The One-cow Revolution

a grass-fed homestead

raw-cream butter

making raw-cream butter

This is more complicated than the lady at the dairy council table at the county fair, who uses centifugally separated, pasturized, homogenized, whatnot-ed cream, makes it look. On the other hand, it is not difficult; it is just more a complex operation when you are using living cream. You can make butter in a mixer or a blender. You can make it in a mason jar, if you have lots of people with nothing better to do than stand around shaking the jar.

We use an old Sears Roebuck butterchurn purchased years ago for the astronomical sum of twenty-five dollars, and put away in hopes that one day we would have a cow, and, consequently, a use for a butter churn. It wouldn’t go at first, but Shawn dismantled it and fiddled with it, and after that it was fine. This often happens with our second-hand electrical gadgets. It was a good purchase, and we hope it will last the rest of our natural lives, because butter churns are expensive. Really.

Our churn is for a gallon jar, which means it can only churn a half-gallon of cream at a go. This is fine, but we get a lot of cream, and use a lot of butter, and would like now to be able to process butter in one- to two-gallon lots. Pursuant of this goal, we will be watching this summer at garage sales and auctions for an old, all-metal, heavy-duty stand mixer. We feel sure we could use the motor and housing, remounted on a taller base, to power a two-gallon churn; a food-grade four or five gallon bucket, and a single propeller-style dasher on a long stem, should convert your ordinary mixer into a large butter churn. Watch for updates.

We skim every morning. We use a dipper to lift the cream off the top of each gallon of milk, previously cooled overnight in gallon pickle jars in our basement refrigerator. Skimming is not difficult, and practice makes proficient. The top of the cream tends to clot into a thick skin, which will stick to the bottom of your dipper and make it hard to gather the cream; this can be avoided for the most part by wetting your dipper at the sink before you start. You can also use the bottom of the dipper to sort of edge the clotted top cream to one side so that it can be scooped up first. In glass jars you can see the cream line, so you will know how far down the jar to go; after a while you won’t need this clue, because you will see the cream flowing in over the rim of your dipper, and when it runs in streaky blue you are getting milk. There is no need to take every last bit of cream, anyway; it makes better drinking milk if you don’t, and even if you feed the skim milk to the pigs and chickens, they will convert it into bacon and eggs, and who would consider that a waste?

We ususally collect cream for a couple of days before churning, so that we can make several half-gallon batches at once, thus saving ourselves cleaning the utensils after every pound of butter. One-half gallon of cream makes about a pound of butter, and leaves something more than a quart of buttermilk. This is not the cultured product you buy in the store, which usually isn’t buttermilk at all, but just milk cultured with mesophilic lactobacili and thickened with carageenan or something like that. Real buttermilk is the byproduct of churning cream into butter, and made with sweet cream it is sweet and lowfat and delicious. Made with more cultured cream, it is acidic and may also be delicious, but this will depend upon how clean your culture was. The butter, we hasten to assure you, will be good regardless; but the taste of the buttermilk will vary the way that of yogurt does when you have kept a culture going for a long time. It will still be good for cooking with, or for feeding to the hogs over bakery waste scraps. In any case, the quality of your buttermilk is not something to get uptight about, as the keeper of a family cow will have lots of buttermilk.So we wait until we have collected a gallon or two of cream before we churn.

On the day we intend to churn, we set the cream out on the counter for a couple of hours to warm and culture. This is sufficient for summer cream and summer butter; of winter butter we will treat at another time. An hour or so on the counter for summer cream, and you are usually ready to churn. How will you know? You won’t know, you just try. If you churn for half an hour and your butter doesn’t come, give it an hour’s rest and try again.

What you are waiting for is the cream to warm and acidify enough that the globules of milk fat present in the cream will gather together in clumps when they are bashed about. If this has happened, you will churn your butter for something between five and twenty-five minutes, while the cream passes through several stages; first liquid cream, then to whipped cream, then over-whipped cream (rather runny). After this is a stage in which the milkfat globules are gathering into small grains of butter; these should, as you continue churning, gather into big lumps, which will be yellow in the summer, and almost white in the winter.Sometimes, however, the butter stalls between the last and next-to-last stages, and you have to wait a while and try again when (we speculate) the cream has further acidified.

