An entry in The Household Economy
I love butter. I grew up eating margarine, but those were dark days indeed and I try not to think about them now. Instead, I think about butter, and I eat it. I slather it on toast, on cornbread, on pancakes, on pretty much any sort of baked good. I love cooking eggs in it, sauteing onions with it, roasting potatoes in it. I love baking with it. It’s my main fat. Sure, I’ll use olive oil at times and occasionally something else but butter is my standby and I go through a decent amount of it. I hardly know what I’d do without butter.
This seems appropriate to me for a couple reasons. First of all, I feel right eating butter. Animal products as part of my diet just work for me. I feel better eating that way, more satisfied, more satiated, with greater energy. Something about the combination of my genetics, heritage, childhood diet, and so on comes together in that way. Second, I live in dairy country. I live right on the Tillamook county line in Oregon, home of Tillamook cheese and with a fine history of dairy farming stretching back many years. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and fits this land—and taking advantage of that local resource only makes sense.
In other words, my personal and local context fits butter. It doesn’t fit, say, olive oil. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of olive oil on my counter, but let’s just say the butter is in a more accessible location. It’s the old standby, after all.
I wrote about that context in my previous entry in The Household Economy. In that post, I used an overabundance of thought about butter to come to a philosophy of homesteading that hit on three main themes: context, education, and patterns. While other aspects will inform the homesteading adventures I’ll be writing about in this series—personal enjoyment and interest, for instance, is kind of a big one—those were the three tenets that I thought I would focus on in the hopes of making this series a bit more than just a number of how-to guides.
I already covered the relation of butter to the above tenets in the above-linked “Considering Butter,” but I’ll hit on the high points again. In terms of context—aside from the aforementioned relevancies of personal taste and local tradition—I receive a gallon of raw milk each week from a local dairy. The milk is delicious and healthy, the cows grass fed, and the milk’s fat content higher than whole milk from the store. Left alone for a couple days in my refrigerator, I can skim around a pint of cream off the top and use that as my base ingredient for making butter. I use an already-existing resource, bring a small bit of my living into my own household, and increase my personal resilience. It’s coherent.
In the sense of education, I noted that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water and that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes. That simple knowledge, combined with the knowledge that I can skim cream off the top of my own supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, allows me to see the context in which making my own butter makes quite a bit of sense for me. It’s basic knowledge, but even much of our most basic knowledge in regards to homesteading has been lost over the last couple centuries.
In terms of patterns, I noted the local abundance of quality dairy farming and the attendant access to raw milk and cream. If I want to live in a local context, then it only makes sense for me to gain access to locally-produced milk—either through money, barter, trade or gift—and then to use some of the cream from that milk to provide myself butter. It helps wean me from globalized supply chains and an industrial economy that I don’t believe is well-designed for the future and it increases my integration into the local community, as well. It works in patterns and systems, cycling in on itself and rippling its effects throughout my life. Something as small as butter can do so much.
This sense of pattern and reinforcement, in fact, is something I want to talk a bit more about. It exemplifies much of the ideal behind homesteading. Yes, there’s the intense satisfaction of making something with your own hands and providing for yourself, but it really goes beyond that. There’s little in going to the store and buying butter. Perhaps you’ll run into someone you know or make some small talk with the cashier. You’ll help to support a local business and likely will support some non-local businesses, as well. It’s not devoid of impact, but it doesn’t burrow you into your community in the way that making your own butter can.
In making highly efficient and focused, globalized supply chains, we’ve largely insulated the recipients of those supply chains from the ripple effects of their patronage. When I buy butter at the store, I often don’t know the dairies involved, the people who run them, the cows who are milked, what they eat, what the land looks like, how that butter was made, who made it, how they’re treated or where they live or if their work supports them well, and a thousand other bits of information that are intricately a piece of that one pound box of butter. But if I bring that into the household, I begin to better understand these ripple effects. For me, it’s particularly pronounced because I get the milk, and thus the cream, locally. I know the farmers who produce my cream, I know the cows whose bodies it comes from. I know what they eat. I’ve touched and talked to them. I’ve walked on the same land they walk on. I know whom I support and I much better understand the context and ramifications of my decision to drink milk and eat butter.
My getting that milk integrates me more into my local community, building connections. My making butter thus does the same. However, beyond the local community and land, my making butter also informs my understanding of the natural patterns that butter has always been placed in under the best of circumstances. It helps root me in an entirely different way of thinking.
Buying butter at the store places me in the industrial economic context of making money at a job, spending that money at a store, and consuming what I spend. The connections are frayed and broken, or so spread through an intricate web of globalized commerce that I could never track down the ways in which they intersect, reflect and amplify each other. And that lack of knowledge, in my mind, is a huge piece of the broken world we live in now. We don’t understand our actions, we don’t understand the ramifications, and we find it increasingly hard to live our lives well when we don’t even know what our living does to the rest of the world. By bringing more and more of my economy into the household and rooting it in a local and personal context, I’m better able to gain a grasp on those ramifications, those intersections. I begin to understand how to better live my life. I begin to see the patterns.
