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« Melons of Memory | Main | The Lip Lady's Secret Granola »

Getting Some Culture

Homemade Cultured Butter 

In the grossly overburdened portion of my brain devoted to food memories, a few first-time experiences stand out from the rest almost as vividly as the day they happened. There was my first raw oyster, slippery and briny and gone before I'd even registered its subtle flavor; my first taste of truffles, which actually caused me to exclaim 'butane!' because of their bizarre likeness to camping stove fuel; my first mouthful of smooth-as-silk foie gras; my first taste of butter...


Yes butter, but not just any butter. Of course I'm not talking about the butter I grew up eating — or I should say, the butter I ate before the anti-butter scaremongering hit the media and my parents switched to some vile, purportedly heart-healthier substance. I honestly have no idea when I first tasted that butter, but it was probably long before I started making taste memories. I'm talking about the butter I discovered on my very first trip to France, at the home of the family friend who hosted me for a week and took it upon herself to introduce me to as many of France's gastronomic delights as humanly possible. Among the cheeses and patés and potages and pastries she stuffed me with, I had a taste of a butter so remarkable I couldn't stop thinking about it for years.

In my defence, it was amazing stuff. That butter possessed a creaminess beyond description, and a sweetly subtle, almost cheesy flavor. I had never had anything like it, and I slathered it on every surface I could find (including my naked fingers), probably consuming more in that week than in the totality of my life up to that point. What must they be feeding those French cows to get butter like this? I wondered. I imagined them lolling about in green fields, being hand-fed choice bits of tender spring stalks by doting farmers. Maybe they had regular massages à la Kobe cows, and perhaps soothing classical music was piped into their climate-controlled barns at night to help them sleep. I mean really, how else could you explain why this French butter was so good?

While I can't say for sure that none of that actually happens in France, I do know something now that I didn't know then. French butter is actually so delicious because the French routinely do something to their butter that Americans (and British, and most of the rest of the world) don't: they give it some culture.

Simply put, culturing butter consists of fermenting the cream before the butter is churned. Have you ever had crème fraîche? Then you've tasted cultured butter's parent. By introducing some dairy-friendly bacteria to the fresh cream, the sugars in the cream are converted to lactic acid; this, along with souring the cream, produces additional aroma compounds including diacetyl which make for a more complex and "buttery" taste (can you see I did my homework?). You wouldn't think that souring cream would necessarily have a positive impact on the butter made from it (I mean, the thought of sour butter doesn't exactly get your mouth watering, does it?), but surprisingly, it does: the butter absorbs just enough of the flavor compounds to acquire a subtle, mysterious and completely addictive tang.

When I was in the U.S. last summer, I noticed that Americans' fascination with all things European has expanded to the dairy case, and cultured butter is now widely available. It was indeed delicious, but it was also obscenely expensive; I was almost glad that I don't live there and have to face decisions such as either indulging in cultured butter or paying my rent on a regular basis. At home I still scanned the butter aisle religiously, however, hoping against hope that the cultured variety was about to catch on here in the UK, when lo and behold, I stumbled upon a completely unexpected piece of information. Did you know that cultured butter is actually a cinch to make at home? I certainly didn't, but I have since confirmed it myself: it is not only a cinch, it is spectacular. All it takes is a quart of the richest, freshest organic cream you can lay your hands on, a few spoonfuls of a fermented dairy product like yogurt or buttermilk, and a little bit of patience. In 24 hours, you can have as much fresh, cultured butter as your long-suffering tastebuds desire - at a cost so low you will be able to slather it on not only your toast every morning, but each and every one of your fingers too, and you'll still be able to pay your rent in the process.

Now if only I could find a way to make that happen with oysters, truffles and foie gras...

Cultured Butter

I actually have reader and fellow blogger Dominic to thank for clueing me in to the fact that cultured butter can be made at home. I had no idea, but after reading his description, I got to work and have now made my own not once, not twice, but three times in the last week. Uh yeah, I know that's a lot of butter. But it's amazing stuff, and worth every luscious, calorie-laden bite. There's not much to tell you here that the recipe doesn't; the only thing I'll stress is the importance of getting yourself really good (preferably organic) cream, since tasty cream=tasty butter. But you could have probably figured that one out for yourself.
Yield: 12-14 ounces (340-400g) of butter, depending on the fat content of your cream (note that the recipe can easily be halved)

4 cups (1ltr) heavy or double cream (the best quality, and highest butterfat you can find)
1/3 cup (80ml) plain whole-milk yogurt, crème fraîche
or buttermilk (check the ingredients to make sure these do not conatin any gums or stabilizers)
salt, to taste (flaky fleur de sel or Maldon salt is great)

Begin by culturing your cream (this is an overnight process, so plan accordingly). In a clean glass or ceramic container (bowl, jar, etc) combine the cream and yogurt, crème fraîche or buttermilk. Cover loosely and place it in a warmish part of the house - the ideal temperature is around 75F (23C), but anywhere in the range from 70-80F (20-26C) is okay.

