Butter, Buttermilk & Sour Cream

Bottle of raw milk

Bottle of raw milk

by Cat, July 2007 (photo, right from Wikimedia Commons)

Butter is one of the most delicious and healthful fats you can consume. It is rich in both medium-chain fats (MCTs) and short chain fats, for which science is just beginning to discover the health benefits. Butter (and the cream from which it is made) is also rich in vitamins A and D – especially if the cream is from pasture-raised dairy animals.

When clarified – as to make ghee – it is also a great fat for high-heat cooking. Clarified butter will keep for a long time, refrigerated, without getting rancid. See Ghee (links to old site) for instructions for clarifying butter.

Buttermilk, a by-product of buttermaking, is a delicious and healthful probiotic beverage, provided it has not been pasteurized after culturing.

I am an advocate for raw milk. In Montana where I live, it is illegal to sell raw milk; in fact it is not even legal to consume raw milk unless you own the dairy animal. But of course there is an active underground network for raw milk. I drink it straight (it is very healing to the digestive tract, and to moderate blood sugar spikes), add it to my morning smoothie, and culture it to make yogurt and other cultured products. When I can get raw cow’s milk, I separate the cream and make butter and buttermilk. I’ve also made cheese, though I find it easier to buy good quality cheeses, especially raw milk cheese.

Quick Substitute for Buttermilk in Recipes

Use apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to sour and clabber (thicken) fresh milk. For each cup of soured milk, use 1 Tbsp vinegar or lemon juice in measuring cup, then add milk to make 1 cup liquid. Let stand about 5 minutes, until milk has thickened.

Butter Equivalents:

The following is from Traditional Oven (3):

butter volume weight chart:
Cup Gram Ounce Pound
stick 1/2 113.4g 4 oz 0.25 lb
half stick 1/4 56.7g 2 oz 0.125 lb
double stick 1 226.8g 8 oz 0.5 lb
tablespoon 3/50 14.2g 0.5 oz 0.03 lb
teaspoon 1/50 4.7g 0.16 oz 0.01 lb

Making Butter

The making of butter produces two products:  butter and buttermilk.  However, modern buttermilk is no longer the byproduct of butter making, because, at least in America, butter is not made from cultured milk.  Instead, butter is made from fresh (sweet) milk, and buttermilk is made by culturing fat-free milk.

It is still possible to make Butter and Buttermilk the old fashioned way.  All you need is fresh cream, a starter culture, water bath, churn, and jar (see Lehman’s for churn examples) .  NOTE:  If you prefer sweet butter, you can still make it at home; simply omit the steps pertaining to culturing.

I provide here both the recipe for cultured butter & buttermilk from fresh cream; also the modern method of culturing buttermilk from skimmed or whole milk, or sour cream from fresh raw cream (using the same culture as buttermilk).

Cultured Butter & Buttermilk

There are many advantages to culturing the cream before churning:

  • flavor:  cultured butter has an incredible intense buttery flavor.
  • yield:  the lactic acid produced by the culturing medium helps break down the structure that keeps the fat globules apart, so that the butter will separate more quickly and efficiently than butter from sweet cream.
  • nutrition:  culturing dairy products improves the nutrient content, and makes the fat and protein more digestible for humans.
  • buttermilk:  in addition to butter, you also get real buttermilk! (if you start with milk rather than cream)

This recipe is from Positron website (4), which has excellent photos.

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • Milk or Cream:  You will want the best milk or cream you can find.  Start with milk if you want both butter and buttermilk; raw milk is best.  Start with cream if you are only interested in butter.  Raw cream is best, but if that is not available, choose heavy cream that has not been ultra-pasteurized (ultra-pasteurization keeps cream from culturing and forming butter).  Organic cream or cream from pasture-fed cows is the richest and best to use.
  • Starter culture: Here you have several options, depending on how much of a cheesy flavor you desire; you can go from very mild to quite strong.  Your local natural foods store probably sells Yogourmet brand Cheese Fromage powdered culture, which can be used for buttermilk or crème fraîche, but it’s pretty cheesy.  (Culturing species not available;  this particular Crème Fraîche culture includes rennet, to which some people object). See ‘Starter Cultures’ under ‘More Information’ below for more and better options.
  • Salt (optional), for butter
  • Equipment: (see ‘More Information’  below for more details)
  • Churn: Wooden churn, stand mixer or food processor
  • Jar:  A jar can be used to hold the cream while it is culturing, then washed out and reused to store the buttermilk after it has been separated from the butter.  If you are using a different device for culturing, you will still want a jar to hold the buttermilk.
  • Thermometer:  This is required to ensure the culturing cream reaches and holds at the proper temperature.  I have the kind used by baristas for steaming milk, but a good dairy, brewing or cooking thermometer are equally good.  A dairy thermometer is available at Lehmans (2).
  • Water bath:  You can use a double boiler to heat the cream over steaming water; or you can use a dutch oven as a water bath for a jar of cream (such as from the churn).
  • Strainer:  This is for straining the buttermilk from the butter after it has formed.  I use a fine-mesh strainer lined with real cheesecloth.
  • Wooden board or bowl:  This is required to work the butter to the right texture.  There are shallow wood bowls made specifically for this purpose, but you can also use a wood cutting board.  Some people cringe at using wood, for fear it harbors bacteria that could infect the food.  But it has been demonstrated that wood contains resins that keep bad bugs in check far better than modern plastic boards; just be sure to wash it well before and after, in hot soapy water.
  • Wood spatula or flat spoon:  This is to work the butter.  A wood butter paddle is available from Lehmans (2).
  • Butter Mold:  This is purely cosmetic, for putting a nicely shaped surface on your block of butter.  Several varieties are available from Lehmans (2). Or you can make your own.
  • Butter or Cheese Crock:  This is optional, for storing butter.  Check out Lehmans (2) for several options.
  • Parchment paper:  This is optional, for wrapping butter.  Positron (4) shows wrapping in Saran wrap, but I prefer not to use plastic products.


