Old-fashioned Cultured Butter and Buttermilk

July 14, 2011 | Comments Off

Milking the cow/s parked in the backyard was a daily chore for our grandmothers and their grandmothers in India.

The firewood stove was lit, the fresh milk was boiled. The thick layer of cream at the top was skimmed off and carefully saved in an earthenware pot with a teaspoon of yogurt in it. When the pot got full, the cultured cream was churned to make butter.

The by-product from the butter-making process was a tangy liquid called “buttermilk“. It was flavoured with salt, fresh herbs and spices and served as a refreshing summer drink. In the old days, it was not uncommon for families to place earthenware pots of spiced buttermilk outside their homes to allow parched passersby to help themselves to a drink.

In the days before refrigeration, cream was usually collected from several milkings and was therefore several days old before becoming butter. As it sat, it soured through lactic acid producing wild bacteria in the milk itself. Adding live bacterial cultures and lactic acid (in the form of yogurt) to inoculate the cream certainly helps when you don’t collect cream in installments and want to make it a one-shot process.

The acidic environment produced by fermentation lowers the cream’s pH, allowing the butterfat to coalesce more readily. It also increases shelf-life by making it more difficult for pathogenic bacteria to thrive.

Today, depending on where you are, the term “buttermilk” could mean one of three things:

In South Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka) it’s the liquid that is leftover after butter is extracted from cream. The milk is boiled to at least 180F before skimming off the cream. The cream is cultured with a yogurt (dahi) starter and churned until it separates into butter and buttermilk. This form of “old-fashioned” or “traditional buttermilk” (chaas/moru/majjiga) is thin and slightly acidic. In the Indian subcontinent, consuming raw milk, raw cream and raw yogurt is taboo. Milk goes bad very easily in the tropical heat. Boiling milk kills pathogenic bacteria and also yields a nice thick layer of cream on the top – yielding a lot more butter. This is the process described in this post.

In the southern U.S. and Scotland, “buttermilk” was traditionally made with RAW milk allowed to sour naturally and “clabber” or thicken into a thick tangy liquid that eventually separates into curds and whey. This version of buttermilk is also called “clabbered milk“. It’s thick and tart. When cream undergoes a similar process, you get “clotted cream”.

Then there’s the “commercial buttermilk” in the carton at the supermarket.

In North America and Europe, commercial buttermilk uses lowfat (1% or 2% milk) that is pasteurised and homogenised. It is then inoculated with a culture of lactic acid bacteria (Streptococcus lactis) to form “buttermilk” or “cultured buttermilk”. “Bulgarian buttermilk” is tarter as it is created with a different strain of bacteria (Lactobacillus bulgaricus).

In American supermarkets, you get two types of butter. Pasteurised cream is churned and made into butter without being cultured. It is called “sweet cream butter“.

Here’s a vintage cream separator we saw at a museum in Hailey, Idaho used to make butter from uncultured cream.

Then there is “European-style butter“, which is made from cultured pasteurised cream.

Cultured butter lasts longer, tastes better and has beneficial bacteria for gut health. So why not just buy a stick of “European-style butter” and get on with life? Well, most of it is from factory-farmed cows who don’t get fed any green grass.

If it’s not grass-fed dairy, we do not consume it (for reasons outlined HERE).

You can buy Kerrygold grass-fed butter imported from Ireland or mail order some American brands of grass-fed butter. We, however, are fortunate enough to get pasteurised cream (not ULTRApasteurised, which is the common supermarket variety) from grass-fed cows from a local family farm. Making cultured butter is really simple and the leftover buttermilk is not something you can get bottled anywhere.


Take 4 cups cream – pasteurised is fine. If you’re brave enough to try this with raw/unpasteurised cream give it a shot. Whatever you use, stay away from ULTRApasteurised cream. Heat it to barely warm – about 90F – around the same temperature as your finger.

Add 1/4 whole cup milk plain yogurt, preferably homemade. Else, get an organic brand of PLAIN yogurt from the store that has no sugar, flavourings, thickeners or emulsifiers.

Mix the two and set it in a covered glass jar overnight in a warm spot (around 80F is ideal). When it has thickened a bit (it may take 8 to 16 hours) it’s ready to be made into butter. You can place the thickened cream in the refrigerator for a day or so until you are ready to make butter. It will thicken a bit more in the fridge.

Making butter:
The high-tech way – using the whisk attachment on your stand mixer, blender, or hand-held stick blender.

The low-tech way:
Put it in a jar and do a little jig until the cream separates and the butter floats on top – like Manisha does. Make sure the lid’s on tight.

Or use an old fashioned Indian-style hand-held churner made of metal or wood.

For under $10, you can get a Molinillo (Mexican cocoa frother) which makes a great substitute. (Sources: Amazon, ebay).

Traditional ways of churning butter
Low-tech butter-making tools

Keep whisking the cream until it thickens and starts frothing and forming peaks. Suddenly, it will start to separate into a blob of butter and a thin liquid (buttermilk). If you’re using a hand-held stick blender, watch out, the liquid will start splashing everywhere.

Remove the butter into a bowl of water. Rinse it gently in a few changes of water. If there is any residual buttermilk, it shortens the life of the butter. You can freeze what you don’t need right away. You can even flavour it with herbs, spices or extracts. And you can turn it into ghee (clarified butter).

Cultured butter is a magical thing. As for the buttermilk, spice it and guzzle it up.

Cream can be cultured in numerous ways for various end results.

COMING UP: How to make Greek Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese (Labneh)

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