One morning in 2009 at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, one of the students was whipping cream for pudding. She left it to whip merrily in the food mixer while she went off to put the finishing touches to the rest of her meal. Suddenly there was a sloshing sound. The cream had over-whipped and she was astonished to see what was essentially butter and whey in the bowl. She was just about to dump it when I came around the corner, and just managed to save it before it went into the hens’ bucket. I gathered the other students around and showed them the miracle of how cream turns into butter. Their amazement and delight made me realize that over half the group didn’t know that butter comes from cream, or how easy it is to make butter at home without any special equipment. This is definitely a forgotten skill.
When I was a child, butter was part of everyday life on dairy farms, and I learned the simple art of making it from my great-aunt Lil, who lived in County Tipperary. Every farm had a churn, but you don’t need a churn or any specific equipment to make butter; in fact, if you over-whip cream, like my student did, you can quite easily make butter by accident. (I’ve done it on many occasions!) Then all you have to do is drain and wash it several times, knead it until the water runs clear, and then add some salt to preserve it. A food mixer is an advantage, though not essential. You can also turn cream to butter by shaking the cream in a jam jar, though it begins to be hard work.
I’m very fortunate to live in a country renowned for its wonderful butter. In Ireland we grow grass like nowhere else in the world, because our climate is ideal for it – all that lovely soft rain. The Cork Butter Market, which opened in the 1770s and continued to trade for 150 years, was the biggest in the world and exported Irish butter as far as the Caribbean. The butter was packed in hardwood casks called firkins and brought by horsedrawn cart from Kerry and West Cork which are still known today as butter roads.
Originally home buttermakers didn’t understand the science of buttermaking, but were well aware that it sometimes inexplicably could go wrong, so many piseogs (superstitions) prevailed. Butter luck required following all sorts of rituals, like placing a horseshoe below the churn or sprinkling primroses on the threshold of the churning room, though only if they’d been picked before sunrise. In County Mayo, using a dead man’s hand to stir the churn was highly recommended!
Recently I’ve noticed that there’s a deep craving among our students at Ballymaloe Cookery School to learn dairy skills, not only that but I’ve been astounded by the number who get out of bed at 6.30 in the morning so they can learn how to milk a cow, even though they may never need or have the opportunity to do so again. They are intrigued to find out where milk comes from. In fact, they are sometimes disappointed when they discover that we have a little milking machine rather than a three-legged stool and a bucket. They joke that it will look good on their CV – ‘can milk a cow’ is guaranteed to get the conversation going at a job interview!
Of course, you don’t have to have your own cow to make your own butter, cheese and yoghurt, but it’s not worth the effort unless you have really good milk. The quality of milk will reflect what the cow’s had to eat, but shopping for good milk can be tricky. Remember, ‘natural’ is not a world that means much on food packaging, and ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean the cows are eating grass, which they were designed to do. The breed of cow also affects the milk composition.
The artisan milk and handmade butter movement is really gathering momentum and many top restaurants now feature handmade butter proudly on their tables. At last a growing number of dairy farmers are putting milk back into glass bottles, some also sell organic milk and butter. I sense the same passion as in the artisan brewing movement and a similar generosity of spirit.
Now, how to make butter!
You don’t absolutely need timber butter bats to make butter, but they do make it much easier to shape the butter into blocks. They’re more widely available than you might think, considering buttermaking is certainly an alternative enterprise, but keep an eye out in antique shops and if you find some, snap them up. A good pair will bring you butter luck. Unsalted butter should be eaten within a few days, but the addition of salt will preserve it for two to three weeks. Also, you can make butter with any quantity of cream but the amount used in the recipe below will keep you going for a week or so and give you enough to share with friends (though not in my house!). Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.
Makes about 1kg (2 1/4lb) butter and 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) buttermilk
2.4 liters (4 pints/10 cups) raw or pasteurized double cream at room temperature
2 teaspoons dairy salt (optional)
pair of butter bats or hands
Soak the wooden butter bats or hands in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.
Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilized mixing bowl. If it’s homogenized, it will still whip, but not as well. If you’re using raw cream and want a more traditional taste, leave it to ripen in a cool place, where the temperature is about 8°C (46°F), for up to 48 hours.
Whisk the cream at a medium speed in a food mixer until it is thick. First it will be softly whipped, and then stiffly whipped. Continue until the whipped cream collapses and separates into butterfat globules. The buttermilk will separate from the butter and slosh around the bowl. Turn the mixture into a cold, spotlessly clean sieve and drain well. The butter remains in the sieve while the buttermilk drains into the bowl. The buttermilk can be used to make soda bread or as a thirst quenching drink (it will not taste sour). Put the butter back into a clean bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk. Remove and sieve as before. Fill the bowl containing the butter with very cold water. Use the butter bats or your clean hands to knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. This is important, as any buttermilk left in the butter will sour and the butter will go off quickly. If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.
Drain the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear. Weigh the butter into 110g (4oz), 225g (8oz) or 450g (1lb) slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats. Make sure the butter hands or bats have been soaked in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes before using to stop the butter sticking to the ridges. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and keep chilled in a fridge. The butter also freezes well.
If you wish to add salt, you will need 1/4 teaspoon of plain dairy salt for every 110g (4oz/1 stick) of butter. Before shaping the butter, spread it out in a thin layer and sprinkle evenly with dairy salt. Mix thoroughly using the butter pats, then weigh into slabs as before.
I much prefer unadulterated butter, rather than butters with additives that change the texture. So if you want to be able to spread butter easily, simply leave it out of the fridge for a few hours in a covered container.
Traditional Country Butter
Irish country butter was made from cream that was ripened for several days in a dairy at about 8°C /46°F, so the flavor was more rich and complex.
For more lost skills you can check out Darina’s book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The time-honoured ways are the best – over 700 recipes show you why.
For more information on Slow Food in Ireland