The butter culture

Once again, I am late to the party. Sometimes I don’t get the memo or in other cases, I outright reject it. In this case, I’m sorry to say, I rejected it. The most popular food of the next three years just doesn’t appeal. And when this food is old cabbage suspended in a jar and smells like something dead it’s understandable.

I heard about fermenting at the end of 2015. Pickling, and hygge, had just reached our shores from Denmark and fermenting was tipped to be the ‘next big thing’. Skeptical as always about anything that isn’t cake (fika is a Swedish tradition with which I am completely on board), I shrugged indifferently and returned to whatever I planned to bake that day. Pickling just didn’t interest me – my dad kept hundreds of old jars in the fridge, each containing something floating and discoloured – and fermenting didn’t look much better.

Now, working in a cafe which, at its heart, sits a Kilner jar of kimchi or pickled baby courgettes, I’ve realised what a fool I was and have scuttled back to the fermenting community with my tail between my legs. Without realising I’ve been enjoying fermented foods most of my life. Simply knowing this and learning how easy it is to ferment I’ve thrown myself into this trend, better late than never. I am still learning but my initial thought is: it is so satisfying to make your food from scratch.

homemade cultured butter

So yes, I know I’m late on the fermenting bandwagon so I won’t waste too much time on what you all know. We all associate fermenting with sauerkraut or kimchi; brined, preserved cabbage mixed with various spices and flavourings, or sourdough bread which requires a fermented starter of flour and water mixed with the dough to produce a mildly sour taste, unlike the sweet creaminess of white cob or bloomer. Fermented, however, can also mean cultured which is a more commonly used phrase for dairy products. Mixing a source of bacteria into milk or cream we can create cultured drinks and sauces such as crème fraîche, kefir and yoghurt.

I’ve had a lot of fun making crème fraîche from scratch these last few weeks. All delusions that it’s healthier than cream have evaporated and I am embracing its fatty tangy goodness with open arms. By simply stirring a couple of tablespoons of plain yoghurt or buttermilk into a pint of double cream and leaving it at room temperature for 24 hours, I have been left with a substance that is thick enough to support its own weight, almond-coloured and with the texture of dense clotted cream. It’s soured and unctuous so you swirl your tongue around your mouth, savouring its tang, before quickly returning for seconds.

homemade cultured butter

Crème fraîche accomplished, I felt it was time to turn my attention to the next step – cultured butter. On Valentine’s Day I had a romantic date with my friend Suzie. We traipsed across London in the rain to attend a film-themed supper club. Somehow the chef managed to pull together a menu based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s – a film in which no one eats anything – and we enjoyed homemade Cracker Jacks and three imaginative courses. The course that sticks most clearly in my mind, however – if you will put up with this tangent a moment longer – was the pre-dinner bread and butter. God, that butter. Made with unpasteurised milk it is creamy and sweet, yet it is cultured for that added complexity of sourness. I remember little of the meal Suzie and I ate, but I certainly remember that butter.

homemade cultured butter

With this gorgeous buttery specimen in mind I set out on my culturing project hopeful. The process took a couple of days so I kept a recipe-diary, if you will, to keep track and tweak where necessary. Thus, here it is:

Day 1

Calum bought me double cream and plain yoghurt as instructed – although the yoghurt is low-fat… hopefully it will still work. I mean to persevere so in goes a couple of tablespoons to a pint of cream. A quick whisk and I leave the jug nestled in the corner of the counter under a tea towel blanket. Six hours later I give it another whisk but not much progress so far, although the cream is a little tangier.

Day 2

This morning I checked the crème fraîche starter before work to find it thick and smooth (low-fat yoghurt does work!). I stored it in the fridge for the rest of the day to remove the cloying lactic flavour hiding that sacrosanct tang. After work, the crème fraîche has the velvety texture of soft-serve ice cream. As I don’t have any muslin (or even a j-cloth as a cheap substitute) required for straining I’ll keep the cream until tomorrow. In the meantime, it will hopefully develop a more cultured flavour overnight.

Day 3

Kept out on the counter overnight, the crème fraîche had separated slightly with cloudy whey sitting on its surface. I shiftily stirred it back together, pretending I hadn’t seen a thing, and sampled a mouthful – tangier than yesterday so all good so far. I transferred it to the fridge throughout the day before returning with j-cloths! Let the straining begin:

  1. I prepare my station: a sieve lined with a j-cloth propped over a bowl; a bowl of iced water; and another bowl filled with the crème fraîche, electric whisk at the ready.
  2. Whisking the crème fraîche on high-speed it gradually yellows and curdles like cottage cheese, buttermilk pooling at the base. After five minutes or so I pour the buttermilk through the lined sieve then plop in the remaining solids – the sacred butter.
  3. Gathering the corners of the cloth I squeeze the soft solids and out oozes more buttermilk, white and cloudy. Once squeezed dry, I quickly wash the bowl, add the butter and pour over a third of the iced water. Using a spatula I push the butter into the water, folding and squashing out all the buttermilk. Once the water is milky, I replace it with another third of the clean water and repeat until the water remains clear – about three turns. Now all the buttermilk is removed, it will keep longer without tasting rancid.
  4. Finally, I season the butter with a ¼ teaspoon of flaky salt and scoop it into a jar – first smearing a spoonful on a crust of bread and devouring it. Smooth, soured yet so creamy it is like thick icing on a cake.

homemade cultured butter

Keep the buttermilk for other recipes, maybe some buttermilk scones with fresh strawberries and raspberries. As for that butter, slather it on toast with no frills (it’s worth sacrificing jam for this). I’ll embrace the funky fermented cabbage movement next, but first I’ll enjoy the party from here with this creamy butter.

 

 

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