21st Century Homesteading: Making Butter

Monday, January 23, 2012


I always thought butter-making involved Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ma and Pa Wilder, a cow, and a big wooden churn. But my sister showed me all you need is a jar.  And little kids eager to do the work.

My sis lives in rural Ohio, where she has access to (shhhhh!) raw milk. 

Melissa gets a whole jar of raw milk from a local farmer.  She skims off the cream from the top, and lets that sit out overnight at room temperature.  This allows naturally-present bacteria to break down milk sugars into lactic acid, which, in turn, creates aroma and flavor compounds that give milk fat its "buttery" taste. 

Commercially-produced, "sweet cream" butter isn't "cultured" in this way.  It takes too much time, and space, in dairies.  The lactic acid and the bacteria are added to the fresh cream.

She spoons it into old peanut butter jars, and gives it to my two nieces, Isabella and Carmen, for the "churning" part.  Churning breaks down the phospholipids and proteins that surround and separate the butterfat molecules, allowing the fat to clump together.  After five minutes of shaking, you can see the globs of butterfat start to stick to the sides of the glass jar. 

A few more shakes, and the liquid starts to look lumpy.  The butter is almost ready.

My sister slides the butter onto a strainer, and presses on it, to get any remaining water out.  Then she mixes salt into the butter, for flavor and for a longer shelf life, and presses the pale yellow solid in a butter pat — in this case, a little bowl.  

And then we spread it over everything.

Now, I realize that raw milk is controversial. Health authorities say it can contain Mycobacterium bovis, which causes tuberculosis. Other bad guys can be present, too, including listeria and salmonella. 

In 2005, city health officials announced a spate of tuberculosis cases linked to the consumption of raw milk and raw milk soft cheeses, including that of a 15-month-old child who had died a year earlier of what was determined to be complications from TB.

The contaminated products were believed to have come from abroad, most likely Mexico. Many of the adults were from there.

I asked the Health Department's press office for an update. "The Health Department is aware of a case of campylobacter enteritis [fever, cramps, watery diarrhea] that was reported in September 2008....A NYC resident consumed unpasteurized/raw milk and became ill."  

My brother-in-law, Bill, grew up with an uncle who raised cows, and he drank raw milk as a kid.  

"He still had milk cans that we had to carry up the hill to be collected," he wrote me in an e-mail. "This was before the era of big collection tanks and all the amazing rules and regulations that pretty much forced out a lot of small producers."  At least in Attica, where his uncle's farm was.

He tells me he's more concerned and uncomfortable with the pasteurized milk coming from giant, industrial dairies that blend milk from multiple farms than he is drinking raw milk from a local farmer he knows, and who knows his cows.

Certainly, industrialized processes are not as hygienic as regulators and Big Food like to make them out to be. I found these stories in a list of food borne illness outbreaks in the US on Wikipedia:

  • 30 people died from listeriosis in 2011 from cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado
  • In 2009, 22,500 people got sick from salmonellosis in peanut butter from the Peanut Butter Corporation of America in Georgia
  • E. coli in bagged spinach from Big Organic food producer Earthbound Farm killed 3 people and sickened 198 people across 25 states in 2006
  • Tainted green onions served at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Pennsylvania infect more than 660 people with Hepatitis A, the worst outbreak in US history.

All major food producers and chain. Oh, and then there's this:

  • 8 people get sick with botulism in Western Alaska in 2002 as a result of eating a beached beluga whale.

Here, out of a long, LONG list of illness from the industrialized food system, is an example of the kind of risky, personal behavior that has regulators and public health officials foaming at the mouth. No wonder my brother-in-law talks about "raw milk hype."  

What do you think? And contact me if you know of a way to get raw milk.  I'm interested in doing a story about the raw milk udder-ground in New York City.  I know it's out there.  E-mail me at

Amy Eddings/WNYC
First, skim off the heavy cream from the top of a large jar of raw milk. Let it sit overnight.
Amy Eddings/WNYC
Now, shake the cream. Get two kids to do all the work for you.
Amy Eddings/WNYC
Once flecks of butter start to precipitate out, strain the butter, separating it from the butter milk that remains.
Amy Eddings/WNYC
Push on the butter to get all the liquid out.
Amy Eddings/WNYC
Put the butter somewhere.....
Amy Eddings/WNYC
Buttah! Spread everywhere, liberally.


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Comments [12]

J. Chambers from Wisconsin

Easiest way to make butter is to put the cream in a blender and turn it on low. You will have butter super quick. Just pour off the whey.

Oct. 03 2014 06:31 PM

My family drinks raw milk & won't drink anything else unless our cow is dry. Hopefully, I have enough in the freezer to get us by in those time.

Sep. 27 2013 10:54 AM

I have no opinion on raw milk one way or the other, but it seems like maybe you should update to mention that there's currently a campylobacter outbreak with over 70 victims linked to raw milk in PA.