Summer butter is usually easy to make, having naturally present in it plenty of lactobacilli for making it acid quickly. Just be sure not to leave it on the counter long enough to reach room temperature; in the summer, when indoor temperatures might be anywhere from seventy-five to ninety-five degrees, room temperature cream will churn into slick butter, warm and shiny, and if you overchurn it, into fluffy butter. Both conditions make the butter difficult to wash, and difficult to handle. My churn does not have an automatic shutoff when the butter clogs the dasher. It just slows down, sticks, and starts burning up the motor. Bad idea. So far we haven’t ruined the churn, but we try to stay in the near vicinity when we churn, to catch the butter as soon as it comes.You know it is butter when it makes big lumps, yellow or white, which float in the residual buttermilk.

To drain our butter we wedge a slotted spoon, a ravioli turner, really, in the opening of our jar, and pour out the buttermilk, holding the butter back with the spoon. We pour out as much as we can, saving it for cooking or for the animals, and then add cold water to halfway up the side of the jar, reinsert the dasher, and churn the water and butter for a few seconds.

We drain this milky water off, refill the jar with cold water to the halfway mark, and churn again. In all, we wash in at least three waters. Four is almost always enough to ensure that the water runs mostly clear, indicating that the pockets of buttermilk in the butter have been replaced by pockets of cold water. This serves the dual purpose of washing the (very degradable) buttermilk out of the (only slightly degradable at cool temperatures) finished product, the butter, and of cooling the made butter so that it may be packed firmly and the water pressed out of it. If what we have made is the slick butter that comes from over-warmed cream, this cold-water washing will sometimes firm the butter up, remedying the situation. Sometimes not. Of which, more anon.

We have not always washed our butter this way. In the Pleisiostene age, about three years ago, we were still washing our butter in a wooden bowl and pressing it with a wooden spoon to work the buttermilk and cold water out of it. We used many changes of water, and about ten minutes of our precious time, and got a kink in our shoulder doing it this way, and it is a very good way to do it, and I recommend it highly. Only, if you get in a bind for time, you have an option.It’s nice to know how to do things the hard way before you start making a habit of doing it some other way. We used to cut and rake and lift all our hay, loose, and by hand, too.

Once the butter is washed, you must drain off what water you can, and then press out whatever remains in pockets in the butter. This isn’t something to get uptight about, since it won’t spoil your butter if there is still a little water in it; you just work the butter by pressing it with a wooden spoon, or your hand, only your hand will warm the butter, or the paddle atatchment on your stand mixer, until you can no longer pour off any water. Then you add salt, work the butter to mix the salt in, and there you are. Butter.

We make ours into one pound rolls by working it with a wooden spoon, and refrigerate them if they are not to be used immediately; if we have more than two pounds made, we wrap the butter in waxed paper after we chill it and put it away in the freezer.


Sometimes, despite all your efforts, which, if they are like mine, may be stronger on initiation than follow-through, you will end up with a product that can’t be washed, can’t be shaped, maybe can’t even be gathered into a lump. Sometimes your butter won’t “come”, which means that no matter how long you churn it, you don’t get a lump of butter you can fish out of the churn and process. You may end up with a churn full of over-whipped cream with small, soft grains of butterfat, or ditto, with small, firm grains of real butter that for some reason won’t adhere to one another and make a manageable lump. Sometimes when your butter comes, it is a slick, shiny, fluffy mess impossible to wash or shape. Sometimes, I’ll be frank with you, you’ll end up with a churn full of something you will be glad to give to the pigs and forget.

Sometimes, but not too often. Mostly, you can convert the variations you encounter in home kitchen butter making into real, firm butter, with just a little extra manipulation. Take the instance of the churn full of tiny firm grains of butter over a shallow layer of thin, sweet buttermilk. You have let the churn run for some time after this stage was reached, and still the butter won’t gather. The contents of the churn, when you shut it off, resemble something like runny cream-of-wheat.

