Instead of going on and on about how good butter is and stringing together mouth-watering adjectives to describe the nuances of flavor and incredibly rich texture, we’re going to assume that butter needs no introduction. It’s butter, for Pete’s sake. We’ve all tasted it before and all of us are probably more than familiar with its charms. However, consider yourself warned that the recipe we’re sharing here is a little bit dangerous – it’s not just for butter, it’s for homemade cultured butter. If you find store-bought butter hard to resist, you don’t stand a chance against homemade cultured butter. For better or for worse, you’re going to want to eat this stuff with a spoon.
Homemade cultured butter has a rich, glossy texture that’s silky, not waxy. But it’s not just about texture. Unlike most supermarket brands of butter, homemade cultured butter has noticeable flavor: tangy, fresh, lightly sweet and extremely, well, buttery. Science backs us up on this. The good bacteria that’s in cultured cream produces an aroma compound called diacetyl. When the cream is churned into butter, this compound intensifies the buttery flavor. An optional sprinkle of sea salt ups the flavor even more, or, you can get really creative and delve into the world of compound butters. Compound (flavored) butter is an easy way to perk up a meal. Instead of dealing with a complicated sauce, simply top whatever you’re eating with butter that’s been enhanced by another ingredient. Mix fresh herbs, ground spices or garlic into the butter for a savory topping you’ll never forget. Mash crumbles of fried bacon or prosciutto into homemade butter and melt it over steak or cooked vegetables if you think you can handle the butter nirvana that follows. For something a little on the lighter side, stir fresh lemon zest into your homemade butter and spread it over seafood.
To make cultured butter at home you only need one ingredient: cultured cream. Although regular whole cream will whip into butter as well, it produces butter that is relatively bland and is missing the tanginess of cultured butter. You can buy whole cream and culture it yourself, or you can buy crème fraîche, which is cream that has already been cultured. In either case, look for high-quality whole cream or crème fraîche, ideally made from organic, grass-fed milk. The crème fraîche should have only one ingredient listed, cultured cream, not any stabilizers or thickeners.
In countries other than the U.S., crème fraîche is often made from unpasteurized milk with naturally occurring bacteria that cultures the cream, turning it thick and flavorful. In the U.S., laws require that products made from unpasteurized milk be aged at least 60 days before being sold, which means raw crème fraîche is not available in stores. Instead, bacteria cultures are added back into the cream after it is pasteurized. In the U.S., the best brands of crème fraîche are made by artisanal cheesemakers who can coax flavor out of pasteurized cream by using high-quality bacterial cultures and grass-fed milk. If you can find crème fraîche made by a cheesemaker, it will often be superior in flavor and texture to cream that you culture yourself at home using a bit of buttermilk in place of bacteria cultures. On the other hand, if you’re making crème fraîche at home for your own consumption, you do have the option of using raw cream if you can get your hands on some.
However you decide to make it, or whatever you decide to add for extra flavor (we’re hooked on chive butter right now), your batch of homemade cultured butter is guaranteed to taste like a little bit of spreadable heaven. Cultured butter is a luxurious, voluptuous, flavorful ingredient that is well worth the little bit of time and effort it takes to make at home.
2 cups crème fraîche, either store-bought or homemade (see recipe below)
A pinch of sea salt (optional)
To make compound (flavored) butter, considering adding bacon or prosciutto bits, minced herbs, spices (try curry powder, paprika or red pepper flakes), minced garlic, cinnamon, lemon zest
Yield: About 1/2 – 3/4 cup butter
Take the crème fraîche out of refrigeration 45 minutes or so before you start so it gets close to room temperature.
Fill a bowl with 3-4 cups of water. Add ice so the water is cold. Set aside.
Put the crème fraîche in the food processor with the blade attachment, a stand mixture with the whisk attachment, or in a glass canning jar with a lid. All three work equally well. The benefit of using a food processor is that it is the fastest method and liquid won’t splatter everywhere like it will with a stand mixer. Manually shaking a glass jar builds a workout into the recipe, but takes longer.
To make the butter, process or whisk the crème fraîche for about three minutes, sometimes a bit longer. If you’re using a jar, shake for as long as you need to. With each method, the mixture will begin to thicken and look like whipped cream, then it will thicken even more and start turning a pale yellow color. At this point, buttermilk will begin separating from the butter.
Stop and pour the buttermilk out, then process a little longer and pour out any additional buttermilk that appears. (You can save the buttermilk to drink or use it in any recipe that calls for buttermilk.)
Taste the butter. It will have a sour quality, which is from buttermilk that has not separated out yet. To give the butter a purer flavor, it must be rinsed.
Use a spatula to scrape the butter into a bowl. Add 1/2 cup of ice water and mash the butter and water together with a fork for about 30 seconds. The butter will repel the water, not soak it up, and the water will clean off any remaining buttermilk. Pour the liquid (which will be cloudy) out of the bowl.
Continue this process, 4 or 5 times, until the water no longer becomes cloudy.
Continue mashing the butter with a fork and pour out any last bits of liquid it releases. Stir in sea salt to taste if desired. If you are making a compound butter, mash the ingredient in with the butter now.
Wrap the butter in wax paper and shape it into a log, or fill a small container with the butter. Keep the butter well-covered in the refrigerator and use within a week or so. You can also freeze the butter for future use.
Combine in a glass container. Let sit at room temperature (around 70 degrees) at least 8 hours and up to 24. It is done when the cream is very thick. Can be refrigerated about a week if not used immediately.