Feb. 15 2012 08:21 AM
Jessy at Our Side of the Mountain from Maine

Hmmm...I've never considered purchasing raw milk before. We've been slowly switching to DRY MILK since it is less expensive. And I also purchase milk that CLAIMS to be hormone-free. I remember as a child one of our collie pups went to a dairy farm. We visited and brought home raw milk...and drank it without any problems.

We just made butter from an educational farm a couple weeks ago. It's surprisingly easy!

And we have our own chickens that free range (under supervision). We're totally LOVIN' the fresh eggs they give us!

Feb. 06 2012 01:54 PM
Kat Bennett from central NY state

I come from a very long line of farmers here in central NY state, who had cows ans chickens and pigs and plow horses. Every vegetable was grown on the farm, every egg eaten from our chickens, pork from our pigs, salt pork with breakfast, potatoes three times a day- and they ALL lived into their 90s, hearty, healthy, stopping only when it was time to pass over. They (me included) all drank cow's milk, ate the butter made from it; on and on. I just don't see why the government has to regulate what we choose to drink and eat, when it's health benefits are there, and history tells its tale. There are more people today, but more of them are sick, and I believe it's primarily from the food most of us are forced to eat, because of government regulations.

Jan. 29 2012 08:03 AM
Mid West Goat Owner from Illinois

You can locate various types of Dairy (Cow/Goat Milk, Cheese, etc.) over at Weston Price by State :

As with anything - buyer beware. Visit the Farm, talk to the Producer, pet the critter - "make the time to take the time" - educate yourself.

Jan. 26 2012 12:53 PM
Matthew Jenne from Upstate, NY

We own & operate what many would consider a commercial farm which I guess is what we are, but we would be much more willing to sell directly to the public if the government would just let us.

We save out milk for our own use. With it we make butter, ice cream, buttermilk pancakes/waffles etc. We also have chickens for eggs & meat, cows for beef, maple trees for syrup, a garden for vegetables and we are working towards bringing our orchard back to life. Nothing grown on our farm is contaminated with chemicals and is treated well & kept clean.

I would love to ask our government "What is wrong with letting the public choose where their food comes from?" If someone wants to buy milk, meat, eggs or vegetables from us "at their own risk", what is the harm?

Jan. 25 2012 01:51 PM
Amy Eddings

Thanks for the comments. I'm particularly intrigued by your experience with your son, Jill. I wonder what it is in raw milk that he responds so well to? Maybe it's an enzyme or something that gets killed in the pasteurization process that actually is needed to help him metabolize milk? I'm guessing here.

Interesting aside: Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer and owner of Polyface Farms, the guy featured in Michael Pollen's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and the movie, "Food, Inc." spoke at the 92nd Street Y last night. He said, "We have a government that says it's okay to eat Twinkies and Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew, but it's illegal to drink raw milk, compost-grown tomatoes, and Aunt Matilda's pickles."

Jan. 24 2012 12:57 PM

The "hype" your friend talks of is just that, HYPE to achieve further control of our food supply, see all the news articles about that.
My 11 siblings and I were raised on raw milk from our own cows. When our supply was low we bought from a neighbor who had a raw milk dairy farm. Not one time did any members of our community get sick from drinking raw milk. This was in the 50s and 60s before government regulations became overbearing. We made sure we were as clean as possible with the milking and handling, and the only refrigeration was one of those old box refrigerators that had space for 2 ice trays in the freezer.
We had fresh milk that Mom skimmed cream off to make butter, and we thrived. I continued well into my 30s, fed my 4 young children raw milk, and only quit when it became difficult to find a raw milk dairy. I plan to find a raw milk supplier in my new location also.
For more info, please research this issue before making up your mind NOT to use raw milk from either your own cow or a reputable neighbor farmer!

Jan. 24 2012 10:22 AM

I think it all depends on the source. If it's local, and you know the cows are healthy and on good, clean pasture, and the farmer is careful, I believe raw milk is safe and very beneficial. If you can visit the farm and observe, so much the better. I eat raw milk cheese that is not local, but from a reputable source.

Jan. 24 2012 08:50 AM
Jill C

Well, I can't help you with the raw milk udder-ground in NYC, but I can tell you that I won't risk giving my family pasturized milk. We started on raw about two years ago, and finally my son stopped spending all winter, every winter, sick. Now the cows we get our milk from are on hiatus until they calve (first one should go at the end of February!), and we are just not drinking milk at all. I keep a little around for cooking with, but other than that, it's raw, or nothing at all. My son got sick for the first time in two years after our supply stopped a few months ago, and since then he's had three illnesses.
As long as the cows you get your milk from are grass-fed, and otherwise healthy, and the farmer uses clean equipment and good practices, there is significantly less danger than, say, eating in your average restaurant.

Jan. 24 2012 05:55 AM
ZombieMommySaves from Atlanta, GA

I used to drink raw milk myself. And I see the benefits, number one being the taste. I love fat. I love butter.

However I did back off raw milk after that nurse got sick in 2008. Even if the chance is so miniscule, I can't put my family at risk.

I can see though if you lived on a farm and knew exactly how it was taken care of. Maybe the risk would even less.

Jan. 23 2012 10:29 PM

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