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...
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.