RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When my kids were very young, we attended a natural and organic farming conference every summer, and one of the annual kid's activities was the "butter dance." Each child got a small jar half-full of cream with a clean marble added, and sealed with a tight lid. Once the music started, the kids were encouraged to shake and dance as wildly as possible with the promise of a prize for the first one whose milk turned to butter, usually about 10 minutes later. My kids wouldn't have missed it for the world and it is a stupendous way to burn off excess energy. Lacking a small and overenergetic child, there are many reliable, if more prosaic, ways to make butter at home with no special equipment. (And if you do have a small, over-energized child, butter-making would be a great way to fill a soon-to-be school-free afternoon!)
Making butter is so remarkably easy, you'll wonder why we ever started buying it in plastic tubs, or paper that gets contaminated by hazardous flame retardants. To make it, you need either heavy whipping cream or un-homogenized (cream on top) cow's milk; either pasteurized or raw will work. Provided you have a blender with a wide bottom (it needs to be at least 4 inches wide where the blades are), an electric stand mixer, or a food processor, you won't even have to kill your arms by churning it the old-fashioned way.
Sweet Cream Butter
1 to 2 cups organic heavy whipping cream, preferably from grass-fed cows and with no stabilizers added, OR ½ to 1 gallon un-homogenized milk
Sea salt (optional)
If you are starting with un-homogenized milk, let it sit for a day or so in the fridge in a wide-mouthed container to let the cream rise to the top. Gently scoop the cream off into a smaller container, reserving the skimmed milk for other uses.
Pour your cream or heavy whipping cream into the bowl of your electric mixer or food processor, or your blender. Put the cover on (if applicable) and turn on the machine, starting on a low speed and gradually increasing it as the cream thickens. As the minutes pass, the cream will go from sloshy, to frothy, to firmer and firmer whipped cream, to grainy whipped cream, until eventually you'll see tiny bits of yellow butter floating in what appears to be milky-looking water. That's buttermilk.
You can eat the butter at this point, but it needs to be consumed within a few days, or else the buttermilk will go rancid. To keep your butter lasting for weeks or even months, you need to "wash" all that buttermilk out. To do that, drain off the buttermilk and reserve it for baking. Add ½ cup of cold water to the butter and turn your food processor, mixer, or blender back on for 15 to 30 seconds. Pour off the wash water, and repeat this step until your wash water stays clear rather than milky. Dump your butter clump into a bowl, and use a large fork to flatten, fold, and knead it to work out the last of the buttermilk and water (you may need to keep washing it if the water coming out of it still looks a little milky; the goal is to get the wash water to be as clear as possible). Add a pinch of salt and mash it in with the fork, if desired.
Pack the finished butter into a glass jar or crock (you'll wind up with about half as much as the cream you started with), and cover it tightly to protect it from odors. Enjoy as is or turn it into honey butter (half honey, half butter) or herb-flavored butter with fresh herbs from your garden.
Cultured butter is made from cream that is allowed to ferment prior to turning it into butter. It has a more complex and delicious flavor. If you want to give it a try, pour heavy whipping cream into a glass or stainless bowl, cover the bowl with a clean tea towel, and put it in a cool place (60 degrees F is ideal), and leave it alone for eight hours or up to a week. If you are starting with pasteurized cream, stir in a spoonful of cultured buttermilk (this is different from the stuff leftover from butter making; see below), crème fraiche, or cultured sour cream to get the fermentation process started. After the cream is as fermented as you want it, proceed as for Sweet Cream Butter.