As usual, we were getting an ingredient from a good supplier when all of a sudden they stop carrying it. So then what? We have to figure out how to do it ourselves.
This is the story of how we lost butter and found it again, picking up creme fraiche/crema, marscapone, and buttermilk along the way.
We had been buying Plugra from Trader Joe’s, a higher milkfat butter that I had thought was cultured to give it a more buttery flavor. It was reasonably priced at about $4/lb and better than a lot of other butters we had tried at the time. But one day, it was just gone. When we checked, the Trader Joe’s in San Diego wasn’t intending to carry it again.
In trying to find a replacement and searching for cultured butter, we found a number of sites with directions on how to make it yourself. Here are some good ones: Positron, Cook Like your Grandmother, What Geeks Eat, Traveler’s Lunchbox, and more recently, Michael Ruhlman.
Cultured butter is a pretty straightforward process. You take heavy cream, inoculate it with bacteria that make lactic acid, let it thicken overnight, and then beat/churn it until the fat congeals together and the whey/buttermilk is expelled. The first half is very similar to making yogurt, but you start with cream instead of milk and the specific cultures that you use can be different. The butter culture bacteria are mesophilic (medium temp) and thrive at cooler temperatures (64°- 77° F) whereas the yogurt cultures are often thermophilic (warm temp) and grow closer to 110°.
Butter flavor interlude
The flavor of butter is dominated by a couple related chemicals called diacetyl and acetoin. They are made during fermentation — usually by bacteria or yeast. In wines, like chardonnay, wine makers can set up the conditions just right for yeast to make a lot of diacetyl, giving the wine a rich mouthfeel and buttery flavor. In butter, the compounds are made by bacteria (including this guy: Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis). Or, if you get the cheap stuff (or butter-flavor popcorn), they just add it as a natural flavoring.
We have tried using yogurt as a culture starter (Fage and Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt) before upgrading to a mail order butter culture from Dairy Connection. The first attempts with yogurt worked, but the flavor really doesn’t get to buttery without the diacetyl/acetoin producing bacteria. We use the Flora Danica culture — for $10 + shipping, we can culture 50 gallons of cream.
This culture has 4 bacteria friends — 2 which seem to primarily drive the acidification (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris) and 2 which drive the flavor production (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris).
The cream that you use is surely important. And as soon as we find a good creamery in San Diego, we’ll tell you just how important. For the time being, we’re relying on heavy cream from Costco (Swiss Dairy, which seems to be based in Riverside and is part of a conglomerate Dean Foods, which also makes Alta Dena and Berkeley Farms, among others).
Like most creams on the general market, this cream is ultra-high pasteurized, and has some additives like mono and diglycerides. The price is cheaper than anywhere else we can find at about $3.10/quart. We have had very good results with it, though. The main thing to remember is always use the freshest cream possible to start. Don’t let it sit in your fridge for weeks and don’t use it if it has been sitting open in your fridge for long (a week was too long for us). It may taste ok as cream, but the bacteria somehow find a way to amplify slightly off flavors into straight yuckiness.
To culture the cream, we start by placing Flora Danica culture (1/8 t. per gallon of cream) in a clean bowl and add about a tablespoon of cream. We make sure to clean the bowl, but we don’t sterilize or go to great lengths to purify our tools. As long as the cream is fresh, we haven’t had a problem.
We let the culture thaw and then work it with a spatula to resuspend the culture in the cream, resulting in a paste.
We heat the rest of the cream to 77 F (25 C) and pour in, mixing well. Then, it gets loosely covered with plastic wrap and set on the kitchen table for 18-24 hrs until thick like sour cream.
Then, in a very boring, but very important step, the cultured cream gets refrigerated for 24 hours. If you don’t do this, the final butter texture is kind of flaky, not smooth and creamy like good butter. It is the kind of butter that breaks when you slice off a piece instead of smoothly cutting through. The flavor also seems to develop some.
After a day in the fridge, the cultured cream can be used as creme fraiche or crema. If you strained it like Greek yogurt, you’d end up with marscapone. It will keep at least 1-2 weeks in the fridge. We usually make a gallon, keeping a quart for creme fraiche and using 3 quarts for butter.
To make butter, you begin by warming the butter to about 50-60 F, which I think is supposed to help it separate when you are beating it later. We do this by placing the bowl in hot water in the sink and stirring until the cream doesn’t feel cold to the touch anymore.
Then, it is off to the mixer. We use a 6 qt. Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Because the beating incorporates air, I would suggest that you make no more than 1/2 the volume of the bowl in cream. We use the paddle attachment because whisking, although effective, seemed to incorporate more milk solids (proteins, etc.) into the butter. When we spread it on bread, the butter melted with a punctate pattern of milk solids. With the paddle attachment, it just melts.
Beat the cream on medium speed (4-5). It will take about 15 minutes or so to turn into butter. First, the cream whips like whipping cream, incorporating air to about double its volume.
Then, like over-whipped cream, it takes on a granular structure. This is the milk fat globules starting to clump together.
The globules keep clumping together and it starts to look like butter, but it isn’t there yet. You may want to reduce the speed at this point so it doesn’t splash out of the bowl.
Finally, the buttermilk separates and the pieces of nascent butter form together.
At this point, you can take it off the mixer. You’ll work it with a spatula to get the butter to become one big clump and then pour off the buttermilk.
The milk is thick and rich. If you haven’t had buttermilk from fresh butter, this will likely be a treat. It is actually drinkable and great in other recipes, which is much more than I can say of the kind in the store.
Then, you wash the residual buttermilk from butter by adding cool water and working it with a spatula. After 3-4 additions of water, the water is not milky anymore and mostly clear.
Then, pour off the last of water, work the butter some to expel the residual water, and you are ready to salt or wrap. We don’t normally salt, but this time we tried 1 teaspoon/lb of salt. Salting seems to vary between .5% and 2% salt (3-9g/lb). It sounds like you need less salt for cultured butter and this time was a little salty. Next time, we’ll do 1/2 t. per lb. To salt, you just work in the salt with the spatula. Then, wrap up for storage. We wrap 8 oz. in plastic wrap.
Three quarts makes about 2 1/2 lbs. of butter. This will keep 3 weeks or so in the fridge and gets better with time. If you are going to keep it longer than that, just put it in the freezer, preferably vacuum packed. It easily takes on fridge/freezer flavors if left too long without good wrapping.
And was it worth it? Well, although we’ve been making the stuff, I think we’re even more likely to buy fancy butter now than before. In comparisons, we think this butter is better than any uncultured butter we’ve had — including Strauss European Unsalted. It is not as good as Echire or Le Gall Beurre de Baratte. If we had to price it, we’d put it at $8-10/lb — as tasty as anything we’ll usually find in the specialty butter section of Whole Foods, but not elite. And as for Plugra? Well, it turns out it isn’t cultured at all, but has “natural flavorings” added (i.e. diacetyl). It now has a harsh artificial taste like microwave popcorn. Ah well.