Your best bet is to follow the excellent photos on the Positron website (4), but here’s a summary (see ‘More Information’ below for more details):

  1. Pre-heat: If the milk/cream has been pasteurized/ultra-pasteurized, heat it to 180°F to kill any bugs that entered after pasteurization, then cool down to 86°F. Raw milk/cream does not to be heated.
  2. Culture: Pour milk/cream into sterilized culturing container such as top of double boiler, jar or other container.
  3. Place cultured milk/cream into refrigerator until you are ready to churn it.Add culture, and stir to combine. Cover container and let it sit at room temperature (around 70°F, but 86°F is ideal) for about 12 hours.  The cream will have thickened to a yogurt-like texture.  You can culture it even longer for a stronger flavor.  At this point, what you have is sour cream or crème fraîche.  You can scoop out some to save as sour cream, if you wish.
  4. Place cultured milk/cream into refrigerator until you are ready to churn it.
  5. Churn: if the culture is chilled, allow it to warm to 55° – 60°F before pouring into churn. If using a stand mixer, attach paddle attachment.
  6. Churn away; eventually it will start to form butter and you will be able to sniff a buttery scent.  Within a few minutes, you will be able to see the globules of butter swimming in the buttermilk.  The longer you churn, the larger the globules will get.  If they get too big, it will be difficult to wash it properly (and improperly washed butter will spoil easier).
  7. Strain buttermilk from butter globules. Prepare your strainer and set over a bowl.  Pour butter/buttermilk mixture into sieve and let the buttermilk drain off.  Gather up the cheesecloth and give it a good squeeze to remove as much buttermilk as you can, then place butter back into the churn.
  8. Pour buttermilk into a jar and store in refrigerator.  This is THE BEST buttermilk to use in baking, or just to drink a tangy glassful.
  9. Wash butter: Pour cold water over the butter in the churn, an amount roughly equivalent to the buttermilk you poured off.  Churn a bit, then pour the water off, into the sink.  You can use the strainer if your churn is not equipped with a mesh top.  Repeat the washing process several times until it is no longer milky in color when you pour it off.
  10. Dump butter onto shallow wood bowl or board.  Work it with flat wooden spatula, butter paddle, or spoon.  Press, smoosh and fold it, to get as much water out as possible.
  11. Salt (optional) If you want salted butter (it will last longer), now is the time to work in the salt. See ‘More Information’ below for how much to use.
  12. Butter Crock

    Butter Crock

    Store the butter. There are several ways to go, for storage (photo, right, from Lehmans (2))

  • Scoop butter into a storage container(s), if you don’t care how it looks.
  • Scoop butter into butter or cheese crock(s) as in photo, right.  The butter is pressed into the half-an-eggshell cup on underside of the lid; cold water is put into the jar, and then the lid is placed in the jar so that the butter is immersed in the water, to keep it fresh and spreadable, when the jar is kept on the counter.  Refresh water every 2 – 3 days.
  • Divide into pound or half-pound chunks (weighing with a scale is best) and work into brick or cube shapes, then wrap in parchment paper.
  • Divide into quantities suitable for your butter mold, place in mold and press down with handle; eject; wrap in parchment paper.
  • Store in refrigerator, or in freezer if you will not be using right away.

Just Buttermilk

Use this recipe if you don’t want butter.  You can use whole milk if you like the flavor of the cultured cream in your buttermilk.  Or you can use skimmed milk (whole milk from which you have skimmed off the cream at the top).

DO NOT use commercial skim milk, as it has added nonfat dry milk, which interferes with the culturing process.  Instead, you can skim off the cream from whole milk with a spoon or use a cream separator.

