Churning your own butter is easier than you think. Normally I make both regular and clarified butter in the spring and freeze it, but it’s winter now and I just ran out of clarified butter, so I’m going to show you how to quickly whip up a batch.
Clarified butter is what I use for cooking. Unlike regular butter, clarified butter doesn’t contain any milk proteins (casein), lactose or whey. These are the components of milk that will burn very easily, which makes them carcinogenic. That’s why you should never cook with regular butter unless it’s at a very low temperature. Clarified butter is the cooking fat of choice in much of India, where it’s called ghee, and it’s also used in France. It’s also sometimes called “drawn butter.”
All you need is cream and either a butter churn (like this 1950’s model I bought on Ebay) or an electric mixer. I’m feeling lazy today, so I’ll use my mixer. If you can get real cream from a farm that raises cows on pasture, you’ll end up with a far more tasty and nutritious end product. (Here’s a great article describing why butter is so good for you.) Ideally you’d want to do this in the spring, when the cows are eating the rapidly growing fresh grass. But if Heavy Whipping Cream from the supermarket is your only option, then that will do and season won’t make a difference.
The ideal temperature for churning cream is somewhere between refrigerator and room temperature. If it’s too cold, it will just take longer. Straight out of the fridge with farm cream can take 30 minutes in the electric mixer vs. only 10 minutes if you leave the cream out overnight. But if it’s too warm in your house, then the butter will never come, so I prefer to err on the cooler side.
I start by whipping the cream on one of the higher speeds using the beater (not whisk) attachment. Be patient, as it takes time. Better yet, go do something else while the mixer does all the work. In the photo, you’ll see the different stages the cream goes through, starting with whipped cream, then getting drier and grainy, then getting really dry. Once it starts separating from the sides of the bowl, you should turn down the speed because the buttermilk can show up very suddenly and make a big splashy mess if you’d don’t catch it. Once you see a few drops of buttermilk at the bottom of the bowl, I’d suggest wrapping a towel around the blender to catch the bigger splashes that are about to come. Once the towel is pretty well soaked and I have a big clump of butter stuck to the beater, I know I’m done churning (last photo). Note that if you’re using cream from industrially raised cows, your butter won’t be very yellow because it’s missing the nutrients that you only get from grass-fed cows. On the other hand, if you’re using grass-fed cow cream that’s collected in Spring, you will be amazed at how bright and yellow your butter becomes, despite starting with white cream.
The next step is to strain out the buttermilk. I do this by pouring all the contents in the bowl through a colander or sieve. The clumps that stay behind are the butter and the liquid that goes through the holes is the buttermilk. You’re probably thinking, “this is nothing like buttermilk.” That’s because what we in America call “buttermilk” is milk that’s had a culture added to it, which thickens it. What you’re really getting here is non-fat milk, or what most the rest of the world calls “buttermilk.” If your cream is fresh and uncultured, feel free to drink the buttermilk if you are a fan of nonfat milk (I’m not).
After I remove the buttermilk, I rinse my butter in very cold water (I add ice if my kitchen/tap water is warm) at least 3 times, until the water runs clear, using my hand to squeeze out any buttermilk that’s trapped inside the butter. Alternatively, you can put the rinsed and drained butter back in the mixer and mix/knead on slow speed. This will extract even more liquid ad is easier than kneading by hand. Removing the milk protein is especially important if you’re making regular butter because that buttermilk contains all the milk protein, which doesn’t have a long shelf like, so your butter may go rancid quickly. Working with cultured cream is a way to help prevent this. Rinsing is less important if you’re clarifying the butter because the milk proteins will be burned off and the residual water will evaporate.
This is the point where you have to decide if you’re making regular butter or clarifying it.
For regular butter, I knead it on a wooden board with a wooden rolling-pin and use cloth towels to soak up as much water as I can, which will ooze out as I knead it. Then I add fine sea salt, knead a bit more, and form it into a butter mold or just press it into a ball or cylinder, wrap with plastic wrap or parchment paper, and refrigerate or freeze. Try to minimize contact with your warm hands through this process.
For clarified butter, I put the whole clump of butter into a pot over low temperature and let it simmer for 45-60 minutes (depending on temperature) while skimming the foam on top periodically, then stirring, then repeating every 10 minutes or so. You can see from the photos that this clarified butter has turned an amber color. That’s because I used a slightly higher temperature on my stove than the lowest possible setting, which is simmer. You’ll also notice two very different-looking end products. One was cooked on simmer temperature, the other was on low temperature, which kept a slight rolling boil. Both methods work and produce slightly different end products. The higher the temperature, the more “nutty” the end flavor will be. The French call this nuttier version “buerre noisette” or hazelnut (brown) butter. The lighter one is more like the ghee you see for sale in Indian markets, although industrially produced ghee is often made with a centrifuge, which means no heat is required. If I owned a centrifuge, I would probably do it this way too!
Once the liquid has become totally transparent (no more milk solids floating around), the butter should be strained through a cloth-lined strainer into a glass jar. If you still have a little bit of milky liquid in the bottom of the pot, then only jar the clear part on top. Once you pour most of the clarified butter out, you can put the remaining liquid back on the stove, cook at a slightly higher temperature, and quickly burn off that residual milk protein, then skim and strain. Clarified butter has a long shelf life and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated. When it cools, you’ll see it goes back to a much lighter yellow color.
I use clarified butter/ghee/buerre noisette:
- to grease the pan for pancakes and crepes as well as melted in the batter
- to saute vegetables
- to coat squash that’s baked in the oven
- melted, as a sauce for pasta, such as squash-filled ravioli (even better if you fry sage leaves in the butter)
- to coat steamed vegetables
- to grease baking tins
- as my cooking fat of choice for most Indian food
- melted, with lemon juice for dipping lobster, crabmeat or shrimp
- to top grilled, sauteed or baked fish
- in place of regular butter for my lactose intolerant guests