Homemade Butter: The Best You'll Ever Have

Whether you want it creamy or cultured, learn the secrets of fresh sweet homemade butter.

homemade butter - butter cattle

Spring and summer pastures yield the most delectable homemade butter — if cows get to eat the grass!


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Of the sweet cream homemade butter I’d churned earlier in the day, my Italian visitor said, “It tasted heavenly.” Sweet cream butter is made from cream that has not been acidified by the conversion of milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid by lactobacillus bacteria. Think of it as butter straight from the cow. The butter I served my friend was unsalted; so, in the slightly confusing language of butter, it was sweet sweet cream butter (not salted and not acidified).

Sweet Cream Butter

Sweet sweet cream butter is the purest butter — it most cleanly expresses the essence of the underlying cream. It was April when I made dinner for my friend, so the cows were eating from spring pasture. Spring pasture butter is more delicately flavored than the rest of the year, and more yellow because spring and early summer grasses are the most nutritionally complex, containing the highest levels of beta carotene. Indeed, the butter I made for my friend was sweet and bright yellow.

Prior to the industrialization of butter manufacturing in the late 19th century, butter sales were local, and butter customers were connoisseurs in a way that we are not. Early spring butter commanded a higher price than any other. Modern dairy practices ignore seasonal differences by feeding cows an unnatural diet of year-round grain. If you often make butter from good cream, you will notice changes as the seasons progress.

Cultured Butter

In the 7,000-year history of butter, sweet cream butter is comparatively new. In the few hundred years prior to the industrialization of butter making, cream was cultured before it was churned. Culturing was the consequence of the universal practice of accumulating multiple milkings before churning. There was no refrigeration, so the cream was stored in a cool room.

Because raw cream is naturally full of benign bacteria, raw cream ferments and sours on its own, without the addition of a bacterial culture. Fermentation by lactobacillus bacteria changes the chemistry of cream, making its flavors more complex. Among other changes, it produces lactic acid, making the cream less “sweet.” Of even greater importance to butter makers working hand churns, culturing helps make churned cream “break” faster into the two products of butter making: butter and buttermilk.

When sweet cream butter was first introduced in America in the late 19th century, there was consumer resistance because, as described in one 20th-century text, “Flat flavor is noticeable in butter made from unripened cream.” Now this flat-tasting butter is the standard butter in America, Canada, and England. In comparison to cultured butters, sweet cream butter will always taste flat. But it has special qualities of its own. Fresh sweet cream butter is the taste of the cream unmediated by the butter maker. It often has a lovely fresh and milky taste.

Homemade Butter: A Difference You Can Taste

Whenever the taste of butter as a condiment is important — such as when spread on bread or melted over vegetables — homemade butter will make a difference you will taste. Where butter is a significant ingredient — such as in bread and pastries — you’ll find an astonishing difference in both the ease of making the pastry and in the texture of the finished product. That’s because homemade butter is usually about 86 percent butterfat. Commercial butter is usually 80 percent butterfat — the government’s minimum standard.

Once you start using homemade butter, you won’t look back. It is so different from commodity butter — even premium “European-style” cultured butters — that they are almost two different foods. As a rule, use homemade butter within a week of making it. For baking, try to use it the same day you make it, before it is refrigerated. The buttermilk, that other product of butter making, is also entirely different from cultured buttermilk. Try it in scones, soda bread, gingerbread, corn bread, and pancakes.

Culturing Butter

Sweet cream butter can be heavenly, but once you begin culturing butter, I predict you’ll find that you like cultured butter even better. Culturing brings depth of flavor to butter, and lets you become imaginatively engaged with manipulating that flavor. With a tiny amount more effort than it takes to make sweet cream butter, you can routinely make butter that crosses the threshold between butter and cheese — butter that tastes so good you literally want to just sit down and eat it.

Commercial culturing is a superficial affair, so don’t imagine any brand you have purchased as a model for cultured butter. Industrial butter is cultured in a matter of hours. At home, you can do much better. Unlike factories, you don’t need to consider the cost of waiting for cream to ripen. And that’s the secret to making extraordinary butter.