Buttermilk is the easiest of all the cultured milks, especially since it is not so temperature sensitive.  And it can also be used to make crème fraîche (if you use whole milk or cream).

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk or skimmed milk (preferable raw, but good quality pasteurized will do; should not be homogenized or ultra-pasteurized).
  • 1 packet buttermilk culture (see ingredients for butter & buttermilk, above); or use 1/4 cup commercial buttermilk, but choose one that has no added ingredients (like nonfat dry milk).
  • glass jar with lid

Culturing temperature:

  • Room temperature, but not higher than 800 F


  • Pre-Heat: If using pasteurized milk, first heat to 1800 F and then cool to culturing temperature before proceeding.  If using raw milk, you do not need to preheat.
  • Culturing: Pour milk into glass jar.  Add buttermilk culture, stir well, and cover.
  • Keep at room temperature (but not above 80 degrees) until the milk thickens and curdles slightly.
  • Chill:  Transfer to refrigerator, and keep chilled.
  • Reusing Starter: Reserve about ¼ to ½ cup of buttermilk in a separate jar in the refrigerator for the next culture.

Sour Cream

The same culture that makes buttermilk can also be used to make sour cream.  Follow the above recipe, using fresh raw cream instead of milk.  However, you may want to halve (using 2 cups cream and 2 Tbsp buttermilk culture), or quarter the recipe (using 1 cup cream and 1 Tbsp buttermilk culture).

Alternately, you can make Crème Fraîche.

More Information

Starter Cultures

Positron (4) recipe recommends:

“a blend of mesophilic cultures such as s.lactis and s.cremoris, with l.b.diaetylactis and m.s.cremoris if you want to go a bit further. I find the ‘crème fraîche’ direct culture pack from cheesemaking.com does a very nice job. I’ve also used their ‘Buttermilk’ and ‘Mesophilic’ packets with good results. I think I slightly prefer the crème fraîche and buttermilk blends.”

Other butter/buttermilk cultures, from chessemaking.com unless noted otherwise:

  • Buttermilk 5-pack (5); (s.lactis, s.cremoris, l.b.diaetylactis, m.s.cremoris)
  • Crème fraîche 5-pack (5); (s.lactis, s.cremoris, l.b.diaetylactis, rennet)
  • Mesophilic 5-pack (5) (s.lactis and s.cremoris)
  • Another possibility is to use fil mjölk culture from G.E.M Cultures (6) (707-964-2922)

Salt (for butter)

How much salt to use?   The amount of salt to add depends upon taste, and how much salt the butter will dissolve.  One source (Principles and Practice of Butter-Making (7), from the Univ. of Michigan) says that 4% salt is too salty.  Dr.Alvin wood Chase (8) specifies 1 oz salt per pound of butter (6% salt).  Butter Manufacture (9, from the Univ. of Guelph) advises between 1 and 3%, but most butter is 1.2% salt.

I make about ½ cup (¼ pound or 1-stick) butter at a time, so I add:

  • ¼ tsp salt = 1% (by volume)
  • ½ tsp salt = 2%
  • 1 tsp salt = 4%

Equipment details:


Back when a horse was the major form of transportation, a clever woman tied a jar of cream to the saddle and went for a long ride, such as into town for the monthly shopping.  By the time she got home, the cream was well churned.  But shaking or rocking a jar all day to make butter is not my idea of a good way to spend my time.

The modern equivalent is a food processor, but works only for small batches.  A stand mixer, especially one with a paddle attachment, is a better option.

You can snoop around antique shops for an old churn, or you can purchase one new.  Check out Lehman’s website (2).  The new ones are not cheap, so you really have to want to make your own by hand-churning!  I recommend starting out with a food processor or stand mixer to test whether or not you’re up to making your own butter on a larger scale, before purchasing a hand churn.


  1. Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.
  2. Lehmans (lehmans.com) re: churns: non-electric.lehmans.com/search#w=churn, or start at the home page and search for ‘churn.’ OR crocks: lehmans.com/p-1049-ancient-style-butter-crock.aspx, or start at the home page and search for ‘crock’
  3. Traditional Oven: traditionaloven.com/conversions_of_measures/butter_converter.html
  4. positron.org/food/butter
  5. Cheesemaking.com: cheesemaking.com/store/p/141-Buttermilk-DS-5-packets.htmlcheesemaking.com/store/p/145-Creme-Fraiche-DS-5-packets.htmlcheesemaking.com/store/p/135-Mesophilic-DS-5pack.html
  6. G.E.M. Cultures: gemcultures.com/dairy_cultures.htm
  7. Univ. of Michigan: Principles and Practice of Butter-Making  (see books.google.com)
  8. Dr. Chase’s Family Physician, Farrier, Bee-keeper, and Second Receipt Book, by Alvin Wood Chase (see books.google.com)
  9. Univ. of Guelph: Butter Manufactur

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