After 12-18 hours, the cream should be noticeably thicker and should taste slightly tangy, i.e. like crème fraîche. If it's bubbling and gassy, some unwanted bacteria have gotten in there so discard your cream and start again (note that this has never happened to me). If it hasn't thickened yet, leave it alone for another few hours and eventually it will. When your cream has thickened, if you are not ready to make your butter right away, transfer the container to the fridge where you can leave it for up to another 24 hours.

In order to churn properly, the cream needs to be at about 60F (15C).  If you're taking it out of the fridge just let it warm up until it reaches this temperature; if you're making it from room temperature you'll need to place the bowl in a bath of ice water for a few minutes to cool it down. Also, fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes and keep it handy.

You can use any method you want to beat the cream; handheld electric beater, stand mixer, etc - even whisking by hand if you're trying to pre-emptively burn off a few calories. Basically, just put the thickened cream in a clean, deep bowl and start beating as if you're making whipped cream. When the cream starts to form stiff peaks, reduce the speed to low. At this point watch carefully; first the peaks will start to look grainy, and a few seconds later the cream will break. When it does you'll know it - globules of yellow butterfat will be swimming in a sea of buttermilk (see picture, below left), and if you're beating too fast you'll have buttermilk everywhere. Stop beating and carefully tilt the bowl over a cup, holding back the butter clumps as best you can, and drain away as much buttermilk as possible. You can use this just like commercial buttermilk, by the way, and it's delicious.

Now you have to wash the butter to get rid of all the residual buttermilk, which would cause it to spoil prematurely. Using a fork (my preferred implement) or a stiff rubber spatula, pour some of your reserved icewater over the butter, kneading and stirring it around vigorously. The water will turn whitish and the butter will firm up, making it cohere and knead more easily (see picture, below right). Pour out the liquid and repeat as many times as needed until the water sloshing around in your bowl is completely clear. After you've poured off the last of the liquid, continue kneading for a few more minutes to get as much water as possible out of the butter. If you want salted butter, add your favorite salt now, to taste.

You've now got a generous supply of your very own cultured butter. Pack it into ramekins, roll it in waxed paper, or fill cute little molds with it before refrigerating; I recommend freezing some if you won't be able to finish what you've made within a week or so. Whether storing it in the fridge or freezer, though, keep it tightly covered, as butter is a sponge for other aromas.

Left: the cream just after breaking. Right: the butter after two or three washes. 


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Reader Comments (68)

Luke - Pectin may be the culprit, but there's also a chance the cream's fat content wasn't high enough to whip properly, due to your use of nonfat yogurt. Why don't you try creme fraiche instead, or try using less (maybe around 1/2 the amount) of yogurt or buttermilk. It'll take slightly longer to sour but it'll taste just the same.

August 9, 2007 | Registered Commentermelissa

I just finished making this- it's so good! I got stuck with store-brand heavy cream because my local natural foods store (the only such place I currently have access to) was out, but it's still pretty amazing. I plan on trying it with better cream ASAP.

August 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCHRISTIMA

i love your site and your recipes. hopefully i'll try some out this weekend!

August 22, 2007 | Unregistered Commentertraderjanki

Thank you so much for the recipe!!. As a young child in India, I saw my grandma boil the non-homogenized buffalo or cow milk everyday, which would result in thick layer of cream and milk separated(now i know why the milk tasted nasty, it was skim). SHe would save the cream everyday and churn it(hand held wooden beater) at the end of the week, which i remember helping her with, to make fresh cream and buttermilk. But the taste was different than the commercial butter here in USA, It was creamy,fluffy, a bit like sour cream but clean taste, which now i realized by your post that it was cultured butter. I now know that she probably added a bit of homemade yogurt to the cream.
Thank you again for bringing back wonderful memories!! I'll definitely try this in my kitchen.

