tips, plus and more tidbits about culturing and pasteurization.
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