How to Make Butter and Buttermilk
There’s another reason my blogging has been a little slow lately. There were a few different recipes I wanted to do, but I knew that some ingredients would be hard to find for people on one or the other side of the world. So before I do those recipes, I wanted to do a few different quick posts on how to make some basics. For example, I wanted to post about Irish soda bread, but I didn’t want to just tell a bunch of people living in Korea to “add buttermilk”. That’s ridiculous. There is no buttermilk here. Luckily, it’s very easy to make. So I’ll start there.
The great thing about making buttermilk is that you get a twofer. You can’t make buttermilk (using this method, at least) without also making butter. Homemade butter has a few different advantages. For one thing, in Korea at least, it is cheaper than the better quality brands of store-bought butter. You can also salt it to your exact liking and mix in any herbs you want. This time, I made chive butter, but you can of course make basil butter, thyme butter, rosemary butter… the list goes on. The other great thing about homemade butter is that it is much lighter in color than a lot of store-bought brands, which means you can use it to make a much more true-white frosting without having to add pounds of powdered sugar. You can also use ice cube trays to make individual pads of butter, which are much more convenient for a lot of things than the massive hunk of butter sold at the stores here.
The only things you really need to make butter and buttermilk are cream, ice, some kind of straining device, some ice and an electric mixer. You don’t technically need an electric mixer — I’ve whipped cream without one before — but for the sake of your arm muscles and sanity, I recommend using one. If you want cultured butter and buttermilk, you also need a buttermilk starter or a couple of tablespoons of of cultured buttermilk. Since the point of this post, however, is to help those without access to buttermilk find a way around it, you can also use a couple of tablespoons of yogurt with live cultures, which most store-bought brands have (the packaging should say that it contains live cultures — in Korean, look for 유산균). Now, some of the cultures in buttermilk are different from those in yogurt, so this won’t give you an exact replica, but it will give your buttermilk that richer, soured flavor. Just be sure to use plain, unsweetened yogurt. As a side note, if you are able to get your hands on a buttermilk starter or some genuine cultured buttermilk even once, you could potentially keep using it to culture more buttermilk indefinitely. It would just take a lot of maintenance, as you’d have to keep making a constant fresh supply to keep the cultures alive.
If you don’t culture the cream, you will still end up with perfectly fine butter and buttermilk. They will just be a bit sweeter and lighter in flavor.
I didn’t culture mine this time around, but if you’d like to, all you need to do is mix your starter into the cream and leave it out at room temperature for about 8 hours. Then you follow the same steps from this point.
You need to make sure the cream is cold so that it will whip properly. It should stay in the fridge for 24 hours leading up to the time you intend to whip it.
If after five minutes of beating the cream it doesn’t begin to thicken up and start looking like whipped cream as in the photo above, either your mixer isn’t set high enough (it should be on the highest speed) or your cream is not cold enough. If it’s the latter, don’t panic. Get another large bowl and fill the bottom with ice and a little water. Place the bowl with the cream inside the ice bowl so that the water rises about 3/4 of the way up the side of the bowl with the cream in it. Be careful not to get any water in the bowl of cream. Keep beating, and your cream should come together pretty quickly. If you’re using a hand whisk… good luck! Keep going. Find a friend. Work in shifts. Wear a wrist guard.
Now, if you were making whipped cream and it starts to look like this, congratulations! You are now making butter. The cream is beginning to separate, and, in this case at least, that’s exactly what you want.
Now things start to get really messy. As the solids separate from the liquids, your mixer will begin to fling buttermilk all over your kitchen. For that reason, I recommend not setting up too near a wall or other appliances, or else you’ll be scrubbing buttermilk out of crevices for weeks to come. There’s really nothing you can do to prevent it — it’s better to just minimize the fallout.
When your bowl looks like this, you are ready to start working the butter.
Scoop out the solids and leave the liquid in the bowl. I recommend using a cutting board at this point, because you can pick it up and tilt it over the bowl to save the buttermilk you’re going to squeeze out of the butter.
That wooden paddle is a god’s-honest butter paddle I brought back with me from Texas after my last visit. It’s probably at least 60 years old. While the flat shape is ideal for pressing out the buttermilk, I recommend opting for a wooden utensil even if it’s a spoon. You’re going to be pressing really hard, and the butter is going to get very stiff and sticky, and metal and plastic utensils, even if they’re flat, will probably be more hindrance than help.
Basically, you’re going to use the paddle or spoon to knead the butter, pressing it flat, scooping it up, folding it over and flattening it again. Keep doing this until you can’t get one more drop of liquid out of the butter. This is important, because any buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to go off more quickly. Set the buttermilk off to the side — we will come back to it later.
Now here comes the ice. You’ll need three bowls at this point — one for the kneading the butter, one for the ice water and one to pour off the excess buttermilk water. Put about half a cup of the cold water (just the water, not the ice) into the bowl with the butter, which by now should be solid enough for you to work with your hands. Continue to knead the butter in the water, squeezing out the excess. When the water becomes cloudy, pour it off into the third bowl, pour more cold water over the butter and repeat. Keep going until the water stays relatively clear. Do not put this poured off water in with your buttermilk — it’s garbage. Throw it out.
At this point, you can mix in whatever herbs you want and salt, if you’d like, as well. If you’re making uncultured butter, I suggest adding only a small amount of a salt — maybe 1/4 teaspoon per pint of original cream. Uncultured butter, as I mentioned before, has a delicately sweet flavor that I personally enjoy too much to drown it with salt. That having been said, salt helps preserve the butter, so adding a pinch per pint is a good idea.
Fold in your herbs and salt, pack your butter into whatever mold you like and set it in the fridge to chill. Once it’s well chilled, you should be able to take it out and remove it from the molds for storage after it sits at room temperature for a few minutes.
As for the buttermilk, you’re going to want to strain out any remaining solids (I used cheesecloth, but a very fine strainer should be fine) and store it in the fridge for future use. Biscuits, cornbread, buttermilk pancakes, soda bread — it may not be 100% bona fide cultured buttermilk, but it’s not half bad, and it’s certainly better than life with no buttermilk at all.
Freelance writer and editor. American in Seoul. I write about Korean food. I blog about all food. Last year I wrote a monthly column about traveling to different places around the country to explore Korean ingredients and cuisine. This ignited my interest in local foods and cooking, which I blog about regularly now. I also blog restaurant and cafe recommendations, recipes and some background and history about Korean food.