Once I was travelling outside of Carcassonne in Southwestern France. I was passing through a small, small town, the kind they have there with the cobbled medieval streets that are made for foot traffic only, and trap foolish American tourists who think every road should be worthy of large vehicles. There was a small market gathering when I walked through the center of the town, beside one of the beautiful Roman fountains that have shockingly explicit things carved into them. One of the tables was set out with several rows of pats of butter, and caught my attention. Obtaining some good butter to improve my hostel-kitchen-cooked pasta and vegetables seemed like an excellent idea.
Each row of gorgeous yellow pats had a different label. At 17, I had never heard of any butter choices other than the standard “Amurrican” salted and unsalted, and to see butter labelled “raw” did not make sense to me. I had eaten the best butter ever at my Great Aunt’s table in Nice, but could never understand why the unsalted butter tasted so different back in the states.
The table was crowded, and a young, determined-looking French woman was standing behind it. When it was my turn, I pointed at a likely-looking pat of butter. She thought I had wanted the “cru”, but I quickly told her, “No!” She looked surprised that I felt so strongly about it, and asked if I wanted it for cooking. Yes, I said stupidly, I wanted it for cooking.
Of course, now I realize what a treasure that butter table was, and what an idiot I was for not understanding and picking out the boring kind. The story ended badly, too, because the butter got squished around in my backpack and made everything smell rancid for the rest of the summer. I had an elegant white sleeveless shirt with me that unfortunately never recovered.
Butter is actually quite easy to make. It’s no harder than baking bread, but has fallen outside most people’s kitchen experience. I love making butter, because you can see the grass come out in it. The more fresh, green grass the cows eat, the more yellow the butter. The color of the butter will change very quickly in early summer, when the pastures are ready to graze.
I use cow’s milk, because the cream is easily skimmed off with a ladle. Goat’s milk has a different size of fat globules, and a fancy cream separator is necessary to make goat butter. Once the cream is skimmed, it can be made immediately into butter, or it can be cultured (kefir makes good cultured butter).
You can make butter by putting the cream in a jar and shaking it, or in a food processor or blender. I haven’t tried it myself, but you can also make butter just by stirring the cream. I make butter in my standing mixer, which takes some of the romanticism out of it, but then again, I have dairy animals to care for, as well as three children, and SO many gallons of milk to skim and wash. The standing mixer is very much appreciated!
There is a sudden change when the butter forms, going from very lumpy whipped cream to suddenly breaking into golden clusters swimming in bluish-white buttermilk.
If you cultured the butter, the buttermilk will be the delicious sour buttermilk that people think of as buttermilk. If it is not cultured, it is just non-fat milk.
Once the butter has formed, it must be drained and washed. The buttermilk is carefully poured off, with a spoon to hold back the slippery butter chunks. Now I add clean water, and work the butter, mashing it and kneading it so it will release all the buttermilk. The cloudy water is poured off, and I add more and repeat. The more buttermilk is removed, the better the butter keeps.
When the butter is washed, you can salt it, or not. I used to never salt my butter, but found that salted butter keeps better. I use fine-grained sea salt, and salt it to taste. The butter can be stored in the fridge, frozen, or melted down and strained to make ghee, which will keep at room temperature. In winter it will keep for awhile at ambient temperatures (I keep my house cold in the winter). I used to always culture butter, but have been opting for salted, uncultured because some of the cultured stuff could get funky in the freezer.
If you are using milk from animals on pasture, you might find that it tastes different than store butter. At the height of summer, our butter will have a grassy flavor that I thought was an off flavor until I tasted the alpine butter from Premannon, and realized it is the flavor of diverse green plants in the milk.