Cultured Butter

Excerpted from pages 293-296 of Butter by Elaine Khosrova, with permission from Algonquin Books & Algonquin Young Readers

For centuries, before refrigeration and butter factories existed, all the butter in the world was of the cultured

kind—though to varying degrees of tanginess, depending on the local climate and preferences. Culturing was the natural result of letting raw milk rest for a half day or more so the cream rose to the top and was skimmed off for butter making. In the process, lactic acid bacteria, which were abundant in traditional dairy environments, would invade the cream and culture it. Today, cream is instantly separated from milk by centrifugal force and then is pasteurized (heated) to avoid any undesirable bacterial development.

Therefore, to create cultured butter from pasteurized cream we have to add some of the ambient microflora that once ripened cream. This bio-occupied cream is then left to rest for 12 to 36 hours until it thickens like crème fraiche. Next comes a tempering step—refrigeration for about 20 hours. This isn’t essential to making cultured butter, but it can make a difference in the texture of your finished butter, especially with summer cream. Tempered cream yields a smoother, more velvety butter by shifting the crystallization in the fat molecules. 

Apart from those preemptive steps, the churning and working techniques for cultured butter are the much the same as for sweet, except for one step that’s debatable: rinsing the cultured butter with cold water. Many makers, commercial and artisanal, do rinse their cultured butter to increase its shelf life, even though modern refrigeration is a pretty good preservative in itself. But another faction of butter makers contend, rightfully so, that there’s deliciousness in the residual tangy buttermilk in cultured butter. To rinse it out is to diminish its flavor. (With sweet butter, the buttermilk has a flat flavor and therefore you’re not sacrificing anything.) The choice seems to come down to a more robust flavor versus a long-term keeping quality. If you’re going to use your cultured butter within a week or so of making it, then there’s really no need to rinse it.

The ideal cultures for inoculating cream are best bought from a cheese-making supply house (there are plenty online), at least initially. After your first batch you can then reserve some of the leftover buttermilk as a starter for your next batch of butter, and so on with each subsequent batch (like making sourdough bread). Many home butter makers use natural probiotic yogurt as a culturing agent for the cream because it’s so easily available. This works to some degree.

Yogurt cultures are generally thermophilic (heat loving), which means they propagate best at a temperature close to 110°. Conversely, butter-making cultures from a supplier are mesophilic (medium heat loving), so they thrive at cooler temperatures that are best for cream (64° to 77°). Dedicated butter-making culture mixtures—such as a popular one called Flora Danica—also generate more diacetyl and lactones in the cream—the invisible compounds that create that signature buttery flavor profile. Flora Danica (made by the Chr. Hansen company, based in Denmark, but sold through most cheesemaking suppliers) is a freeze-dried mixture of four bacterial buddies—two that primarily drive acidification and two that generate flavor production. Buttermilk-making cultures (such as the one sold online by New England Cheesemaking Supply) are a good second choice. Yogurt cultures generally produce a more tangy quality. 

If you can’t buy the ideal butter cultures, it’s better to use store-bought crème fraiche as a lactic starter instead of yogurt to mix with your cream. It’ll give a bit more butteriness.

Makes about 3/4 pound butter

  • ⅛ teaspoon freeze-dried Flora Danica culture, buttermilk culture, or ⅓ cup crème fraiche or
  • 1 quart (4 cups) heavy cream (preferably not ultrapasteurized)
  • Salt (optional)
  1. In the large bowl or jar you’re using to churn, combine the culture and 1 tablespoon cream. Let the culture thaw a few minutes and work it into the cream so it’s grainy. If you’re using crème fraiche, mix it well with cup cream in the bowl or jar to blend.
  1. Heat the remaining cream to 75°, then pour it into the churning container with the culture mixture, blending well. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 16 to 24 hours until it thickens like crème fraiche. (If you pass it through a fine strainer at this point, you make mascarpone.)
  1. This is a step that’s optional but highly recommended: Refrigerate the covered thickened cream for at least 12 hours, or up to 24. This chilling time—called tempering the cream—changes the crystalline structure of its fats, ultimately making for a butter that’s more spreadable when it’s cool. The buttery flavor and acidity also intensifies a bit more.
  1. Just before churning, gently heat the chilled cream to about 55°—the best temperature for separating the butterfat from the liquid portion of the cream. The easiest way to do this is to place the bowl of chilled cream inside a larger bowl partly filled with warm water. Gently stir until the cream registers 55°. Most refrigerators are set to about 45°, so the cream only needs a brief warming up. Beat, paddle, process, or shake the cream to bring it to the whipped stage. Continue agitating the cream so it thickens further and then changes color from off-white to pale yellow; this will take at last 5-10 minutes, depending on your equipment. When it starts to look pebbly, it’s almost butter. 
  1. After another minutes the cream will look curdled and then suddenly it will separate into opaque whitish liquid (so-called buttermilk) and small curds of yellow butter. Transfer the mixture to a fine-mesh strainer and drain off the liquid. The final step is to briefly knead, or “work,” the butter, which will drive off more of the liquid and make your butter more cohesive and smooth. The traditional way to work butter is with small wooden paddles, known as butterhands. It’s best to avoid using your bare hands since your warm touch can spoil the texture of the butter, causing it to melt in spots. Wrap the butter in mass in a clean damp muslin cloth, or a few layers of cheesecloth, and then knead it with your hands inside a large bowl or on a cool, clean surface. The cloth will absorb the excess moisture and be a barrier for your hands. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment – on the lowest speed – to mix the mass of butter, draining the excess liquid that seeps out. One caveat: Don’t knead the butter on a used wooden cutting board or surface, which generally has some lingering food odors. The butter will pick them up like a magnet.
  2. Knead until the texture is dense and creamy—usually no more than 3 minutes—blending in coarse salt or fine salt as desired. … Your butter is ready to serve as is. But it can also be molded, pressed, or shaped using a butter mold.