Thursday, March 7, 2013

Egg Beater Butter

One of the classic first experiments of DIYism is to turn a jar of cream into a mound of tasty butter.  Why might you want to make your own butter?  Other than not having to get it from the store, making good use of your cream, and getting a pretty good workout if you make it manually, you don't have to worry about scary things like flame retardants that might be found in commercial butter.

The butter is made by a process called "inversion," which involves making a water-in-oil emulsion (butter) from an oil-in-water emulsion (cream).  Here is an infographic we made up to help understand the process (click on it for a larger view).  For a much more detailed discussion, see here, here, here, here, and here.

There are lots of ways to bring about this cream inversion, but most DIY instructions seem to focus on using an electric mixer (countertop, handheld, or stick style), or the old-fashioned jar-shaking method (no need for a Shakeweight!).  A few sources mention using a manual egg beater, but we couldn't find anyone who seems to have actually done it that way.  Since it's super easy to make whipped cream with an egg beater, we set out to show that butter wouldn't be too much extra work.  But as it turns out, we ended up learning a lesson in modern handheld appliance construction and ergonomics.  Fortunately, we still got butter in the end without using anything electronic!

One pint of heavy whipping cream, plus a hand-crank egg beater, ready to do battle.  The precious butterfat is locked inside a (nearly) impenetrable fortress of milk and protein.  That the more concentrated the butterfat is in the cream, the faster it will turn to butter.  For us, heavy whipping cream turns much quicker than the cream we skim off our milk.

After about five minutes of beating, we're almost at whipped cream stage.  Lots of air has been incorporated into the oil-in-water emulsion, making it harder for the butterfat particles to move out of the way of your beater.  If you want something to put on top of your 'Hog Nog, beat just a little more, then stop.
After about seven minutes, we're a little past prime whipped cream stage.  We're starting to break through the fat particle membranes and release the butterfat, as you can see in the slight yellowing of the cream.  The mix is getting pretty stiff now, and this is when we learned our lessons about egg beaters.  First, the polymer (plastic) gears attached to the beater arms were not meant to beat things this thick, and the gears started slipping.  You might be able to get a few batches out of a new one, but ours was pretty well-used already, and became mostly useless at this point.  Second, this style of egg beater doesn't give much leverage to push through the thick mixture, anyway.  What it really needs is a vertical handle you can hold on to and exert some force!
Victory!  After switching to the whisk, it took another 5-10 minutes of vigorous stirring to release enough butterfat to invert the emulsion.  We've finally got our butter and buttermilk.  Time to switch to a spoon and do some purification: work the butter back and forth in a bowl, squeezing the buttermilk out.  Pour off the buttermilk into a glass.
Take a break to drink the buttermilk and eat a cookie right away before anyone sees your liquid white gold-in-a-glass.  If Katie walks into the kitchen before you finish it, reluctantly offer her some because she made the cookie.
Keep working the butter until you can't get any more buttermilk to come out.  You might want to switch to your hands, since they're a little better squeezing tool than a spoon.  Once you can't squeeze any more out, rinse the butter under a trickle of very cold water (keep kneading it with your hands) until the liquid you squeeze out runs clear.  That helps to wash out any of the water-soluble compounds (like butyric acid) that make butter taste funky after a few days.
Work your trophy glob of butter into a custom-made two-stick butter mold.  We'll make a real mold somewhere down the line.  We got just under two sticks-worth from the pint of heavy cream

The optimal temperature to make butter at is somewhat nebulous.  At low temperatures, the membranes around the fat globules are harder to break.  For us, it takes a LOT longer if the cream is right out of the fridge.  At high temperatures, the inversion happens faster, but the yield can be lower because the butterfat is more soluble in the milk phase.   So, we just stick (ba-da-bum!) to keeping everything about room temperature, and it works fine.

How do you make butter in your kitchen?  Do you have a less labor-intensive non-electronic technique?  Tell us about it in the comments section below!


  1. I knew a guy in high school whose family (he was one of 9 kids) bought a used paint shaker. They used to make butter by the gallon in it because they went through so much.

    1. That would be a good way to do it, as long as the container was clean! It's even got a lid on it to keep splashing down. And, you could probably run it on a small windmill to save yourself labor and not use electricity. Thanks, Pete!

    2. A used paint shaker is a great idea! I’ve thought of that in the past but did not know if they could be bought second hand. I usually put a large ball bearing in a plastic 1/2 gallon jar and shake the butter loose from it for 1/2 an hour.