There are two possibilities here that we know of. One is to give the churn another hour on the counter, while the culture continues to grow, and then try again. Maybe by that time the cream will be acidic enough to gather itself into a ball when you churn it. Maybe not. But in case this doesn’t do the trick, if your grains are firm enough it will sometimes work to drain the grainy stuff through a piece of cheesecloth for several hours, chill it, and then put it through the mixer to express the buttermilk. This means you will have skipped the stage of washing the buttermilk out, so you want to keep this butter in the refrigerator and use it soon, but otherwise it is butter, and no harm done.

Regarding summer butter, the commonest problem we have met with is one we call Fluffy Butter. This means you let the cream get too warm during ripening, and the churn, instead of gathering the firm granules of butter as they form, has whipped the soft lump of butter into a fluffy mass. It is difficult to drain this butter, since it tends to adhere to the slotted spoon we drain with, clogging the holes. The remedy we use in this case is to shove the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle into the refrigerator for a while, until the butter is firm enough that we can move on to the next step.

Often by thus chilling the butter you can right the whole situation; you will be able to drain your butter, wash as you would normally, work the water droplets out, salt and shape. If you chill it a long time, it may grow too firm for the churn to work it, and you may have to wash the butter by hand. No matter; butter it still is, and no one meeting it on the street would ever know it had a checkered past.

At other times, especially in winter, your problem will be that the butter doesn’t come at all; your cream will pass through the first stages, of whipped cream and runny, overwhipped cream, but at the stage where it should form small grains which will rapidly gather into large lumps, the process just stops. Beat the cream as you might, the butterfat in your cream simply will not gather.

We have no degrees in lacto-chemistry, but we speculate that in these cases the cream has not yet cultured enough to achieve the pH necessary for the tiny globules of butterfat to adhere to one another. Our speculation is supported by experience, which tells us that we can usually remedy the situation either by giving the cream another hour or so on the counter and then trying again, or, better still, adding a few ounces of mesophilic starter, otherwise known as cultured buttermilk, waiting an hour or so, and churning again. Most of the time, the process will then go on as intended, and you’ll have your butter. Continue as indicated.

On the other hand, there are times when – again we speculate – unfavorable bacteria have gotten the lead on you, and before your mesophyllic culture can acidify the cream adequately, your cream has spoiled. It will smell cheesey or ugly, look foamy, and is fit only to be fed to the pigs. So what. Tomorrow there will be as much cream again, and the pigs will be a little bit fatter.

We just love pigs.

24 thoughts on “raw-cream butter

  1. I’m late discovering your blog, but truly happy to have meandered enough to have finally arrived at it. Loved this post, love the wordiness of all your descriptions, love the apparent honesty of your approach (in this age of visual everything and patience for nothing). Oh, and love the interjections about pigs, which made me laugh. I live in far-off Pondicherry, and have been frankly struggling with butter–determined to get it out of daily collections of cream without needing to ask the moms around who’ve apparently been extracting the stuff effortlessly for generations. Right. We love such mythologies, don’t we? Discovered that most folks resort to the option that’s even easier than feeding it to pigs — especially if one doesn’t have pigs 🙂 — make ghee or clarified butter. You don’t need much effort to do that. Once you know the butter isn’t going to coalesce, or that you’re done trying for this round, then just apply gentle heat to the whole mass, let it melt and cook down until the foamy top gives way to a clear golden liquid below. Spoon that off gently, being careful not to disturb the milk proteins that will have gathered underneath — bottle — et voila, you’ve clarified butter. You don’t even really need to be Indian to want clarified butter; it adds a distinct flavor to pancakes and rices and anything on a griddle, maybe even on a grill. So, with apologies for this already-too-long comment, again: so glad for your tips and troubleshooting advice, and so glad for your blog. Deepa

