Making butter by hand

In the middle of our crazy weekend, we decided to make butter. B has been studying pioneer times, which included into a dress-up-like-a-pioneer day at school and a day-long trip to Upper Canada Village. With all that pioneery activity happening at school, well, we just had to bring some of it home, too.

So we made butter.

Butter is spectacularly easy to make. Plus it builds arm muscle and tires children out, which is a definite bonus. For some reason, I have almost always made butter in a clean plastic peanut butter jar. I have no idea why, other than it being a good size for small hands to hold on to, and relatively unbreakable. Plus it doesn’t hurt so much if you just happen to drop it on your foot.

Not that I’ve done that. Not recently, at least.

To make butter, you will need the following ingredients:

A pint of whipping cream
A empty peanut butter jar that has been thoroughly cleaned out, or some other jar if you prefer
A few sets of hands to help you shake it
A bowl and spoon
Fresh bread, crackers, or steaming hot baked potatoes to taste test with.

Yup, it’s true: butter has precisely 1 ingredient: cream.

Start by filling your jar about 1/3 of the way full of cream. Close the lid tightly and hand it to a child and tell them to shake it until it turns into butter. They will most likely look at you as if you’ve grown three heads. I recommend smiling innocently and repeating your instructions without any further explanation — it isway more fun when the butter-making process has a few surprises in store.

After a minute or two of shaking, the whipping cream begins to, well, whip itself into whipped cream. Your jar, which initially looked like a clear plastic jar with a bit of milk in the bottom, now looks like a solidly white jar of nothingness. Sort of like marshmallow fluff, only less sticky. Like this:

If you take the lid off, it looks like this:

The kids can taste-test it at this point. When I used to do this with school groups at the museum, everyone wanted to taste it at this point. Except my odd kids who don’t like whipped cream absolutely will not taste anything remotely resembling whipped cream unless you bully coax them into it.

I coaxed. They tasted.

Essentially, it takes like whipped cream, but without the sugar, so not quite so yummy.

Taste-testing thus accomplished, we put the lid on tightly and shook it some more. After a few more minutes, it still looks like whipped cream, but it is starting to look a little lumpy and strange, and when you open the lid again, this is what you see:

Now is the time to start asking them questions like: What the heck just happened? and But where’s the butter? You will probably get some pretty hilarious answers if you don’t give them any spoilers.

The next step is more of the same: put the lid back on again (securely!) and keep shaking. But here is where is starts to get interesting. All of a sudden, the solid creamy mixture that you’ve been shaking around in the container starts to slosh a bit. If you shake really hard, not only does it slosh, it starts to make a thumping noise. Visually, things change too. Where the jar has been solidly coated in white up until now, suddenly it begins to clear, and you find yourselves with a lump of something sort of squishy and oozing a whitish liquid and generally looking very strange. Here’s the view from the side:

And here’s the view from inside the jar:

So you put the lid back on, very securely (don’t ask me why I keep warning you to put the lid on securely. I’m sure you can imagine it. Just make sure you are imagining it in a museum classroom full of 30 kindergarten kids, their teacher, a handful of parent chaperones, and your boss looking on for good measure).

And shake it some more.

This is where it gets really fun. As the butter forms a solid ball, it starts to really bounce around the jar with a solidthunk-a-chunk sound while the watery buttermilk sloshes and slurps along in perfect harmony with your shaking.

As you can see here, the butter and the buttermilk have completely separated from each other. Your butter is now almost ready to eat! Start by pouring the buttermilk into a bowl or a jar — don’t waste it! It makes the best pancakes and is yummy baked into homemade bread.

Dump the butter into another bowl and put it in the bottom of your sink. Turn the tap on very cold with just a thin stream of water and squash your butter with the back of a spoon while you rinse it. Don’t worry, the butter will stick together, it won’t rinse away.

When the butter starts rinsing mostly clear, turn off the water, put one hand on the butter to hold it in the bowl and dump out the rest of the water. I usually mash it a bit more with the spoon to make sure all the liquid is out of it (or as much as I can get, anyway).

Transfer the butter to a small mason jar or a dish and pass it around for a taste test on fresh bread, crackers, or hot baked potatoes. The rest should be stored airtight in the fridge, either in a small mason jar or butter crock, or just wrapped in tin foil or waxed paper.

Now, are you ready for the truth about what happened to turn cream into butter? (Are you sure you want the truth?)

Milk is made up of thin, watery milk and little globules of fat. When you shake the milk or cream a lot, the fat globules tend to stick to each other. If you do it just a little bit, you get whipped cream, where the fat and the milk are still pretty evenly dispersed. If you do it a lot, the fat globules clump together, the milk loses its grip on the fat, and you’re left with butter and buttermilk. We rinse the butter at the end to rinse away the last bit of buttermilk, which helps the butter stay fresh longer.

So what’s the deal with salted vs. unsalted butter? Basically, salting butter was originally done to help preserve the butter in the days before home refrigeration. You should always cook and bake with unsalted butter as the salt content will affect the chemical reactions in the food (such as yeast rising), the moisture content (very important for pastry in particular), and the taste.

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