October 5, 2017
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For Unusually Good Butter, Just Add Skyr
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Making cultured butter at home is a three-ingredient party trick.

Sure, I’ve always known that you can beat heavy cream until it turns into butter. But I’ve never really understood the point, aside from entertaining small children at living-history museums, or reenacting a kitchen scene from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.

Then I learned to make cultured butter—and its by-product, buttermilk—and now can think of few other cooking projects that require so little work for such an enormous payoff in flavor. Several hours of mostly passive time and a few messy minutes gets you gloriously tangy, creamy butter that will turn your morning toast into a luxury—as well as homemade buttermilk that you can use to perk up pancakes, biscuits, smoothies, and more.

Unlike most mildly flavored American butter, which is made from simply churning cream, the higher-fat cultured butter is made from adding live bacteria to cream—as easy as hitting the yogurt aisle for a tub of skyr, a thick Icelandic yogurt that has taken American grocery stores by storm in recent years.

Then just wait: The mixture will ferment until it thickens and develops that tang. After fermenting, you pour the whole thing into a food processor and whip until it thickens into butter, separating out the excess liquid.

Cultured butter has long been popular in European countries like France, but more American creameries, home cooks, and restaurant chefs are now embracing it. One of them is chef Dan Richer, a multiple James Beard semifinalist. The New York Times recently bestowed a rare three-star review on his Razza Pizza Artigianale in Jersey City, asking, “Is New York’s Best Pizza in New Jersey?” But before that, Richer was known in the business as the “Jiro of breadmaking and butter.”

His butter at Razza is magical—yellow as a daffodil and tangy as a good cheese, served in a soft dollop under a shower of sea salt. But when asked about his process, Richer simply sent me to buy skyr and the best heavy cream I could find.

While you can culture cream using most yogurts or buttermilks, Richer likes to start with an heirloom bacteria culture, which can remain active for as long as it is fed, even for multiple batches of butter. Several types of powdered, dehydrated heirloom starters are available on Amazon and other web sites, but Richer recommends the more accessible skyr for first-timers.

If conventional cream is all you can find, Richer says the culturing process is still worth the trouble. When I gave the skyr-cultured butter a try with conventional cream, the flavor still far outshined the store-bought sticks in my fridge. The resulting butter beautifully gilded bread and made outrageous cookies.

But when I tried the process with grass-fed cream from a local creamery, the result was even better. I mixed a carton of skyr into the cream and let the mixture sit overnight. The next day, I dumped it into a food processor and watched it churn into whipped cream, then separate into buttermilk and a glorious butter that was just as brightly colored and cheese-like as Razza’s.

Kneading and washing the remaining buttermilk out of the butter may be messy, but it takes only a few minutes with cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer, ice water, and a spatula. After using a little bit of cheesecloth to strain off as much liquid as possible, you submerge the butter in a big bowl of ice-cold water, and knead it for a few minutes, until any remaining buttermilk has been squeezed out. You can skip some of the washing process for a uniquely milky butter, but unwashed butter will go rancid quickly, so you have a shorter window of time to eat it.

And even if it weren’t for the great butter, it’s all worth it just to get the pungent buttermilk. It packs far more punch than the buttermilk you can buy in grocery stores—which is made by adding cultures to regular milk—and it’s an important tool in Richer’s kitchen. He uses it to soak leftover bread before mixing it into his delicate meatballs. I used mine in cake, pancakes, chia-seed pudding, and smoothies, all with thrilling results.

Cultured Butter and Buttermilk

Cultured Butter and Buttermilk

12-20 ounces butter/buttermilk

Ingredients

  • 1 quart heavy cream (preferably from grass-fed cows; otherwise free of hormones and additives, and not ultra-pasturized)
  • 1 small 5-6 ounce container skyr (preferably one labeled as containing heirloom cultures, such as Icelandic Provisions)
  • Sea salt, to taste

Add Icelandic skyr to heavy cream, churn that cream into butter and buttermilk, and you may never return to store-bought sticks. This is the method that earned Dan Richer, the chef-owner of Razza Pizza Artigianale in New Jersey, the nickname of the “Jiro of breadmaking and butter.”

Notes: Exact yield will depend on the fat content of the cream.

Butter will keep at room temperature for about two days, refrigerated for about a month, or frozen for up to six months. If you start with a skyr containing heirloom cultures, you can reserve about a cup of  cultured cream and, within about a week or two, use it to culture the next quart of cream.

  1. In a glass bowl, whisk cream with skyr. Cover bowl with a towel and allow to sit at room temperature for about eight to 12 hours, until thickened.
  2. Place mixture in refrigerator for at least three hours, preferably overnight, until completely chilled.
  3. Pour all of the cream into a food processor and turn it on (use high speed for multi-speed food processors). Watch as the mixture first looks like whipped cream, then eventually separates into butter and buttermilk. This process takes about three to five minutes.
  4. Pour off as much buttermilk as possible. Place the remaining butter in cheesecloth, or a fine-mesh strainer, and drain and squeeze out as much buttermilk as possible.
  5. Remove butter from the cheesecloth and rinse a few times with ice-cold water, pouring off and discarding excess fluid. Knead the butter, or use a spatula to press it against the side of the bowl, to discard even more liquid. Squeezing out all of the buttermilk will help extend the life of the butter.
  6. Serve at room temperature, salting to taste. Richer mixes about ¼ teaspoon of fine sea-salt into the fresh butter, then sprinkles on some coarse sea salt right before serving.

Elisa Ung

Elisa Ung is a writer based in Northern New Jersey. She was previously the restaurant critic and dining columnist at The (Bergen) Record and northjersey.com, and a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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