April 6, 2008

Crème Fraîche + Churning = Love

Serving suggestion: Spread cultured butter thickly on bread. Or muffins. Or crackers.
Thanks to Wonderful Husband Charles for white ceramic butter bell.

We've talked a bit about butter here at Savor Culture, even discussed the pleasures of churning (and eating) your own beurre maison.  Well, hold on to your whisk, because butter just got even better.  Cultured butter is more flavorful than sweet cream butter, making it the ideal partner for your carb of choice: potatoes, sliced bread, warm rolls, plain rice, saltines, cornbread.  Or, for the well-behaved, apply it lovingly to spring vegetables like green peas, asparagus, radishes, and artichokes.
Cultured butter is basically churned crème fraîche: starter culture is added to heavy cream, which is ripened for twelve hours or so before churning.  The result is a butter with complexity and a hint of acidity, one that begs for a pinch of salt and a permanent place at the dinner table.  I guarantee that if you serve cultured butter with the bread basket at your next dinner party, your guests will notice.  There are likely several brands of cultured butter at your grocery store; I recommend one with some salt, like the version from Vermont Butter & Cheese Co.  

Making your own cultured butter is simple, but the quality of its few ingredients is paramount.  You will need heavy cream, of course; organic or local cream is preferable, but be sure that it isn't ultra-pasteurized (a sell-by date more than three weeks away is your clue).  Ultra-pasteurized dairy products have been subjected to such high temperatures that their flavor and protein structure are damaged.  

Ripening the cream requires a mesophilic starter culture, which is active at low temperatures.  You may purchase crème fraîche, buttermilk, or fresh starter for this purpose; alternatively, use all-natural (no stabilizers or preservatives) buttermilk or crème fraîche to provide the bacterial cultures.  I used mesophilic culture, which I also used to make mozzarella; the butter has a hint of cheesy flavor.  I believe that buttermilk or crème fraîche culture will produce a milder flavor.

Then, it's a matter of time: allow the cream to ripen overnight at room temperature.  After twelve hours, the cream should appear thickened and have a slightly sour scent, like yogurt or sour cream.  Note: The presence of bubbles indicates undesirable bacteria, and the cream should be discarded.  Using fresh dairy products and clean utensils will prevent this-- I've never had a problem.

Next, the churning, and there's some good news here: butter formation occurs much more quickly with cultured cream than with sweet cream.  In fact, the butter formed so quickly in my stand mixer that buttermilk was splashing on the counter within three minutes!  I haven't used a manual method, such as hand-churning or shaking the butter in a jar, but cultured cream makes it seem doable.  Let the bacteria do the work for you!  The culturing process also produces thicker, richer buttermilk than results from sweet cream butter.  This article contains photos and a detailed account of making cultured butter with a hand churn.

Cultured Butter Recipe
yields 24-26 oz butter and 1-2 pints of buttermilk; can be halved

4 pints heavy cream
1 packet mesophilic starter or 1/3 cup buttermilk or crème fraîche
Good quality salt, such as kosher flake or sea salt, to taste

Allow cream to come to room temperature in a clean, sterilized non-reactive bowl.  Add culturing ingredient and stir well with a clean, sterilized spoon.  Cover loosely and allow to sit at room temperature for twelve hours.

Beat the cultured cream at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Use plastic wrap to tightly cover the mixing bowl as completely as possible.  First it will resemble whipped cream, then it will appear grainy, and suddenly, granules of butter will separate from the buttermilk.  Drain buttermilk into a clean bowl and refrigerate. 

Rinse the butter with cool water.  Knead with your hands and a clean spoon or spatula, and rinse frequently until the water runs clear (about six rinses).  Knead in a teaspoon or so of salt, to taste.  Divide the butter into four- to six- ounce pieces.  Wrap pieces individually in parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap.  Freeze butter for up to three months.

Since rising food prices are currently a hot topic, let's spend a moment comparing the costs of homemade and store-bought butter.  A pound of my everyday butter, Plugra, costs about the same as a pint of local cream.  Thus, I buy Plugra for baking and cooking.  However, when I ordered a half-gallon of heavy cream from my local dairy, I saved about 40%!  The culture I used was about $1.50, the cost for sea salt was negligible.  Churning and kneading the butter took about ten minutes, clean-up and storage, another ten.  An 8-ounce log of VBCC cultured butter costs around $5, but I compare my cultured butter with their premium Sea Salt variety, a 6-oz pat that sells for $6-8 (admittedly, with fancy packaging).  So, not counting 20 minutes of foregone blogging, my cultured butter costs less than $7 a pound, and I get several cups of delicious buttermilk to boot.  A comparable butter costs $10 to over $20 a pound.  Victory is mine!

Need more inspiration?  Check out the March 2008 issue of Saveur magazine to learn about butter in cuisines from around the world.  I liked learning about smee, fermented butter used in Morrocan cooking.


Katie said...

yum! i love fresh homemade butter! perhaps when you return from afar we can get together like real friends and make some... :) katie

Danielle said...

Why, Katie, that is a smashing idea! We'll have to bake something yummy to slather copious amounts of butter onto. Hahahaha!

celticjig said...

Wow, I am going to try the cultured butter - I had no idea it was so easy. When I was a kid, my cousins had a dairy and we used to use a mason jar to make butter just for fun. That takes me back! Nice tutorial. Really, I do have a cheese post from WA in the waiting, really! I am taking two weeks off at the end of May to garden, relax and catch up on everything!
Zingerman's has been offering Mozz lessons and now they are done for the season and I never got down there once for one! Next fall for certain.