By Richard Ledbetter
Many Arkansas families are steeped in rural roots. I count myself fortunate to be among those. Both my paternal and maternal grandparents had farmsteads where I spent a good deal of my formative years. Among the many traditions passed down from generations of ancestors are hickory-cured bacon from the smokehouse; cool well-water from a dipper straight out of the pail; fresh free-range eggs and poultry; grass-fed beef; fresh and home-canned produce from the vegetable patch; and whole, raw milk from Bessy the cow.
The heavy cream, available to self-sufficient folks when it rose to the top of whole, raw milk, provided the makings for churning their own butter. This and other almost-forgotten food sources have seen a resurgence in recent years due to the health benefits of unprocessed sustenance that comes directly from the land. Maybe that’s why I never much cared for margarine.
Few of us still have ready access to a milk cow, but heavy whipping cream, the primary ingredient for butter, is available on most any grocer’s dairy shelf. The higher the fat content, the better the butter. Without sufficient fat content, you may find you’re making a creamy butter spread rather than the firm butter you’re accustomed to.
As fascinated as I was by my grandmother’s May and Willie Bess magic of pouring clabbered cream into a ceramic urn and churning out a delicious, creamy spread, it’s much simpler to make butter than you might suspect. Here’s an easy step-by-step tutorial similar to the manner used by our predecessors.
3 pints heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk
½ tablespoon salt
Pour three pints of heavy cream into a large mixing bowl and stir in two tablespoons of buttermilk. You won’t want to use more than three pints unless you have an exceptionally large mixing bowl because, once whipped, the cream will expand to twice its original size. Cover bowl with a clean white cloth and allow to set out at room temperature for 48 hours to clabber. At the end of two full days, place covered bowl in refrigerator for no less than 12 hours.
The antique butter churn has been replaced by the modern electric mixer. Remove the mixture from the refrigerator and blend on high speed from 15 to 20 minutes, until butter begins to form. As the mixture thickens, the mixer will bog down. Slow to low speed and whip for another 5 to 10 minutes. If any liquid remains in the mixture, strain this off with a colander or cheese cloth. The excess liquid is uncultured buttermilk you can save for other recipes.
Take a second bowl large enough to accommodate the mixing bowl and fill three-quarters of the way with ice and cool water. Set the mixing bowl in the bowl of ice water, allowing enough time for the freshly made butter to chill and harden. This is sweet butter.
If you prefer salted butter, stir in a half tablespoon of salt, mixing thoroughly into the delicious creamy substance before chilling. You may want to make half sweet and half salted by removing a portion of the butter from the bowl before adding only a quarter tablespoon of salt to the balance. The sodium will contribute to the preservation of homemade butter.
To remove excess buttermilk, rinse the butter in cool running water while shaping it into a ball.
Using clear plastic wrap, line the inside of your chosen molds. Leave enough overlap to wrap the butter when removed from molds. Scoop butter into molds, taking extra care to remove any air pockets. Flip molds over and tap lightly to remove butter. Completely wrap your new butter in overlapping plastic and store in the freezer until needed. Make sure to allow frozen butter to thaw somewhat before using.
To experience the fullest delight, bake a pan of cornbread and spread generously in the middle of a warm, fresh slice.