An oily, unctuous substance obtained from cream or milk by churning. — Webster, 1882
Mrs. George Bradley is getting a reputation as the star, gilt-edged butter maker of the west. Thanks for a roll. – Kingsbury County News, May 1888
On a pioneer farmstead, where one or more dairy cows were kept, butter-making would have been a weekly chore. Fresh milk was strained and sat in milk pans until the cream rose to the top. These milk fat globules were skimmed off, collected, and kept cool until time for churning. Very simply put, the agitation of churning or shaking causes the fat globules to stick together into butter. If you’re interested in the science of butter-making, click HERE.
Most Little House readers probably don’t rely on their own cows for cream and milk, instead purchasing whipping cream or heavy cream from the grocery store with which to try butter-making at home or in the classroom. Cream was used in many pioneer recipes, including pies, cream dressing for vegetables, ice cream, custard, and to pour over birds’-nest pudding.
Butter is 100% fat. Therefore, to remove the butter fat from cream (making butter), it’s best to start with the liquid milk product with the highest percentage of fat available – either whipping cream or heavy cream which (by law) has a fat content of 30 to 38 percent. As the percentages suggest, expect to end up with about a third of your original volume in butter when using whipping cream or heavy cream; the rest will be buttermilk, which is defined simply as the liquid remaining after butter has been churned. The buttermilk you get when making butter is not the same as the cultured buttermilk you buy at the store, and won’t taste the same at all. Even if you don’t like the taste of commercial buttermilk, taste the buttermilk you end up with; you might find it so yummy you drink it all up! If not, it can be saved for a day or two and used in baking.
When making a large quantity of butter from an even greater amount of cream, you’ll need a churn, either one with a paddle or a dash (see churn). The movement of the dash through the cream provides agitation. Following the photos at left, the instructions here will walk you through making a small amount of butter at home.
How to Make Butter at Home. Pour a cup of heavy whipping cream into a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid. Screw the lid on the jar and begin shaking the jar. Stop every 100 shakes and open the jar to allow any pressure to escape. The cream will coat the sides of the jar, so opening the jar every once in a while will also let you check your progress. There’s no way to know how long the butter-making process will take, but it may be ten to fifteen minutes or more. At first, you’ll hear the cream sloshing freely, but as it thickens, you may not think anything is happening. After a couple of minutes or so, you’ll have beautifully whipped cream; see Photo 3. Make sure you taste a bit.
Continue shaking, still stopping every hundred shakes or so to check your progress and allow pressure to escape. After a few minutes, you should notice that there are starting to be “clear” spots on the glass as you shake, and when you open the jar, the cream is grainy. This means that the fat globules are starting to stick together, and the more watery buttermilk is separate from these globules. When you see grains of butter, start shaking a bit more slowly, rocking the jar back and forth. You want to end up with a golden lump of butter drowning in the buttermilk, as Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Little House in the Big Woods (see Chapter 2, “Winter Days and Winter Nights”). See Photo 4.
Pour off as much of the buttermilk as you can, pushing the butter gently with the back of a wooden spoon in order to press out more buttermilk. As Photo 5 shows, for my cup of cream, I ended up with less than 2/3 cup of buttermilk and a ball of butter a little bigger than a jumbo hen’s egg. Be sure to taste the buttermilk!
If you’re making butter on a warm day in a warm kitchen, you might want to refrigerate your ball of butter for ten minutes or so. You want the butter to be neither too hard or too soft. It should be malleable when worked (pressed) with a wooden spoon, but should not be melting as you work it. Transfer the butter to a cold bowl and pour cold water over it. Wash out as much buttermilk as you can by mashing and shaping the butter; add fresh cold water as needed. Once the water is clear, you can add a pinch of salt like Ma did, if desired, but this is not necessary.
Place the finished butter in a glass dish for serving, or use your butter mold with the carved strawberry and two leaves!
If you’re afraid a glass jar is too heavy or you might break it, I’ve made butter in an empty 16-ounce soft drink bottle. Yes, the opening is narrow and you won’t be able to “pour” the butter out, but once the ball of butter is formed, carefully pour out most of the buttermilk, then use a sharp scissors to cut around the wide portion of the bottle to remove the butter.
For more information on the historic process of butter making, see W.H. Lynch’s Scientific Butter-Making (Toronto: C. Blackett Robinson, 1883).
The Art of Butter Making. Never use your pans for anything but milk; wash well with a clean towel; never allow your milk to stand over forty-eight hours; set your milk in a cupboard or safe, with papers pinned over the wires to prevent the air from drying the cream, else there will be white specks in the butter; which you skim, loosen the cream from the pan with the finger; what adheres to the pan will not make butter if scraped off with the cream; jar in as cook an atmosphere as the milk; never allow either to freeze. Churn as often as every fourth day. When the cream is ready, stand near the stove, turning the churn, and churning to stir the cream while warming; take out the butter and place it in cold water, rinse well, salt, cover well from the air, and set away; let it stand twenty-four hours, then work over; press the butter while working, instead of smoothing, as pulling the ladle over it makes the butter oily. If these directions are observed with care, you will be repaid by sweet, yellow butter. — The Redwood Falls Gazette, January 23, 1879.
butter (BW 2, 9-10, 12-13; FB 1-3, 6, 8, 10, 17-19, 26; LHP 13, 25; BPC 6, 12, 20, 26, 38; SSL 4-5, 21, 23; TLW 3, 13-14, 17-19, 28, 33; LTP 4, 8-9, 19-20; THGY 2, 4, 15, 25, 33; PG)
“as fat as butter” (LTP 9)
ball of (TLW 33; THGY 33)
bread and butter / bread-and-butter (FB 1, 18; BPC 20, 26; SSL 5; LTP 4, 8; THGY 2, 4, 15, 21, 33
butter-bowl (FB 17)
butter-buyer (FB 19)
butter dish (LTP 20)
butter-maker (FB 19)
buttermilk (BW 2; FB 17; LTP 4)
butter mold / butter-mold / molding (BW 2), see butter mold
butter-pats (BW 2)
butter-tester (FB 19), see butter tester
butter-tubs (FB 10, 17, 19)
“butter wouldn’t melt in your mouths” (SSL 6)
churning / making (BW 2; FB 11, 17-18; LTP 4), see churn
coloring (BW 2)
“my butter speaks for itself” (FB 19) – It tasted good!
“there went all the milk and butter” (LHP 25) – By no longer having a cow, there would be no more milk and cream, therefore no butter to make from it.