The farmers raise the cows, who eat the grass in the pasture and the hay in the barn, who walk the fields much as the farmers do. I trade my own labor—or money from labor at another nearby farm—for the milk, which I take home in a steel pail. Already, by knowing well the place where my milk comes from and how I acquired it, I have a far more complete understanding of how I’m living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. I bring the milk home, skim the cream, and make the butter. Now I know the production of that butter and how it got to me. I also understand the process of making butter and begin to see why this was such an integral practice in times past, when cream was produced on the homestead and of course you would turn it into butter for other uses.
Furthermore, I know that after you make butter, you have the leftover buttermilk. Unlike with buying butter at the store, I get to keep that resource and, even better, I get to find out what happens with it. For me, what’s been happening with it is I’ve been using it in the baking of cornbread or the making of pancakes, and soon I’ll try baking some bread from it. The ripples from my butter continue to spread, informing my life and playing out in the days to come. The buttermilk goes into the cornbread, then the butter goes on the cornbread. These small patterns and systems emerge. One action leads to another, and before you know it you’re filling your life with good work and good food.
Suddenly, in this small ramekin of butter, I begin to find some semblance of being human. It sounds melodramatic, I know, and . . . well, it is. Yet, it also feels very true. Maybe I have too much of a sense of romanticism about the past, but the idea of having a small homestead and raising a cow, milking that cow, drinking that milk and turning it into other food such as cheese and yogurt and butter; using the byproducts of those activities to make still other kinds of food, some of which then recombine with the previous food; even taking the leftover milk from the cow and feeding it to other animals such as hogs or chickens, which then you eventually eat as well and turn into various other forms of food within the household; and all this providing you work that makes your living and provides your life meaning and satisfaction; that seems like a coherent human existence to me and one that provides ample opportunities to build and reinforce community, to live and work well, to understand and worship this world a bit more each day. The alternative industrial system that we’ve built and allowed to devour this older way of life doesn’t feel coherent to me at all. It feels empty and destructive, for the most part, and the pattern I most often see in it is degradation and alienation.
Maybe asking butter to build a community is asking a bit much. But the amazing thing is that it actually can help do that, even though it’s so small, this one dish of butter. One more reason I love it.
So let’s make some. Here are the steps.
What you need:
Heavy Cream — Get as fresh and local as is available to you. If you can get raw cream, all the better (see note below.) The more cream you start with, the more butter you’ll end with. Get at least a pint, which should leave you with 6-8 ounces of butter (i.e. approximately half the amount of cream you started with.)
Agitator — This is some kind of device to shake your cream for a good while. I’ve been using a food processor. It’s easy and quick. A stand mixer with the wire whisk attachment will also work (make sure to cover up the bowl as much as possible and slow down the mixer once the butter begins to form to avoid crazy splattering.) Or you can shake the cream in a jar for 20 or 30 minutes, or you can buy a butter churn, or you can rig up your own butter churn.
Salt — If you want salted butter. You won’t need much. You also may skip the salt.
Flavorings — I’m not going to get into this, but you can also add honey, maple syrup, garlic, herbs or whatever else your little heart desires to the finished butter, just mixing it in with a fork or a couple paddles. Begin with a small amount and continually taste until you reach the flavor you’re looking for. Also, do a search—somebody’s bound to have made the flavored butter you’re drooling over and written up a blog post about it.
Note: I’m using raw cream, but most people will likely use pasteurized cream from the store, just due to availability if nothing else. These steps work for either. However, I’m a strong proponent of raw milk and I’ve been enjoying the raw butter I’ve been making. It gets a stronger flavor as it ages, becoming more cheesy in its taste, along the lines of cultured European butter. This is because all the enzymes and microbials haven’t been killed off via the pasteurization process. As the butter ages, these little critters do their work and culture it a bit more each day, leading to an evolving flavor. I enjoy this because my food’s alive and, thus, much more interesting. I also think it’s healthier and pretty fantastic for the digestive tract (though often my butter comes into contact with hot things or is used in cooking, which will kill those tiny critters before they get into my digestive tract.) I’ll be writing more soon about why living food is cool.
Now onto the process!
Step One: Pour your cream into your agitator. In my case, this is a food processor fitted with the plastic blade. I’ve found that the plastic blade does the job more quickly than a steel blade, possibly because the steel blade is cutting the fat globules and impeding their ability to stick to one another. The plastic blade talks about half the time, as little as 3-5 minutes. The steel blade has taken me upwards of 20 minutes. Also, if you’re using a food processor, I would recommend a full quart of cream. In my experience, having only a pint has created the need to continually turn off the machine and scrape the whipped cream down off the side because there otherwise isn’t enough cream in there to keep the whole batch agitating away.