    1. Deepa —
      Your appreciation is gratifying; and, as we have never before met an anthropologist from Pondicherry we feel as though we have received an exotic gift, a pigeon’s blood ruby, perhaps, very warming in a snowy winter. I, the butter-maker, look forward to my next fiasco so I can make ghee, something I have long considered doing but never at the right moment.
      What is the source of your cream: cow, goat, sheep? There are some people in Missouri who advertise camel’s milk for children with behavioral syndromes, so I suppose one can milk camels, too . . .
      Off for the atlas, to find Pondicherry, previously known to us for Roald Dahl’s story of the prince, but now a real place —

      1. Oh, Deepa, I have just clicked “Coming of Age in P” and am in ecstasy. I grew up outside Houston, I farm in the postal district of a Toronto (not the Canada one) and am already caught by the tone of the piece, but now I have to go put chicken and potatoes and squash in the oven so when we come up from milking the cows there will be some dinner on the way. Now I have something to look forward to after dinner, before the children clear away the dishes and we play cards

  2. Oh, and PS: the milk protein mass that collects below is good enough to cook with if used quickly–or fed to those hungry pigs, who’re not deprived by this process either 🙂 🙂

  3. Small, small world in this great big ole universe we share. I’d like to think I grew up in Houston, too, though it’s probably truer to say that I did a lot of my growing up there–graduate school, and then a career at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, babies born there, follies committed there, and such like 🙂 Take a look at the post on “A story of Houston food” and you’ll get a sense of how much I miss the place. The picture you sketch–of reading and writing in between dinner prep and milking cows and kids’ bedtime–makes me smile. None of it is easy, but it’s brought so alive in your words. Besides, that’s how it all happens, yeah? I’m happy we’re in touch. Oh, our cream is from cows’ milk. And we sort of have to treat this as summer (though the worst of the summer is yet to come) and plan butter-making accordingly. I think the mistake I’m making is in not getting the culture acidic enough. Folks out here say that it practically has to sour like yogurt before it’ll yield butter, and I’m thinking this must be right. In fact they set the cream out the night before with some spoons of yogurt mixed in to hasten the process. Worked for me once like a charm, but not since. I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, the bottles of ghee are collecting–salvaged counters for each failed attempt. Sort of like: 99 bottles of ghee on the wall, 99 bottles of ghee…except in reverse, as I’m adding, not subtracting!

    1. You know, Deepa, one time I had a call from a woman whose butter would not come; I pondered, questioned, coached; then received the information that she had 1) cultured the cream for thirty-six hours or something like that, and 2) she was using her blender to churn. Solution now easy; the butter came instantaneously, being so acidic and agitated at ninety miles an hour, and pen-instantaneously emulsified in the buttermilk. All subsequent churning simply rendered the emulsification more perfect.
      Summer is coming and we are very glad.

      1. Dear Beth, I’m so very sorry to be replying so late, but as you see it’s not because I ever forgot your kind follow-up and tip. 36 hours, eh? Well, I’d never have guessed. The last I tried, I’d left the cream out with some yogurt mixed in for a good 18–but that wasn’t perfect, the butter took long still to form, and it was never really clear that it had (unlike the first time I tried, when I just had a lump of yellow in the midst of all my buttermilk in an instant. Beginner’s luck, it must have been!) And, oh, I have tried in a blender, too, but not setting the creams out for longer than a night-and-half-day. In the heat of this place, I’d not push beyond 48 hours without incessant worrying, but let me give it all a whirl, and report back. I hope your summer has brought you bounties. Ours is intense at the moment, but it comes with mangoes, so who can complain, really? Won’t you come someday to visit? There’ll be much in a place like Auroville to interest you, I’m certain.

      2. Deepa —
        Your invitation comes at the perfect moment, Kipling’s Kim — I ask forgiveness for reading an Englishman to know India, but he does love it so, his version of it at any rate, doesn’t he? — being on my bedroom windowsill. I steep myself at odd moments. I’ll book a ticket STAT. I’m in love. Take me everywhere.
        It was fifty-nine degrees in the dairy this morning but the cream I set out at seven a.m. wouldn’t churn until late afternoon. Culture would seem to be very important. We are so accustomed to our mechanized, digitalized environment, where ON is ON and OFF is OFF. I think we might be different people if our daily lives included regular occasions of being thwarted by the intractability of some natural system. Come to think of it, they do — exhibit a), artificial sweeteners — but I mean by interaction with the plant and animal world.
        May the gods send you beneficial ambient bacteria —

  4. So sorry, I seem to have so much to say I keep leaving stuff out: “we feel as though we have received an exotic gift, a pigeon’s blood ruby, perhaps, very warming in a snowy winter” — this was beautiful, itself a gift.

