May 20, 2014

Cultured Butter: Better Butter with Bacteria

Puritan Therapy: Better Your Butter with Bacteria

Can we talk about butter for a moment?  No, not margarine. Margarine is a sad attempt at butter, which may be fine for certain applications (or for the lactose intolerant), but it is still always lacking.  There is a certain richness and depth in good butter that I have never seen in any margarine.  While these days the science seems to indicate that margarine is slightly healthier, it is nowhere near enough to convince me to switch from the things that I use butter for. Why?  Because when I choose to use butter, the flavor of that butter is usually the reason.  Croissants, brioche, mashed potatoes.  It's all about the flavor, not just the fat.  I never realized the importance of good butter (or the variation between butters) until I started making croissants.  It was shocking how much of a difference there was between the basic cheap butter and the European Plugra butter.  With Plugra, "the flavor and aroma of cultured butter are added with lactic starter distillate, a natural flavoring derived from cultured milk", and there is a much higher fat content than normal American butter.

So Plugra is not actually cultured butter, but it has some of the indications of such. But what makes butter "cultured"?  My 12 year old sense of humor makes me want to make some reference to taking it to the opera, but actually, it all has to do with bacteria.  Before churning it into butter, the cream is given mesophilic culture, which is comprised of good bacteria.  Given time, the bacteria will eat the lactose in the milk, reproduce, eat more lactose, etc.  This makes the cream more acidic, which produces a tang and gives a different and more complex flavor, but it also creates an environment so that bad bacteria can't get a foothold.  If you left warmed cream out on a counter for several hours without adding any additional bacteria, it would be a race between the good and the bad, and it would not be a good idea to drink it afterwards.  But since we've fixed the race, the good bacteria has a huge advantage.  It's a similar process to that of making yogurt or cheese. Once the cream has been cultured, which can take anywhere from six to twenty four hours, depending on who you ask, it is ready to be churned into butter.

Churning butter.  That phrase may conjure images of an old timey bucket with a stick coming out of it, or, in my case, my second grade classroom.  We were broken up into pairs, and given a sealed mason jar of cream to shake.  Either way, it's the same general idea.  Agitate the cream until it magically turns into butter.  If you've never done this by hand, it is a lot of work.  To a six year old, it felt like an eternity.  Not to mention it led to really tired arms.  But as we all know, food processes are not magic, they are science!  So what is the science behind churning butter?

To understand how churning works, we have to take a closer look at cream.  Cream is basically fat and protein (along with vitamins, minerals, antibodies, etc.) suspended in water.  The fat is contained in a coat of protein, so it's nice and balanced.  As the milk ages, this protein coat will start wearing away, allowing the fats to clump together.  If you leave a container of milk out long enough, it will sour, fall out of suspension, and you can actually see these 3 distinct layers.  The protein and other elements, being heavier than water, will sink to the bottom.  The fats will float on the surface, and the "water" level will be in the middle. The smell of this rotten milk is amazingly bad, so I don't recommend it.  Conveniently there is an easier (and tastier) way to get the fat to clump together, i.e. form butter.  By agitating the cream, these little bubbles of fat coated in protein will start bumping together.  As they bump together, the protein coat starts chipping away, so that the fat globules are exposed.  Once that happens, the fat will start coming together faster than popular kids in high school.  Thus, you are left with all the fat in one clump (butter), and everything else (butter milk).

While I may be guilty of owning several unusual tools (like my drop spindle), I do not, in fact, own a butter churn.  I also remember the pain of trying to shake that mason jar, so that method was out.  I do, however, have a stand mixer, which is very good at agitation.  All the instructions I read about churning butter in a stand mixer said that the transformation from cream to butter happens suddenly, and to use the bowl shields, plastic wrap, or anything else to guard against the buttermilk splashing all over the place.  Unfortunately, I am also occasionally guilty of not being very bright.  I assumed that if kept my stand mixer going at its lowest speed, then it shouldn't be a problem, because I'd be able to hear the beginnings of sloshing and turn it off.  This is not the case.  The transition between a thick whipped cream and butter/buttermilk happens very suddenly, and there is a large amount of splashing once it does.  I may have had to do a fair amount of cleaning of  my floor, wall, counter, etc.  Don't be me.  The second time I made cultured butter, not only did I use the shields, but also plastic wrapped any open spaces.  I can occasionally be taught.

After the butter comes together, all that is left to do is to rinse out any spare buttermilk to help keep the butter from going rancid using very cold water, shape it into a ball (easy if you are rinsing it in cheesecloth), and add salt if desired.  Store the butter in the fridge tightly wrapped.  With all the effort you went into making this amazing thing, it would be exceptionally sad for the butter to pick up "refrigerator smell".  Also, don't forget to save your buttermilk, you can use it to make fried chicken, biscuits, or all sorts of other things.

One last note about salting or not salting butter.  Unless there is a recipe that specifically calls for salted butter (like these salted butter caramels from David Lebovitz), always use unsalted.  Not only does it give you more control over the amount of salt, the salted butter will produce a sort of sour taste in the final product.  Just like with many things, you can always add more, but you can't take any out.  Unless the plan for the cultured butter is for use on toast or bread, I recommend just leaving out the salt.

What to do with the finished cultured butter?  I'm going to test out mine by baking croissants.

Final Analysis

Financial Outlay: Cultured butter requires two basic ingredients, cream, and mesophilic culture.  The cost of cream can vary depending on where you live.  I got my culture for $5.00 from Standing Stone Farms, which is enough for over a dozen batches of cultured butter (or a variety of other types of cheese!).  So the cost is definitely higher than your run of the mill butter, but if you're comparing to something like Plugra, it becomes much more economical.  Especially if you are also using the buttermilk produced.

Time: The active processing time, if you're not churning the butter using a mason jar, is less than an hour.  However, the time required to culture the cream is at least six hours. Definitely not a last minute project, but not overly intensive either.

Quality: The result of this is a good, fresh, high quality butter.  I did not taste test directly next to Plugra, but I would put it up there at least on the same level.  The results after using it for baking were amazing.  Spreading it on a good fresh crusty bread could be phenomenal as well.  Even considering this makes me want to go make more just to use as a spread on things.

Fun: Most of the process of culturing butter is waiting (as the warming and the churning take up a very small amount of time to do).  Choosing to not use the shields on a stand mixer could provide a sort of Jack-in-the-Box sword of Damocles excitement to your afternoon, followed by lots of cleaning.  But in this case it is much better to consume the finished product than make it. It's not "un-fun", but it is no wild and crazy time either.

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