Butters Better

By Sophie Zaloka

photos: Anthony Georgeff

LIVING A GOOD FOOD LIFE IS ONE OF CONSTANT ‘AHAA’ MOMENTS. BUT HOW THOSE AHAAS COME ABOUT CHANGES ENORMOUSLY OVER THE COURSE OF A LIFETIME OF EXPERIENCING AND APPRECIATING FLAVOUR.

Now in my early 40’s, the most thrilling moments at the table come from rediscovering how fundamentally important foundation foods are. By foundation foods, I mean the basics: bread and the flour and the type of yeast it’s made from; meat, the breed and how the animals are raised and slaughtered; fruit, vegetables and grains and traditional dishes created specifically for variety; and dairy products, their seasonal variability based on feed and breed.

What I’m really talking about is provenance, which for many of these foundation foods is impossible to identify in our modern diets due to how the majority of our food is grown, processed and distributed.

Long life, stability, consistency and ultimately profitability have sacrificed the variabilities that contribute to flavour and uniqueness, replacing them with a monotone palette of generic blandness.

But demand equals supply and nostalgic desire for small regional artisanal producers can blind us to the fact we live in a tough wide ancient brown land with a relatively small population that residesgreat distances from the little arable land available. For those few small producers that do manage to survive the financial and logistical mountains to reach us in the cities, the considerable ground they walk on must be metaphorically hallowed as it won’t be paved with gold.

Given you’re reading this article (hopefully not in a doctor’s waiting room awaiting a cholesterol test some years from now…), I’m assuming you’re already reasonably educated and interested in food. So the idea of making your own butter will hopefully pique your interest to read on further.

‘Why bother to make butter?’ I hear you ask. Because,

a) Your chest will pump with pride.
b) You will experience the elemental joy of creating a foundation food without having years of practice.
c) You will appreciate butter differently afterwards and hopefully consider it a joy rather than a wicked evil so painted by the misguided ‘anti-fat brigade’.

In a paradoxical world of nutritional information overload and supermarket shelves groaning with highly processed so-called low-fat alternatives being increasingly squashed under the considerable weight of escalating obesity rates, it’s no great mystery as to why fat is confusing.

Fat is essential in our diets and how it went from being considered a positive to a negative is a complex story. If you’re interested, Jennifer McLagan’s book ‘Fat’ does a great job in dispelling the myths associated with this much-misunderstood ingredient.

According to McLagan, “Many of butter’s saturated fatty acids are short and medium chain ones, which means our body uses them up quickly rather than storing them on our hips. Many of butter’s fatty acids are also very good for us: lauric and butyric acids boost our immune system, while stearic andpalmitic acids lower our LDL cholesterol. Butter contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, plus copper, zinc, chromium, selenium, iodine and lecithin, so butter is actually good for us.”

There is, however, a disclaimer with this information, a disclaimer I’m adding to remind us that these nutritional benefits rely solely on what a cow eats, the conditions in which they’re raised and handled and how the milk is processed, delivered and stored.

Animals grazed on high-quality pasture return the greatest nutritionally beneficial milk. Therefore cream, separated from this milk will make butter that delivers the highest nutritional benefits and most satisfying flavour. The colour of the butter this cream produces is also much more yellow due to the powerful antioxidant beta carotene that comes through grazing on pasture.

Butter is sold as salted, unsalted and cultured (with and without added salt). My favourite is unsalted cultured butter. Given that all cream available is pasteurised, which destroys the lactic acid that gives butter a more complex nutty flavour, it needs to be restored with plain yoghurt, crème fraiche or buttermilk. If you wish to do this, make sure they contain no gums or stabilizers (gelatin).

Choose cream that is labelled as ‘rich’, ‘pouring’ or ‘pure’ and has a 35 – 45 per cent butterfat content. However, if you do have double cream that is nearing its use by date and don’t wish to consume it as is, you can also successfully use it to make butter. Also remember if you do happen to unintentionally over-whip cream, don’t throw it out! Go further and make butter.

The following recipe is barely a recipe at all. What really makes the difference to the end result is the cream’s place of origin. As with wine, honey, natural-yeast breads, meat and oil it will sing a flavour-chorus of the postcode it originates from. That’s the ‘ahaa’ I’m looking for.

By adding back the lactic acid to slightly ferment and contribute to the flavour, you need to start this recipe the night before.

You don’t need butter bats, but they do help beat the buttermilk out and shape the butter into blocks. If you do have them, make sure they’ve been soaked in iced water prior to use.

Homemade unsalted butter is also highly perishable and needs to be out of sunlight as much as possible and consumed within a few days. The addition of salt will help preserve it for longer, as does freezing.

 CULTURED BUTTER

  • 1 litre fresh cream
  • 1/3 cup crème fraiche, plain yoghurt, or buttermilk
  • sea salt flakes (optional) – use 1/4 tsp for every 110 g of butter

In a clean glass or ceramic bowl or jar, combine the cream and crème fraiche. Cover loosely and leave in a cool place overnight where the temperature is between 20–26˚C. A little less is also fine but will slow the fermentation process. After 12–18 hours the cream will be a little thicker (but not bubbly) and taste tangy.

Cream churns best at 15˚C, but I’ve also successfully made butter from cream beaten at a lower temperature.

Using a food processor or electric mixer, process or beat until the cream forms stiff peaks. Slow the speed down or use the pulse button to continue until the butterfat separates from the buttermilk. This will happen quickly so continuing on a lower speed will avoid buttermilk splashing everywhere.

Tip into a clean strainer to drain away as much of the buttermilk as possible. Reserve and use for buttermilk pancakes.

Transfer the butterfat into a bowl and cover with cold water. Knead the butter to wash out the residual buttermilk. Pour out the milky liquid and repeat 2–3 times until the water is clear. Continue kneading dry to remove as much water as possible. Add the salt, if using, and knead through before using the butter bats to shape the butter into blocks. Alternately, pack into ramekins or roll into logs and store in the fridge or freezer well covered.

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