Step Two: Make like you’re at a political protest and agitate. Turn on your food processor or blender, start cranking away with your churn, or just start shaking that jar. If you want to check on the progress of things or give yourself a rest, you can pause the agitation. But the more you pause, the longer it takes.
Step Three: Keep agitating and watch the progression. As you whip up that cream, it will go through a series of transformations. It’ll gradually grow thicker until you have your basic whipped cream, seen above. As you continue the shaking, that cream will become more and more fluffy and begin to turn a bit yellow. Keep going and before you know it you’ll have lost your membranes: little bits of yellow-ish fat globules will be sticking together and floating in a thin and milky liquid and your agitation will have devolved from the whipping of cream to the churning of a splattering mess. You should know when you’ve reached this stage, but if you’re unsure then just stop the process and fish out one of those little bits of fat. It should have the texture and taste of butter. You also may find that at this point the little butter globules coalesce into obvious hunks of butter. If so, all the better, as that’s the next step.
Step Four: Now what you want to do is drain (but keep!) the milky liquid from the butter. That liquid is buttermilk, and we’ll talk about that at the end. How I strain it from the food processor bowl is thus: I take a bowl and place a wire mesh strainer over it. I then clump together as much of the butter in the food processor bowl as I can with a spatula, scooping the butter bits over to the side of the bowl and pressing them together. Once I’ve done that, I drain the remaining buttermilk through the strainer, which will catch whatever larger chunks of butter are left in the liquid. If you want to be more detail-oriented, you could line the strainer with cheese cloth or a thin towel, but I don’t bother with that. Once I’ve drained the buttermilk (which you’re keeping, remember!) I put whatever butter the strainer caught back into the food processor bowl with the other butter.
Step Five: Using spatulas or wooden paddles, pull all the butter together into one clump and work it with the spatulas, either in the food processor bowl or in a different bowl if you prefer. Press the butter against the side of the bowl to drain the buttermilk out of it. Each time you do this, hold the butter in the bowl pressed against the side while you drain the buttermilk through the strainer. Keep doing this until you’re not getting much of any buttermilk out of the butter anymore.
Step Six: You now have yourself a clump of butter and a bowl of buttermilk. At this point, you have the option of calling your life a success and moving on to the salt (if you want it salted.) Or you can be anal about the process and wash the butter. There’s a good reason to do this: the more buttermilk you get out of the butter, the longer it will last. Personally, I find the process tedious for seemingly limited value, so I don’t bother. (This, I’ll note, is another benefit of using raw cream—the butter will simply culture as it gets older rather than souring into something rancid and inedible, which will eventually happen with butter made from pasteurized cream. Still, it’ll take awhile, especially if you salt it. And butter never lasts long enough for that to happen in my place, anyway.) If you want to wash the butter, though, you can do this by using ice cold water. Pour some of the water in with the butter and work it more with your spatulas. Drain the water. (Not into your buttermilk! Just pour it down the drain.) Keep doing this until the added ice water stays clear even after you work the butter. At that point, you should have yourself some very clean butter. Make sure you’ve worked the butter well at that point—using your hands if necessary—to get out all the water.
Step Seven: Salt! Flavor! Or do nothing! If you want salted butter, start small and work your way up to a level of saltiness you like. Try 1/8 teaspoon per cup of butter and go from there. Just sprinkle the salt on the butter and work in with your spatulas. If you want other flavors, add them now, as well. Again, start very small and work your way up by tasting.
Step Eight: Store your butter. I put mine in a ramekin and then leave it on the counter, covered by a bit of plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can wrap tightly in wax paper or store it in a lidded mason jar. Remember that butter absorbs flavors, so if you scoop yours into a ramekin and then put it in the fridge uncovered, it’s likely to pick up the taste of whatever foods are hanging out in there.
Step Nine: Eat your butter. No, really, right now. Toast some bread and smear it on, or eat some straight, or do whatever you love to do with butter. The sight of the finished butter will be its own reward, but your taste buds deserve to get in on the action, as well. Fresh made butter is a real joy.
As For The Buttermilk: This is real buttermilk, but it’s not the same buttermilk that you would buy from the store. Store buttermilk is skim milk that’s been cultured. This leftover liquid from butter making is very much like skim milk. If you used raw cream, then it is a live culture product and, depending on its age, may already taste a bit cultured. You can store it in the fridge and it will continue to culture and turn more sour as you keep it. If you used pasteurized cream, then you’ll also have something akin to skim milk but it’s not live culture and it won’t sour over time. It eventually will just go bad.
You can drink your buttermilk if you find it agreeable. What I do is use it for baking. Cornbread, buttermilk pancakes, biscuits or bread, coffee cakes, and so on. Use it in something that calls for buttermilk or just use it in place of milk. It’s worked great for me and it continues the cycle of your butter-making, of which I’ve already expressed my approval. After all, the making of butter becomes about ten times better when it not only leads to that ramekin of deliciousness pictured above, but this, as well:
Maybe not quite as fulfilling as a healthy community and coherent humanity, but pretty darn close.
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