Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hurry, Butter, Hurry

Captain Girlfriend and I were at the Great Eastern States Exposition ("The Big E") this past weekend, fascinated by all the 4-H and Future Farmers of America exhibits. Somehow in the middle of the pigs and the cows and the sheep and the horses, the conversation turned to butter.  Specifically, the conversation was about making butter from cream. Captain Girlfriend had *never* made butter in her life.

It turns out The Captain never had a kindergarten teacher like Mrs. Mueller -  -  *my* kindergarten teacher. Every spring, Mrs. Mueller would have a butter-making party for her students and their parents. She would fill up empty peanut butter jars with heavy cream and then pass them around a chair circle. The kids and the parents would take turns shaking the jars three times, while saying "Hurry, butter, hurry!" It was a magic moment when one of the kids could not shake the cream any more, because the cream had suddenly turned into butter!

With The Captain's unfortunate revelation about her childhood deprivation, I decided it was time someone gave her the opportunity to experience the wonder that is butter-making. We stopped at a Super Target grocery store, purchased a small container of heavy cream, and headed for The Captain's house.

Like mostly everything else, butter making is more exciting when you know the science behind it. Back when I was working on my Eagle Scout badge, I had the opportunity to study for the Dairying merit badge - - which gave me a whole bunch of knowledge about dairy products that I've never had the chance to apply in daily life - - until NOW, of course.

Here are some basics about dairy: milk is mostly water, with some proteins and fats. Cream is also mostly water, with lots of fats and a few proteins. Proteins are long, stretchy molecules that form most of the bubbles you see in food - - things like milk shakes, meringue, and heads on beer are protein bubbles. Proteins also let fats emulsify in water, which is why homogenized milk doesn't usually have clumps of fat floating around - - the proteins are helping the fats and the water mingle.

More science in a second - let's do a how-to on home butter making. Here are the tools and the ingredients:

You'll need a clean jar with a tight seal (like a Ball canning jar), some heavy whipping cream, and some ordinary table salt.

Pour the heavy cream into the jar until the jar is slightly more than halfway full.

As you see in the picture, this level is just about perfect. Make sure the lid is on tight for this next part, because we're going to start shaking the cream.

Don't shake continuously - we're shaking the cream to break the proteins away from the fats, so we need to give the two types of molecules a chance to clump together in the mixture.

As the cream builds up the foaminess from the shaking, the bubbles remove the protein from the mixture. What's left in the liquid part is mostly blobs of fat floating in water. The blobs of fat start attaching themselves to other blobs of fat that they bump into in the shaken solution. The proteins, already removed from the liquid, can't keep the fat molecules apart anymore, so....

Clumps of fat start connecting with each other, until there is just one huge clump of fat and a small solution of water and the proteins that had formed the bubbles when the fat was once emulsified in the cream. Ta-dah! Butter!

It's a bit of a wet, soggy butter because the store-bought heavy cream wasn't as heavy as it needed to be for super-quality butter. But this soft butter is quite adequate.

This type of butter is known as "Sweet Butter" by the USDA, but my taste buds are more familiar with the regular store-brand butter sold in supermarkets. So, I add a few shakes of salt to equalize the taste for me.

The ultimate test: can it spread on a crumbly sourdough cracker? Oh yeah!

I get the feeling Captain Girlfriend won't be buying sticks of butter anytime soon. She now knows Mrs. Mueller's Sekrit Recipe. And you do, too!

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