  5. Dear Beth,

    This comment has more to do with making butter….but not intentionally!
    We recently moved to South America from California and here whole cream is sold in little plastic bags. Sob! No glass containers or even plastic bottles…just floppy, thin little bags. We poke the bag into a coffee mug to hold it and then cut a little corner off the top so that it can be poured out.
    This worked fine until about three weeks ago. We’ve noticed that the cream is turning into buttery chunks. This would be great if we were wanting lovely butter for toast but dear hubby likes the cream in his morning coffee…not butter! We just bought a bag of cream yesterday and it’s already lumpy this morning.
    What to do!!
    Before we moved, I made our own creme fraiche (yummy!) and ghee so I have years of experience with organic, pastured cream in glass bottles. Don’t know what is going on here. Like I said, this is only recently happening. Cream was fine up until about three weeks ago. Could it be something in the manufacturing that has changed?
    Any help will be greatly appreciated! Don’t want to throw out the cream. Maybe we can use it to cook with in place of butter?
    Thanks soooo much for your help and for the great site!


    1. Dear Sammi —
      Sounds familiar. One of the members of the community dairy we manage said last week that when she pasteurized some of her raw milk (she was intending to keep it longer than a week) she found butterfat gathering in the jar. I can only counter with experience — no science. When the cows are on especially rich pasture (as they have been the last two or three weeks — as we groom the pastures lighly before letting them stockpile for the winter) sometimes we’ll get butterfat gathering in globules right in the milk pail. My friend had risen cream in the milk she was pasteurizing, and for some reason — not necessarily the pasteurization — the butterfat gathered. It will be wonderful for cooking with.
      As Deepa has commented elsewhere, it is also possible to make ghee with cream that has begun to come (gather).
      I hope this helps.
      And what do you do in S. America? Sounds adventurous —

  6. Ooh, oooh, I might know how to help out on this one & having been invoked by Beth in her response, I’m taking the liberty. We get our cream in plastic packets here in India, too, and often — thanks to poor refrigeration mostly (would you believe many store keepers turn their fridges OFF at night to save on power? and on the logic that the fridges are cool enough till morning. Add that cost-saving impulse to routine power-shutdowns, and cream just sours and cultures much faster. The result is fresh cream that becomes butter quicker than you can whip it. Or becomes lumpy, with the fat in a layer on top, and liquid below. In your case, the little agitations of getting it home and storing cold may be really all that’s needed to start forming butter? I dunno, I’m guessing. I’ve lost so many batches this way–but struggle still with my own cream collected from milk!! The irony. Anyway, I found a solution, at long last, and that’s just very simply to gently mix in some fresh milk or (if you can find it) cream that’s available in tetra-packs as soon as you bring the cream home & while (presumably) the cream is still a tad on the warmer side, having been so moved around. The tetra-pack creams are usually a much lower fat content than the fresh creams in packets (20% range), so they’re not the kind that can be whipped, but usually what one buys to pour on fruit or whatever–at least on this side of the planet. If you can get those, great. If not, a small quantity of fresh milk may well do the trick and keep your cream a little while longer. You’ll have to experiment to figure out just how much, but it can be done. Mix gently but well, and refrigerate in a glass bottle. For me, it’s the difference between cream that has no other fate than to become butter, and cream that stays cream enough to make it into my next tiramisu! If this comment reaches your ears, Sammi, I’m completely loving the fact that I’m in Pondicherry, Beth is in Eastern Ohio, and you’re somewhere in South America–and we’re putting heads together to figure out cream and butter. That’s thread enough for me, but we’ve all been through the United States, too, so the tale only gets thicker. Good luck & my thanks yet again to Beth for making a space in which such delightful exchanges can freely unfold.

