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.
Cultured buttermilk is not the leftovers from butter making, but a fermented whole milk product similar to yogurt. It is very easy to make. In a scrupulously clean glass jar, combine 3 parts whole or skim milk with 1 part cultured buttermilk (purchased or reserved from the last batch, but no more than a few weeks old or the hard-working beneficial bacteria will have expired), put on the lid, and shake well. Put the jar in a warm room temperature place. After 24 hours check to see if has thickened. If it has, move it to the refrigerator and enjoy within two weeks. If not, give it another 12 hours or so and check again. If it doesn't thicken the starter was probably expired; use the sour milk in pancakes or baking and buy some fresh cultured buttermilk for your next batch.
I'm not sure where I originally got this recipe, but I made it for many years while my children were growing up. Spreadable butter is easier to spread than pure butter, even when refrigerated (and this recipe doesn't use hydrogenated oils, like most spreadable butters on store shelves do). We eat butter from grass-fed cows, which is higher in omega-3 content than conventional butter, but if you can't get that locally, you can boost the omega-3 content of your spread by adding the optional flaxseed oil.
1 pound organic butter, preferably from grass-fed cows
1 to 2 cups of organic olive oil (adjust the amount to get the final consistency you prefer; 1 cup is reasonably firm, 2 cups is very soft)
4 Tablespoons organic flaxseed oil (optional; decrease olive oil to use no more than 2 cups total oil)
Put the butter in a glass jar with a tight lid and let it soften for a few hours or overnight at room temperature. Add the oil and blend until completely mixed; I use an immersion-type blender for this, but you can do it with an electric mixer or even a hand whisk and plenty of elbow grease. Store, tightly covered, in the fridge. If you leave it out on the table and your house is warm it may start to separate. When that happens, just whip it together again and put it back in the fridge.
Clarified Butter (Ghee)
If you've ever melted butter to dip food into, or browned (or burned) butter in a skillet, you've seen that butter separates into clear yellow fat and whitish milk protein curds when exposed to high heat. The clear yellow fat is clarified butter, a better alternative for cooking, as it has a higher heat tolerance than regular butter. It also has a more intense buttery flavor than regular butter.
To make clarified butter, melt solid butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or a double boiler over medium heat. Let it simmer (small bubbles will rise from the bottom and you'll hear regular sizzling and spitting sounds), stirring it gently every minute or so. Curds will appear and the liquid will turn a clear yellow. That's your clarified butter. If you want, leave it over the heat a little longer until the liquid turns a golden brown. That's "ghee," a traditional Indian form of clarified butter that has a slightly more toasted flavor than regular clarified butter. Be sure to take your ghee off promptly once it's reached golden brown, as it can rapidly progress to plain old brown and take on a burned taste.
When you're finished, turn off the heat and set the pot on a heat-safe surface to cool to a safe handling temperature. Strain the cooled results through a fine sieve or a colander lined with clean muslin to remove the protein curds. Store clarified butter in a clean glass jar or crock in the fridge, where it will become a semisolid. Ghee can be stored at room temperature for as long as six months.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.
For more easy, DIY cooking projects, see:
• How to Make Homemade Yogurt—No Plastic Tubs Required
• 5 Cool Recipes for Easy Homemade Ice Cream, Gelato, and Frozen Yogurt
• Make Healthy Homemade Cheese—It's Easier Than You Think