Raw cream cultures naturally. Pasteurized cream requires inoculation with an appropriate culture because all the lactobacillus that naturally ferments cream would have been killed in the pasteurization process.

Butter making is an incredibly simple craft. Even a child can churn cream into butter, which is why butter making is a common activity in kindergartens. But as an adult, butter making can be a lifetime project. It is a culinary area that has barely been explored in our modern world. In addition to seeking top quality cream to make the most heavenly sweet cream butter, and the open-ended possibilities with culturing, one can add special flavors, such as savory rosemary or floral rose water.

Butter Nutrition: No, Really, Butter is Good For You

After tasting a butter I’d made that he found utterly delicious, my killjoy friend said, “But William, no one should be eating butter.” So I will address those of you who have concerns about the healthfulness of butter. In Moby Dick, Ishmael exclaims, “Flask, alas!, was a butterless man.” Flask was also an unhappy man. I say no more on the correlation between happiness and eating delicious butter.

In truth, butter is not the enemy Americans once feared. Researchers have upset the old-fashioned “lipid hypothesis” that blamed heart disease on animal fats. Plus, we are now discovering how incredibly healthy foods from pastured animals can be. Butter from grass-fed cows is higher in many nutrients, including vitamins E and A, beta carotene, and essential fatty acids.

If you can find cream from pastured cows, your butter will also be more luscious and spreadable than you can get using cream from grain-fed cows.

So, how do you make butter so good that those who taste it always want more? Up until recent times, people — mostly mothers — had been expert butter makers. The break in this tradition is exceedingly recent. So let’s teach ourselves this ancient and elegant craft. The following are general guidelines for those of you who don’t have a mother or a friend to show you.

Making Butter

Butter is made from cream. You get the greatest yield from cream with the highest fat content. In America, that’s “heavy whipping cream,” and the commercial grades “extra-heavy” or “manufacturer’s” cream have even more butterfat. Plus, different cow breeds produce different percentages of milk fat. The most common U.S. dairy cow, the Holstein/Friesian, produces milk that has 31 percent less fat than Jersey cows. Jersey cream is widely regarded as the ideal cream for butter making. If you are lucky, you can find a source nearby. (Search for one at Local Harvest.)

Raw vs. Pasteurized Cream for Butter Making

To taste the ancient taste of butter, you have to use raw cream. Raw cream is biologically active: It comes inoculated with beneficial local bacteria. When milk fresh from a cow sits for a while, the cream rises to the top. For thousands of years, all there was to separating cream from milk was spooning it off the top. Then it was allowed to sit and ferment.

But when it comes to pasteurized cream, even the most mass-produced stuff yields yummier butter than any butter you can buy. Let taste be your guide. If possible, make butter from two different dairies, and compare the results in blind tastings. This will help you develop your palate and focus on taste, rather than labels. If you can find and afford it, test cream from the smallest local dairy that offers cream from a single herd and pasteurizes at the minimum temperature. You will then have the best chance of tasting a butter “varietal,” such as Jersey.

Pasteurized cream must either be used for sweet cream butter or be purposefully cultured. You can’t let pasteurized cream sour naturally, as you would raw cream. Pasteurization kills all bacteria, even the beneficial natives. So, if you were to let that cream sour, you would be allowing a blank slate to absorb any ambient bacteria that might be lurking, without the natural defenses to control it.

Culturing Cream

Butter cultures are “mesophilic,” meaning the bacteria thrive in cool temperatures. (“Thermophilic” yogurt cultures require higher temperatures.)

You can buy mesophilic cultures from suppliers (New England Cheesemaking Supply is a good source), but there is no reason you must. You can culture cream effectively by inoculating it with a little store-bought sour cream, buttermilk or crème fraiche. (Just make sure it says it contains live cultures.)

If you have a methodical mind, take notes on what you do, including tasting notes. If you’re like me, just go with your gut. Either way, you’ll consistently make butter that is far superior to commercial products, even premium imported butters.