    1. Deepa,
      I clicked on your blog today and couldn’t find how to subscribe to it. Your posts are so beautiful! Thank God for the internet — good will wrapped all the way around the globe —

  7. I discovered something I would like to share.
    You’re information was great and so helpful. But I could not get my cream to churn into butter. I tried all the tricks wasted gallons of thick cream. What a time. I kept telling myself its ok. Its going to other animals for feed. But the reason I bought my own dairy cow, the butter. First and foremost. And I thought my cow was a butter dud. But yet so much then the owner told me the only time they got butter was by adding water to my cream. Well ok I hadnt tried that. So I did sucess butter. Yay.. but then the next batch nothing.. so I tried again. Sucrss. Ok whats the deal. At this point. I was churning for a hour. Might get butter might not. So frustrating. Soo one time I churned and churned added watrr. But nothing. I took 1/2 the cream out and added the amount cream i removed back with water. 2 MINUTES latrr I had butter. Did the same thing with the other have equal amount cream and water. 2 minutes later butter. I think my cream is so thick. Next time you have butter that wont come. Take the chance add a ton of water snd see if it changes. I havent had a batch fail yet now.

  8. That water tip sounds interesting! I am having a heck of a time with my cream, and I have to pay $14/l for it at the market. It’s 52% BF cream so it should be making excellent butter, but after sitting on the counter with some plain organic yogurt to culture it for about 12 hours, it turned into fluff. I tried to wash it, but it stayed fluffy. I read this post and the comments and have realized that my cream is too WARM. I put the whole shebang into the fridge to chill and I’ll try again in a couple of hours. I work full time at a stupid slave office job, so I don’t have time to fritz around with difficult butter. I really appreciate you all sharing your experience and wisdom here for people like me to benefit.

    If my cream doesn’t ‘come’ I will add water.

    Cheers from Calgary Canada.

  9. Thank you. Sigh… I have 3 big bowls of raw cream at this very moment! on my counter that have nearly driven me batty because they wouldn’t turn to butter. I found your blog by googling “cream won’t churn”. Yay. We just made the transition from home-pasteurized to raw milk (why did we wait so long??!!) and I must say that raw cream is a different animal than pasteurized. Your info has given me new heart and I will end here, give my cream a chance to rest, possibly try adding some water to it and wait for that miraculous moment when the butter arrives. Thanks for sharing!!

  10. We have a new supplier of milk, about half a mile away and we are getting it for a good price, so yesterday we tried butter form cream we had collected, and failed, today we tried cheese……we are awaiting the results…very hurried searching on your blog hopefully explained our butter failure as we churned straight from the fridge.

  11. Beth, thank you for that wonderfully sweet comment; it’s immensely encouraging and gratifying. I think you can follow my blog by clicking on the “feedburner” icon which takes you to this link: — which should allow you to sign up for the email updates. I hope this note doesn’t get sent to spam for havina link embedded within! Indeed, goodwill wrapped around the globe. Sending you happy thanksgiving wishes all the way from here.

    1. Deepa —
      Thank you for the directions; I hope I will now begin receiving dividends of sunlight from Pondicherry — oh, sublime name! — along with impetus to improve my knowledge of geography.
      I had to look up the St. Nicholas reference; I’m going to order a copy of the legend for my children as a St. Nicholas gift, along with the traditional Chanukka gelt (something from every tradition!). Do you have a special edition you think is particularly beautiful?
      Warm regards from chilly Appalachia —

  12. “Dividends of sunlight”–gives me an ideal to which to aspire. Thank you, Beth. For the St. Nicholas legend, we loved Aaron Shepard’s The Baker’s Dozen (and just about any other book the man has written), which is the source of the quotation I had used. You can see the text of the book here. but the illustrations in the paper version are of course well worth the pennies it takes to get your hands on one.
    Sending all our good wishes from a cool-dry Pondicherry,

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