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Making Butter at the Farm and in Your Kitchen

August 12, 2011

I’ve written about separating cream and turning that into ice cream, but I haven’t told you about one of the things we do quite frequently on the 1900 farm with our cream.  It is something that is so simple you can do it at home.  Recently, we have been churning cream 2-3 times a week to make butter for use in the yummy desserts we make, or just to spread on bread at the table.  So in celebration of the 100th birthday of the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair make some butter at home; here’s how we do it:

We make our butter in a churn.  The cream goes into the churn along with a long wooden stick called a dasher.  I usually tie a towel around the top to try and keep things clean; it doesn’t always work.  Then you are ready to churn.  Someone (probably kids if you had them) would move the dasher up and down and around and around.  This doesn’t have to be done particularly hard or fast, just consistently.  The moving of the dasher agitates the cream and in the agitation, a chemical process takes place.

Before being butter, the cream takes on air and goes through a stage of whipped cream.  You could, of course, use it as whipped cream (sugar and vanilla or cinnamon are the best additives in my opinion).  However, to get to butter, you just have to keep dashing.

There may be a more highly specific explanation but basically the cream in the churn breaks down and the fat globules bond together to form butter.  In doing that it releases a by-product.  That by-product bonds together to form the liquid buttermilk.

When the butter and buttermilk are fully separated and the butter is in a clump, it is time for the next stage of the process, the washing of the butter.

Did you know your butter was dirty?  It isn’t, per se, the washing of the butter is meant to clean the remaining buttermilk out of the butter to help with preservation of the butter.  The more buttermilk you are able to take out of the butter, the less chance the butter has of going rancid.  This isn’t really a concern to us in 2011 as we can slip our butter into a refrigerator on really hot days.  However, farmers would want the butter to keep as long as possible in the cellar, the coolest confines available.

First, we dump off the buttermilk.  This makes tasty cakes and pancakes, biscuits, or frosting.  Next, we wash the butter.  To wash the butter, we employ the principal that oil and water don’t mix.  Cold water (the coldest you can find, straight from the well) works best.  We pour the water over the butter.  The water turns cloudy.  We then press the water through the butter using a butter pad and dump off the cloudy water.  We then repeat this process several times until the water comes through no longer cloudy.  At that point the butter is washed and ready to be salted.  The salt helps with preservation as well.

Once salted the butter is ready to be stored – whether that is molded with a fancy mold or stored in a box.  Butter does not have to be refrigerated, it will just keep longer there.  That’s not usually a problem at the 1900 farm though, as all the breads and cookies and cakes we bake use up our butter supply quite quickly.

People commonly ask how long it takes to make butter.  There is no specific answer to that as each time varies with several different factors.  For example, when it is hot outside, it takes the butter a little while to churn.  If the cream is particularly thick, the butter will churn faster.  I have spent 45 minutes churning before, but I have also been done in 15.  Add about 15 minutes for washing at the end, and I say it takes anywhere from half and hour to an hour and a half.  Cool temperatures and thick cream are the quickest way to get butter done.

If you don’t have a butter churn or butter pad, there are still a couple of ways you can make butter at your house.  Go ahead and give it a shot for your next fancy dinner, or as a way to entertain the kids on these last days of summer vacation.

Make Your Own Butter, version A (for kids)


heavy whipping cream
mayonnaise or other jar (glass works best) with a good lid (baby food jars work if you have multiple kids)
spatula or knife for spreading
bowl for washing butter (optional)


Put cream into jar leaving a little room at the top.  Secure the lid well (duct tape works well if you are unsure).  Let the kids play with the jar, shaking it all the time.  Ask them to dance with the butter, or play hot potato.  Anything to agitate the cream.  (This is why the lid needs to be secure)  After 15+ minutes (a lot of the time depends on the cream, amount of butter you are trying to make, etc.) the cream should start to separate as it does in the churn.  Keep shaking the jar until the butter and buttermilk are completely separate.  When it is done you can eat the butter straight from the jar (pour off the buttermilk).  Or you can go through the washing and salting process as outlined above.  Just make sure you use cold water, and if you don’t have a butter pat, your hands will work well, too.

It’s really fun for the kids, but be aware that younger ones may get bored with the shaking.  If you don’t have kids, or just want a quicker way to make butter yourself, try your mixer, blender, or food processor.

Make Your Own Butter, version B, the quick way

materials are the same as above, but instead of using a jar you use whichever small kitchen appliance you prefer.  I am going to give you instructions for using a mixer, but find a recipe for using a food processor or blender here.

Pour cream into mixer.  I use about 4 cups of cream in my kitchen aid at home, but just fill your bowl about 1/3 full.  Be careful, as this can get messy.  If you want the butter to be done quick you are going to want to mix it on high.  I use towels around the bowl of my stand mixer to prevent it from going all over.  Otherwise, you can mix it on medium and have less problems.  It is then as simple as letting your mixer run.  You will see the whipped cream stage, and eventually, butter.  The buttermilk is what really likes to splatter so beware.  If you use a blender or food processor you may have less mess.

From there you pick up the recipe from the top.  You can use the butter as is, or wash it as described above.

People are mixing all kinds of things into butter today.  You can try the traditional mix-ins, like garlic or cinnamon, or try something new.  Tarragon may be an interesting try.  I haven’t found a specific record for these in 1900, but as we live in 2011, I’d say give it a try.  You can mold your butter too, it works best when it is cold.  Cut pieces out of a brick, or use a butter mold to make fun shapes for your table.  You could have your very own butter cow.  Meanwhile, visit the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair, and say hi to the Living History Farms people who are right down the way.

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


Around the House   1900 Farm   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   Then and Now


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