Butter Churns

A churn is anything that can agitate cream until the butterfat comes out of suspension, resulting in butter and buttermilk. It can be as simple as a mason jar (shake and pass around a circle of friends), or as easy as a food processor or electric mixer. Small hand churns are practical for home use, holding a pint to a quart of cream. The most common types are a paddle churn (a paddle in a jar) or a plunger churn (a wooden plunger in a wooden cylinder). You can find churns at Lehman’sHomesteader's SupplyEbay, and Craigslist.

See also:

How to Make Butter That Is Really Flavorful

Traditional Scottish Shortbread Recipe, Featuring Homemade Butter 

William Rubel is an author and cook specializing in traditional cooking. He is the author of The Magic of Fire.

1/3/2015 5:15:17 PM

I was the butter boy and made butter by skimming the cream off fresh milk after cooling and by putting in a large glass jar and shaking...nothing to it and sooo goooood

darlene konitzer
2/23/2013 7:19:43 PM

I once had a Jersey cow. we lived in the country, but not on a farm. I wanted my kids to experience the way I grew up on a small farm. We made butter & icecream & had wonderful, tastey milk. I would take her, Mabel, to the one room school across the road so the kids there could see & pet her. wonderful memories

william rubel
1/4/2010 1:27:45 PM

Here is a general response to posts regarding raw milk and commercial cream. 1. Yes, in some states raw milk is sold legally. I live in such a state, California, so I am sometimes guilty of forgetting that most of us are not so lucky. 2. I get raw goat milk from local farms. I find them through the Local Harvest web site --http://www.localharvest.org/. 3. You can also ask about raw milk from farmers at farmers markets. Ask around enough and you may find someone willing to sell to you. 4. You can also get political. I note that we are permitted to drive (tens of thousands of deaths a year from driving), smoke, drink alcohol, ski, and, etc. So, one could argue that we could take on the risk, if any, from raw milk. 5. Regarding commecial cream. Again, I live in Northern California where we have a good selection of cream in normal markets, including, at least in my city, raw cream. I would say that as a rule the more expensive the grocery store, the more "upscale" the customers, the better selection of cream you will find. 6. Cream that is just marked "pasteurized" is pasteurized at a lower temperature than "ultra pasteurized." There are many ways to pasteurize as it is partly a matter of time and temperature. But always avoid the ultra-pasteurized if you can. But, again, it won't hurt you and you should use what you can easily get. The butter will still taste wonderful.

william rubel
1/4/2010 1:04:11 PM

Jan -- I have not worked with goat milk. Certainly, if something looks and tastes like butter, then, it is butter! Butter is fat and it is not water soluble. So, when you do this again, and if you get the same results, take that clump, or a spoonful of it, and drop it in a bowl of cool water. Work it a bit with your fingers. If it doesn't dissolve then it is butter and you should wash the rest of the clump. But, if it turns out that that clump is not yet butter, then I think you should do the experimenting and post your results here. I'd be careful not to add too much water. I think the amount of water is whatever is the minimal amount that lets your machines do their work. If your butter was already butter when you add the water then the worst that will happen is you'll get a granular mess that will come together again when you put it in a bowl of cool water and begin to work it. If what you are getting isn't yet butter, then if you add too much water then you'll never be able to get the butter fat to separate out. I do recall once working with some cream in a food processor that seemed to turn to whipping cream, but wouldn't break into butter and buttermilk. I thought I had a disaster on my hands. But what had happened is that the butter just looked like whipping cream. But when I washed it it turned out that it had turned to butter -- in water the clump divided into butter and buttermilk and the fine bits of butter came together with handling in the water.

