“Let’s hope to God this doesn’t turn into the world’s most rancid frosting,” I say to my sister before dumping a full quart of cream—pungent and thickened with age—into the basin of my mother’s KitchenAid mixer. Katie nods in agreement as she wipes out the 32-ounce Mason jar that had previously stored the fermented cream. I can always count on her to clean up the messes I make, and today that mess is a literal one.
There is something distinctly sophisticated about the term “cultured butter,” and something alluring about the kind of person who would use such a classy ingredient in her baking. As someone who struggles to bridge the gap between practicality and refinement, I hoped that while introducing some bacteria culture to a vat of heavy cream, I’d also add some much-needed sophistication and culture into my own life.
My near obsession with cultured butter directly stems from another obsession of mine: binge-watching the Great British Baking Show, a reality show where home bakers compete for international stardom by whipping up breathtaking baked goods. After watching contestants my own age decorate intricate layer cakes and blowtorch crème brulee, I decided it was time to at least learn how to bake some cookies without the help of Betty Crocker.
“American butter is essentially trash!!!” The phrase was scrawled across the message board of some random online baking forum I encountered while researching recipes. I had no idea what the anonymous commenter was referring to, but was instantly offended. “Ummm have you seen American obesity rates?” I thought to myself. “Clearly butter is the best thing we do.”
I thought butter wasn’t that complicated. Thanks to several kitchen chemistry lessons from my mom, who occasionally helped me make butter as a child, I understood the basic science. Butter starts its life as cream, which from a chemical perspective, is pretty much just fat molecules suspended in water. If you believe the popular legend, butter was invented accidentally some four thousand years ago by a traveler whose goat milk churned itself into butter during a bumpy horse ride. Agitating the cream by whipping or shaking it breaks up the fat molecules and encourage them to coagulate.
As the name would suggest, sweet cream butter (also called uncultured butter) is churned from fresh cream, which gives the finished product a smooth texture and fresh flavor. Sometimes salt is added to the butter, mostly as a holdover from days before refrigeration when salt was needed to prevent spoilage.
European style butter is made from cream that’s been practically fermented, which means that bacteria has helped to break down the sugars in the cream, turning them to lactic acid. The souring of the dairy is what gives uncultured butter a rich flavor and distinct tang.
During the 1800’s, this fermentation was au natural. People let buckets of unpasteurized cream sit out overnight, and the natural bacteria present in the milk worked its magic. Once pasteurization became popular, our friends across the Atlantic put a sanitized spin on the fermentation process by reintroducing active bacteria to pasteurized milk. This is why cultured butter is often called European style. While all this talk of bacteria may seem alarming, consuming cultured butter is no more harmful to your health than consuming yogurt or sour cream.
Cultured butter’s unique aging process also makes it ideal for baking shortbread cookies. In the movie Mean Girls, airheaded antagonist Regina George asks, “Is butter a carb?” The answer to that question is no. Butter is an emulsion, a mixture of water and fat, two substances that don’t typically mix well together. If you want to get scientific, traditional American style butter is an emulsified mixture of about 80 percent fat and 15 percent water. (That other five percent is just various proteins that help stabilize the emulation.) But the slow churning process of cultured butter results in a higher fat content, anywhere from 83 to 86 percent. A lower water content makes a dry and crumbly texture, which may not be ideal for making brownies, but is exactly what you want in a shortbread cookie.
It was all clear to me now: cultured butter was the answer to my baking troubles. With the addition of just one ingredient, I would be able to transform my humble shortbread cookies into a recipe worthy of praise, admiration, and quite possibly the title of Great British Baking Show Champion. There was just one slight problem: Cultured butter is readily available, but not at a reasonable price. At the Brooklyn butcher shop Marlow and Daughter, cultured butter retails for $13 per pound. While the price at my local supermarket wasn’t quite so steep, it was roughly twice the price of its uncultured counterpart.
Exacerbating the situation was the fact that I am notorious cheapskate. While the average person may sneak a bag of popcorn into the movies from time to time, I once smuggled an entire bagged lunch into an opera so I could avoid paying concession stand prices. Clearly, my deep desire for class and sophistication is only surpassed by instinct to hoard money under my mattress in preparation for the impending apocalypse.
Unwilling to pay retail prices for cultured butter, the next logical step was to make it myself. Culturing butter is essentially a life skill, I rationalized to myself. Not only was I going to develop a worldly arsenal of culinary skills, I was basically sticking it to capitalism. Or, so I thought.
Technically speaking, culturing my own butter cost slightly more than the brand name stuff. But that’s only because the unsweetened whole milk yogurt I needed—the source of the bacteria that would ferment my heavy cream—was nearly impossible to find in the sea of fat free, mixed berry Greek yogurts that populate the dairy aisle. I ended up purchasing an economy-sized vat of yogurt simply because it was the only type of plain yogurt my local grocery store sold.
Everything’s cheaper in bulk, I reminded myself. If the Giant actually sold real people yogurt instead of this weird diet stuff, it would totally be cheaper. But the real cost of my butter was in time and labor, which in all honesty, wasn’t a herculean ordeal. In total—ageing, churning, and removing the extra water from my homemade butter took about 20 hours, and an uncountable number of paper towels. But the resulting product was spectacular: highly flavorful butter, slightly tangy with a thick and almost dry texture.
Despite my best efforts, culturing my own butter didn’t make me a more cultured person, at least not in the traditional sense; I highly doubt that Grace Kelly spent an afternoon wiping smelly milk off her countertops and out of her hair.
Still, I wanted to update some of my friends on my newly acquired life skill:
“I’m currently culturing my own butter,” I texted a friend who’d made the mistake of asking me what I was doing over break. “Cultured butter is like this really fancy butter.” He hadn’t asked for an explanation, or photographic evidence, but I sent him both anyway. “Oh, and I dyed my hair pink today,” I quickly added “So you know it’s just a typical day for me.”
“Of course,” he replied. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you, Kelly.”
Telling people that you can culture your own butter doesn’t make you seem sexy and classy; it makes you seem eccentric. But in all honesty, I’m the type of girl who binge-watches BBC and shows up to an opera house hoagie in hand, so eccentric is pretty much my baseline. I may not have cultivated sophistication during my experiment, but I cultivated another aspect of my personality, and now have a fun story to tell. That, and a pound of homemade butter.
Photo of butter and pie ingredients by Rachel Bowman