CHURNING YOUR OWN BUTTER - Traditional Baking: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students, Foxfire Students

Traditional Baking: The Foxfire Americana Library - Foxfire Students, Foxfire Students (2011)


The churn is usually a 4-5 gallon stoneware jar with a wooden lid and a dasher. It should be filled half, or slightly over half, full with rich milk which should be mostly cream.

Then set the churn aside so that the cream can “turn,” or clabber. The time required for this step depends on the temperature of the cream. In the summer, for instance, the cream can be “poured up” one night and churned the next. The cream will be ready in three days if it is warmed on alternate sides by a fireplace in the winter.

It is important that the clabbered cream be churned when it has turned. One test of readiness is to tilt the churn to its side. The liquid should hold together in one form, separating cleanly from the sides of the container. If left too long, the cream will curdle and separate, and it will not make good butter. On the other hand, if churned too early while it is still “blinky milk,” or sour milk, it won’t make good butter either.

The butter itself is made by agitating the clabbered milk with a dasher which, in many cases, is a homemade affair. It consists of a stick similar to a broom handle, one end of which is nailed to the center of either a cross (two slats 4″ long, 2″ wide, and 1/2 ″ thick attached together) or a circular piece of wood 1″ thick, 4″ in diameter, containing four holes, each 1″ in diameter spaced equidistant around the center.

ILLUSTRATION 1 Margaret Norton still churns several times a week. Her butter is not only used by several families in the area, but also sold in the local supermarket.

The dasher is inserted into the churn, and the churn’s opening is covered by a tightly fitting wooden lid which has a hole in its center for the dasher stick. The lid prevents splattering as the dasher is agitated up and down. The clabbered cream must be continually agitated by this up and down motion of the dasher for thirty to forty minutes.

The temperature of the cream has a great deal to do with the time required in churning and the quality of the final product. If the clabbered cream is too warm, the result will be soft white puffy butter. Cold water will improve the texture.

Clabbered milk that is too cold, on the other hand, will yield specks, or small balls of butter that refuse to stick together. Hot water, stirred with the dasher into the cold liquid, will help gather the butter.

When the butter gathers adequately, remove the lid and stir gently with the dasher in a sideways motion bringing the butter together (ILLUSTRATION 2). Lift the lumps of butter out, drain, and place them in a bowl. The experts that we interviewed disagreed on the next step. Mrs. Norton next places her butter in the refrigerator overnight to chill it. Then she molds it, adding salt (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per pint of butter).

ILLUSTRATION 2 Gathering the butter.

Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Phillips feel that rinsing the butter with cold water immediately after taking it from the churn gives it a fresher flavor and causes it to keep longer. They also add salt to boost the flavor. The liquid left in the churn after the butter has been removed is buttermilk.

Ice and a cold mold will make butter molding easier. If you haven’t kept the butter in the refrigerator overnight, drop ice into the bowl of butter and stir it through the warm butter with clean hands. Then squeeze out any water and press the butter into a mold. When it is filled, push down on the handle of the mold, which acts like a piston, thus releasing the “print” of butter. It should weight out at approximately a half pound, or a pound, depending on the size of the mold used.

Then store the butter in a cool place, ready to spread on hot breads or to use in making cakes.

To get a small amount of butter and buttermilk in a hurry, an ordinary glass jar can be used. The clabbered milk should be shaken for approximately twenty minutes in the container. Then proceed as above.

Need a diversion to make the time go faster? You might like to try the traditional chant that the churner said in time to the up and down movements of the dasher. The arrows indicate the dasher movement.