Milk is not only an amazing food, but can be made into many other foods as well – butter, ghee, kefir, yoghurt and thousands of kinds of cheese – and all of them can be made at home. We are fortunate to be able to use them; in many parts of the world, people cannot digest milk products, so they tend to be found mostly in Europe, and occasionally in India or the Middle East.
Butter was deeply important in this part of the world; for dairying peoples it was the most accessible form of oil, needed for cooking food and releasing the extra nutrition. Back when people milked their own cows and goats, they made their own butter with a churn, but you can do the same thing with a screw-top glass jar or some other sealable container.
First fill the jar one-quarter to one-third full of cream – a greater proportion than that and it won’t work. People in times past would use whole, un-homogenized milk, but that’s difficult to find these days, so cream is a good place to start.
The next step is to shake the jar vigorously for perhaps 20 minutes ; try putting on some dance music and giving yourself an aerobic workout, jumping around the house shaking the jar all the while. Don’t worry if it takes more or less, as it will be fairly clear when butter forms inside . At first the cream will become, effectively, whipped cream, and if the jar is more than third full you never get enough agitation to get past this stage. Eventually, though, you should see the liquid become thin again inside, with a clump of something in the middle. That clump is your butter, and the liquid is buttermilk.
To separate them, place a strainer over a bowl, unscrew the jar and dump the contents into the strainer. You can drink the buttermilk or use it for making pancakes or any number of other uses – it should keep for at least a week. The butter you can lift out and put in a bowl to sweat.
By “sweat” I don’t mean making it hot; in fact, you could put a few ice cubes in with the butter to keep it cool. It means that you have to chop, press, squeeze and knead the last of the watery buttermilk out of the butter, so that it will not go rancid. As in a party game, you must do this with spoons, touching the butter as little as possible with your hands – the warmth of your body could melt the butter.
When you are sure the last bit of liquid has been squeezed out, you have butter. If you like you could use it this way, as Europeans do, or add salt as English and Irish do to preserve it longer. You could mix in chopped herbs, like parsley and chives, to spread on bread, or sage, garlic and rosemary to bake a chicken. Use your imagination.
In warmer countries – or in Ireland in warmer weather – butter will not keep long in the heat, so before refrigeration Europeans used clarified butter, and Indians developed ghee. Ghee is essentially spiced clarified butter, and while there are many variations, you can make a simple version at home.
First put your butter in a pan on the stove on very low heat – I put a thin metal plate on our gas stove, and the pan on top of that, just to dissipate the heat a bit more. The butter will quickly melt and begin bubbling, which is good – but be very careful not to let it darken.
The butter should separate into three layers; a white film on top, the oil layer that is most of the butter, and the milk remains on the bottom. Only the middle layer is what you want. Early on you can spoon off the milky bits on top, and spread them on bread if you like. After that you can add spices, like bay leaves or fenugreek seeds, as the Indians do.
Keep it on very low heat for half-an-hour to an hour, checking frequently – again, it might take more or less for you. When there is no more bubbling or hissing, just the oil and the milk deposits at the bottom, you can strain it through a tea strainer and stop when you get to the milk deposits. The milk deposits, browned at this point, are still edible, and are good on popcorn. The rest should be a clear, golden-brown oil that will keep for months without refrigeration.
Or, you could bury it in a bog if you have one nearby, as I’ve covered here: