The magic of butter

We’ve been making something magical in the kitchen with students during some recent field trips.  It’s creamy, delicious, and quite simple.  Its origins date back thousands of years ago.  There is only one ingredient involved, and it requires no recipe.  This magical thing is made from heavy cream and requires a small jar and lots of shaking- a great task for kids.  If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s butter!

Making this simple food is a forgotten knowledge for many.  But, years ago it was a common household task.  In case you need a primer, butter is made from the cream that rises to the top of whole milk from an animal.   The cream may be skimmed off the top of the milk, or allowed to stand and sour naturally.  In the early butter-making days, cream would be poured into an animal skin bag and later a wooden tub, where it was churned by hand.  Butter is produced by churning cream until the fats separate from the liquid (buttermilk) and the butter is in a semi-solid state.  Butter is simply the fat of the milk.

At the Edible Schoolyard, we use butter-making to demonstrate physical changes in matter.  By shaking or churning cream into butter, students see how to turn a liquid into a solid that you can eat.  It’s miraculous, really.  Everyone loves it- and learns something in the process.  We encourage you to give this forgotten tradition a try at home.  It’s a fun family activity.  And, you can even sing some traditional butter churning songs or make up your own to help pass the time, as many families did.  Here’s one version of a traditional song.

Come butter come
Come butter come

(insert your child’s name) stands at the gate
Waiting for a buttered cake


To make butter, you will need a small jar with a tight fitting lid and some heavy cream.  Follow these steps below:

  1. Pour cream into jar until half full.
  2. Screw lid on tightly and begin shaking, or “churning” the cream.
  3. Shake until you can no longer hear liquid moving.  First the cream will become whipped cream- it will be thick and fluffy.  The jar will be hard to shake.  But, keep shaking.  Soon, the cream will begin to separate and there will be a thump sound as the butter and buttermilk separate.  Pour off the liquid and save it for another use, or feed it to your chickens.
  4. Add a little salt, fresh herbs, spices, or honey to the butter.  Use it right away, roll butter into logs with parchment paper, or press it into a butter mold.  Serve on homemade bread, crackers, or pancakes.

– Jennifer


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