August 28, 2007 | Unregistered Commentervs

Thank you thank you thank you! I am a Canadian living in Paris, and have become addicted to beurre d'isigny and French butter in general. I've been worried about what I'm going to do when I return to Canada next spring, where I'll be lacking all sorts of French food anything, but your recipe (and your blog, for that matter) just gave me all sorts of hope.

Merci merci bien! And keep up the good work :-)

August 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterColin

I've recently begun making butter, and I love it. It's a lot of fun, and very tasty. I have had to use ultrapasteurized cream thus far (still makes a nice, delicate butter), but I am on the hunt for non-heat treated cream in my area. I have not made cultured butter yet, because I wanted to get my technique down first, but I think I'm ready for it now.

Happy buttering!

October 5, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterprincessedamame

Oh, shoot. I can't beleive I attached the wrong link to my username. The correct link is with this post. Sorry.

October 5, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterprincessedamame

Hello! I just wanted to say Thank You! I made some butter today following your instructions, it has turned out really well!
I didn't have a thermometer, so it was a bit 'guesswork'. After adding the creme fraiche to the cream I left it overnight in the warm kitchen, that worked ok. Then after about 14 hours I put it in a bowl of cold water with ice cubes for an hour to cool it off, that worked too! It churned beautifully in 9 minutes using an old Dasey butter churn. I used the churn to work the ice water through it to wash it as well.
THANKS so much!!!

October 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMildred

My grandmother still does it! And she taught me how to do it a few months ago as well, but unfortunately I have had problems figuring out how to do it in America where we usually can't get "buffalo milk." So this is big help and I am going to give it a try today. Thank you very much for posting something like this.

October 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterin the city

Very yamy food!

October 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercomment

Last week I made uncultured butter, turned out great.

This time I tried the cultured route. I used the same cream as before (500ml) and added 3 tbsp of nice organic yogurt (3%, active cultures).

I left the mixture out for about 20 hours or so, and it was definatily tangy, but not super thick.

I tried to churn it as I did before, but it just wouldn't thicken - Even after 25 mins. Last time it happened fairly quickly.

Any ideas what might have gone wrong?

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Kolcun


Do not use youghurt to culture your cream! It does not have the right lactobacteria that will give the proper butter taste. The one and only is Lactobacillus Diacetylactis. Ask your dairy if their cultured milks etc contains it, otherwise dont bother making the cultured butter, it will taste tangy without it but not butter.

I am a small butter maker in Sweden that supplies top restaurants with butter. A cool fact is that it was the Vikings who introduced butter to France (Normandie) and the rest of europe.

Check out my webpage: www.vallmobacken.se


November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatrik Johansson

Ok so I'm a bit late on the ball with all of this. Secretely the only thing I can cook is crepes and steak, but..after reading your wonderful blog I've been inspired to cook. And this morning I made cultured butter! It was so much fun and an absolute bloody miracle when I found myself kneading a lump of actual butter at the end! I don't know what I was expecting but it was not something that looked that normal. So thanks heaps! the butter is mind blowing and I can't wait to try more of your recipes. You're the light during my exam period :D

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLina Mar

uh oh. My butter-to-be is setting out overnight. But just noticed my yogurt has pectin. What will happen? If it doesn't turn to butter, mabe a pasta sauce. And try again

September 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Wonderful! I spent the past four years in Ireland eating gobs of the most delicious cultured butter and am once again back home in America eating the white stuff, which tastes like shortening now. I bought a gallon of raw milk the other day, collected as much cream as I could off the top once it had settled, added a dab of creme fraiche and let it sit for a couple of days--made the butter in a mason jar tonight and WOW. HEAVENLY. Creamy and sweet and salty (like the French demi-sel), and wonderful. Thank you!

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

I was wondering if I can use homemade kefir for a starter instead of the yoghurt?
kind regards, Sophia

It should work, though it might give the butter a slightly different flavor. Why don't you a small batch first and see how it goes? And then let me know! -m

December 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSophia from Sydney

Thank you so much for your wonderful and inspirational post! Here in Greece, butter is so expensive like it's a luxury item! It's a pity that most people substitute it with margarine because of that. Can't wait to make my own and spread the word!!

November 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNinevi

This is wonderful! I live in Vermont where we are very fortunate to have enough dairy cows to outnumber the people;-) I can wait to try it - thanks!!

June 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Buttery Fig

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