In Sunday’s NYTimes mag food piece, San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson discusses his revelation that if you churn cream it turns into butter. The fact of his surprise is yet more evidence of how far even chefs are from the elemental properties of our food. This is nothing against Patterson—I’ve loved his food stories and look forward to more. And I too remember when I discovered this remarkable behavior of cream—“Wow, I didn’t know you could do that.” I watched the wife of a famous chef discover some good cream in her fridge the day she was leaving for a two week trip. She poured it into a Cuisinart, let it rip and a few minutes later strained out the butter milk to freeze the butter so she wouldn’t waste it.
Patterson uses a standing mixer to get the same result. It really works and it’s pretty cool. Even with store bought ultra-pasteurized cream you can get something that can be called butter. With generic cream, you’ll get flavorless butter—but you could conceivably flavor it with anything because it’s so neutral.
But should we? And even if we use really good cream from a farmer with excellent cows fed on lovely grasses—is this all there is to great butter, a standing mixer or food processor? Could everyone make artisanal butter? I asked Diane St. Clair about the article (Diane is one of the best butter makers in the country and also generous with her cow balls). In an email, she expressed frustration with the article. It mentioned nothing about the quality of the cream, she said, which is critical. It won’t taste like the real thing if you use the ultra-pasteurized stuff. And he mentioned nothing about culturing the butter, she said, introducing the bacteria that will give the butter complexity.
“Oh well,” she concluded.
I have read part of Diane’s struggle for superlative flavor, the trial and error, the trip from Vermont into Manhattan where she and a friend bought various butters at Zabar’s and sat on a bench on upper Broadway tasting an international variety against her own. That’s the butter that I want to taste.
Making your own butter is a fun kitchen parlor trick. It’s a cool sensory experience, if you like touching food, to feel the water squeezing out of it as you kneed it. And it’s important in its helping us to understand our food better (the main reason I’m glad Patterson wrote about it). But is the fact that we can churn our own butter valuable? If you’ve got a pint of good cream in the fridge and you’re about to leave for vacation, absolutely.
And if more people began culturing their own cream from local farms to make butter for their family and put the buttermilk to good use, that would be a real advance. The Wednesday Chef blogs rapturously on the this subject and also links to a blog on cultured butter—both worth reading.