jan steinman
1/2/2010 1:32:40 PM

I just had an interesting experience with my first attempt at butter. The cream we're getting from our Nubian goats via a Novo cream separator (http://www.novocreamseparators.com) is incredibly thick. It sets up solid when refrigerated, and I have to heat it to get it out of the jar. So I'm thinking it has very high butterfat content. Even after heating to about 30C (86F), it was still too thick to shake up in a jar. So I used a little hand mixer in the jar. It quickly became too thick to continue, without noticeably passing through a "whipped cream" phase. I then thought, "Something's wrong," and transferred it to a VitaMix, which wasn't able to beat it any further, because it just sat like a lump on top of the blades. Through all this, I was getting NO buttermilk out. So I tried adding some cold water. That allowed the VitaMix to work a little (from the sound it made), but it soon started sitting on top of the blades again -- too hard and thick to blend. It ended up taking in almost all the water I added, and I poured off the small amount remaining. The result looks and tastes like butter, but my experience is so unlike everything I've read about making butter that I thought I'd see if there were any ideas here. Should I try diluting my super-heavy cream with milk before beating? Should I try to adjust the cream separator to get thinner cream? (Although this super-heavy stuff makes the BEST ice cream!) Thanks for any ideas and thoughts you may have!

jan steinman
1/2/2010 1:19:45 PM

Alexa Fleckenstein wrote: "... we usually don't use dairy anymore - not so much because of the fat but because of the inflammatory milk protein. And our health is so much better." Are you able to get raw goat milk where you live? (It's legal in 37 states and all of Europe, check http://www.RealMilk.com to see if you can get it where you live.) Many people who think they are lactose-intolerant or allergic to milk are really having problems with either pasteurization or homogenization, or the large, less digestible globules of fat found in cow milk. So raw goat milk is the least likely dairy product to exhibit side-effects. Some goat milk tastes "goaty." This can be due to letting a buck run with the does, poor handling practices, age of the milk, diet of the goat, or simply flavour from individual goats. There is no reason one should put up with "goaty" milk if you don't like it! Give raw goat milk a try!

6/17/2009 2:43:55 PM

So in the article, it fails to mention that it is illegal to sell raw cream, or it is in Colorado anyway. You can only get it if you have your own cow. I found this a bit bothersome after a long search trying to find raw cream at local dairies... But at any rate, the article mentions you should get cream that has been pasteurized at the minimum temp. Does anybody know what that might be? I can't find it on the web.

6/17/2009 2:43:07 PM

So in the article, it fails to mention that it is illegal to sell raw cream, or it is in Colorado anyway. You can only get it if you have your own cow. I found this a bit bothersome after a long search trying to find raw cream at local dairies... But at any rate, the article mentions you should get cream that has been pasteurized at the minimum temp. Does anybody know what that might be? I can't find it on the web.

william rubel
6/10/2009 1:19:49 PM

In factories, of course, butter is made with stainless steel. As a practical matter, cleanliness is the invariable requirement of the dairy worker. One can be a bit less scrupulous with butter than one is going to consume soon after making it, but otherwise, if using wooden equipment one ought, in fact, scald them first with boiling water before using them. In my own life I am always torn between the poetry of using beautiful things and the practicality of, for example, stainless steel. It is too bad that the most cleanable surfaces are usually the least sympathetic in the French sense of warm and imbued with romance. I think what is most important about making butter is that you actually do it. The Kitchen-aid mixer is one of the few truly wonderful small kitchen appliances. Use it. Making butter in it can be a bit splashy, so you may feel the need to cover the bowl with plastic wrap, or something. I cannot comment on the paddle part of your query as I actually don't have a mixer. In my own probably insane quest for mechanical silence in my kitchen I do most everything by hand. I was, though, once given a little food processor and when I need to make butter in a hurry I take it out of the pantry where it lives use that. I can assure you, there is no poetry whatsoever in the screech of its motor and whirling blade. When only making a little bit of butter I use a small wooden plunge churn I bough in China. I sterilize it with boiling water between uses.

diane korczakowski
6/6/2009 9:03:36 AM

Can I use the stainless steel bowl and cast aluminum paddle on my Kitchen-Aid mixer? Or should I stick with glass, plastic or wood?

william rubel
5/29/2009 1:07:52 PM

Butter cultures are, by tradition, mesophilic, meaning that the culture thrives at room temperature. This tradition is based on the history of cultured butter -- cream from the cow soured at the temperature of the dairy -- and butter was made from that soured cream. The cream was never heated. Kefer cultures are usually applied to milk -- not cream -- and the milk is heated to a fairly high temperature - enough to pasteurize it before it is cooled to warm and at which point it the kefir culture is added. Kefir is thus a thermophilic culture intended for milk rather than a mesophilic culture intended for cream. It is thus not traditionally used for culturing butter. All this said, cooking is a living art. You might as well try using a kefir culture if you'd like and see what happens. The most you have to lose is a cup of cream. I'd probably not heat the cream much past the temperature that is right for adding the culture -- warm but not hot. In the end, there is no right and wrong. There is only what works, and what you personally like. Never shy away from experimenting. If you do try this let us know how it works.

jeanne austin
5/29/2009 8:26:40 AM

Thanks for the clarifications! I'm looking forward to trying this. Another question about the culturing: would a kefir culture work?

william rubel
5/28/2009 2:31:57 PM

I apologize for not having given an indication of yield in the article. You can expect at least 3 to 4 ounces of butter per cup of cream, thus 6 to 8 ounces per pint. One stick of butter is 4 ounces, thus, roughly you get one stick of butter per cup (1/2 pint) of cream. Different grades of cream contain different percentages of butterfat. "Heavy whipping cream" will contain (in the US) at least 36% butterfat. "Manufacturer's cream" should have at least 40%, but that cream is generally not sold direct to consumes, so the best we can do is heavy whipping cream.

william rubel
5/28/2009 2:22:45 PM

American butter must, by law, be 80% butterfat. Unfortunately, most dairies take that to be their target amount, rather than, say, 82% or 84%. The minimum butterfat content required by law in Europe is higher than it is in the US, so that German butter was, literally, butterier. Your homemade butter will probably have more fat in it than commercial European butters and thus be even better. Where I live in California it would be a search to find cream that isn't just cream. Any market that caters to people interested in good food, and organic food, will have cream that contains nothing but cream. This said, creams come with varying percentages of butter fat. "Light cream," for example, has less fat in it than "heavy cream." You want the heaviest cream -- the fattiest cream -- as the fat is the butter part.

william rubel
5/28/2009 2:14:33 PM

Culturing butter has no effect on its keeping qualities. It is residual buttermilk that makes homemade butter quickly go bad. The residual buttermilk sours. This said, if we washed our butter free of buttermilk as well as commercial operators do, then homemade butter would keep the same amount of time. I suggested a week as the limit for keeping the butter we make at home just to be safe, and on the assumption that few of us are going to wash it sufficiently to make long-term storage of sweet butter out of the freezer a reasonable option. I also think that as the home butter maker is making small batches of butter that it makes most sense to make it for a special use -- and then to just use it up.

jeanne austin
5/27/2009 7:54:07 PM

What is the yield? The first comment says "2 pints" but then says "quarts." And the article doesn't give any indication at all!

alexa fleckenstein m.d._2
5/26/2009 8:37:49 PM

When my son was little, I wanted to show him how to make butter. I bought two pints of heavy cream, thinking that using just one would yield barely a teaspoon. My - was I wrong! The two quarts yielded A LOT of butter! It was fun doing and teaching it. But never again did I underestimate the calorie count of whipped cream... Now, we usually don't use dairy anymore - not so much because of the fat but because of the inflammatory milk protein. And our health is so much better. Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

5/22/2009 7:03:42 PM

your article is great - but where do I get real cream, not added carrageen, which is even in bio cream. I live at the Oregon coast where some thing are not easily available. I have made butter in Europe, which was OK. The German butter is so much better than the US butter, I do not know why, but you can get sour cream butter and sweet cream butter, it is easily spreadable and very good, like most of their milk products. Yoghurt doesn't contain thickeners, Kefir is very good, also without any artificial additions. Milk products do not keep for weeks or months,they spoil after about a week, so my question is if the American milk products are radiated? May be someone knows a source for unaltered cream. Thanks

finnegans wake
5/21/2009 11:20:29 AM

Why doesn't the butter last longer than a week? Especially if it's cultured already? Even the European-style and small batch domestic butters last longer...

finnegans wake
5/21/2009 10:58:52 AM

Why can't this butter be kept as long as commercial butters? Even specialty butters (European style, small batch domestic) don't have that caveat.