Butter Like You've Never Tasted

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When in a weakened state due to anxiety, an impending cold, or working too hard, I take solace in butter. I stand at the kitchen counter and eat shavings of cold butter on toast, or even crackers, with a few grains of sea salt. Good butter is like a perfect cheese to me but better in these moments: purer, simpler, direct, and voluptuous.

The quality of the butter is critical. My bottom line is Vermont Butter and Cheese Company's Cultured Butter, which is reliably fresh, or French butter from a store with a good turnover, both of which I can get easily. Mass-produced stick butter like Land O'Lakes -- even unsalted -- won't take me where I need to go, unless I'm in a serious bind. [Curator's note: For more on cultured butter, including Allison Hooper's in Vermont, and why it's so different from other butters, see this Atlantic column -- I'm in love with it too.]

Mass-produced stick butter won't take me where I need to go, unless I'm in a serious bind.

I dream of the butter I used to buy from three old ladies known as the Balli Girls, who lived on a remote mountain farm in the West Virginia Appalachians. It was the color of a sunflower, dense from the high percentage of fat, deeply creamy, pleasingly salty, faintly grassy, herbal, or oniony (from wild leeks) depending on the season. They made their butter with cream from the Guernseys they milked themselves in a jerry-rigged electric churn: a huge canning jar attached to a clanky motor that powered the paddle. Its frayed cord was a mass of taped repair.

These days I am haunted by the butter a friend brought by a few weeks ago, made by Pamplie, a cooperative of dairy farmers in Poitou-Charentes, France. It had little crunchy flecks of fleur de sel folded in: sweet, creamy, faintly floral butter with bright bursts of salt. We ate it as an hors d'oeuvre while we cooked dinner, slabbed onto bread.

Though I hunger for that butter, I am too busy these days to schlep uptown to get it. So I made my own version of crunchy fleur de sel butter one morning, mixing creme fraiche and heavy cream to get that cultured ferment taste, then kneading in fabulous salt after it chilled. It is the urban person's version of a great butter, far better than just about anything I can buy easily.

To really understand butter-making with a delightful read, check out Anne Mendelson's Milk, The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. The blog What Geek's Eat has detailed instructions of butter-making with photos.

Homemade Butter

This recipe seems involved but isn't. It takes no time and the butter you get will be a revelation.

Although you can make satisfying butter with vin ordinaire non-ultra pasteurized cream, the impact increases proportionally to the quality of the cream you use: super-fresh, un-homogenized, bio-dynamic, or organic cream from a farmer's market, for example, will blow the roof off.

Using half crème fraiche is my cheater's way of getting a really rich, cultured taste. If you can't find crème fraiche or want to reduce your costs, culture the cream yourself by mixing some yogurt or buttermilk with active cultures into the cream, figuring one tablespoon per cup of cream and leaving it uncovered on the counter for 16 to 24 hours until thick.

Don't try making butter on a warm summer day or in a hot room. A cool atmosphere is essential to its texture.

This recipe can be scaled up indefinitely and will work just fine with an electric mixer. Or just pour the cream into a screw-top jar and shake (great for kids).

Makes 2/3 to 1 cup butter (see Sally's explanation in Comments, below), plus 1 cup buttermilk

1 cup (1/2 pint) heavy cream (not ultrapasteurized)
1 cup (1/2 pint) crème fraiche
About ¼ teaspoon of a pebbly-or-flaky-yet-chewable sea salt, such as fleur de sel or Malden, or to taste

Place the food processor bowl and blade, along with the crème fraiche and heavy cream, in the freezer to chill about 15 minutes. Then assemble the processor, add the cream and crème fraiche, and process, stopping to check the consistency occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl until the mixture has "broken" and looks like yellow curds in milky whey. It will seem to take forever, but after 4 or 5 minutes the mixture will go from looking whipped to forming a big clump briefly on the side of the bowl, to "breaking" into curds.

Pour into a strainer placed over a bowl to catch the buttermilk (this is totally different from the commercial stuff and is truly delicious. Refrigerate to use on fresh berries, in cucumber soup, in buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, or quick breads and cakes).

Fill a medium bowl with ice water (water with ice cubes), scoop the butter into a ball, and plop it in the water. Using your fingers or a wooden spoon, knead and work the butter to rid it of all traces of buttermilk, straining off and replacing the water occasionally, until it remains clear. Pour off the water, knead the butter a few more times to squeeze out any remaining water, and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a dinner plate, flatten until about ½ inch thick, and chill in the freezer 15 minutes.

Sprinkle the salt evenly over the butter and use a dinner knife to mash, folding it into the butter until thoroughly combined and occasionally pinching off bits to taste the salt and crunch level, adding more if necessary. Work quickly so the butter doesn't warm up. Wrap the butter in plastic wrap or seal in a plastic container and refrigerate.

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.
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