The first time I became interested in food science was elementary school. The big celebration at the end of our 3rd grade Laura Ingalls Wilder unit was a pancake party—complete with homemade butter. Those Little House on the Prairie books featured quite a bit of churned butter, and of course we had to experience what that was like.
Enter: heavy cream and mason jars. After several long hours (okay it wasn’t hours, but it felt like that!) of shaking and shaking, cream was transformed into butter! Like magic. And the pancake party raged on throughout the day. It was freaking awesome.
Well you know what else this is great for? A holiday activity for the family! If you’re anything like my family, you’ve got some kids that are always looking for more fun things to do. While most of us love standing around eating hors d’oeuvres, sipping adult beverages, and catching up, this is wildly boring to others. And if you want to keep those unnamed few from running around in circles, this activity is the ultimate option! Also, the butter is pretty amazing. And it will be delicious on your Thanksgiving rolls. And especially scrumptious on your morning pancakes or waffles! Before you know it, you and your other family members will be thanking your younger guests for their contribution.
It’s as simple as pouring heavy cream into a jar, screwing the lid on, and shaking like crazy. The secret? Elbow grease. The science behind it? Read on!
Serious Eats has a fantastic overview of this—complete with diagrams. So if you’re feeling up to it, head on over there!
The basic idea has to do with the mechanical action of shaking that jar (or churning with that wooden stick if you’re still stuck up on the Laura Ingalls Wilder reference). Cream is an emulsion of fat and water. We all know that fat and water aren’t exactly friends, so the fat orients itself in the best way it knows how—the fat molecules line up in a circle formation with the most water-loving part (known as the head of the fat molecule) on the outside of the circle. That creates a haven for other fat molecules in the middle of the fat circle. Water on the outside, fat on the inside. Protein helps with this, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
When you start to shake that jar, it’s a lot like when you’re making whipped cream. Mechanical action + air = big changes. The vigorous whipping, or for us shaking, starts to disrupt those happily oriented fat molecules. In a panic to realign with an environment they feel comfortable in, the fat molecules seek each other out and grasp to the air—the second-best option. This extra air will begin to thicken your cream. Eventually, enough fat will form around enough air bubbles, and the cream will become whipped cream!
If you keep shaking that jar of semi-solid mixture, the fat molecule complexes will continue to be disrupted. More fat will be shaken up out of the original emulsion, and it will rush toward that fat that surrounds the air bubbles. The air, no longer protected by the layer of fat, will be squeezed out of the now clumpy mixture. You’ve probably seen this if you over-whip some whipped cream!
Keep shaking your jar, and you’ll see a dramatic change! The fat areas will grow larger and larger until they’re so large that they can form one big mass. As they do this, they push any remaining air and all of the water out. And voila! You have butter.
You can obviously accomplish this with a stand mixer or a food processor, but the jar is fun for all! And a great workout. Try my flavors for some real panache and enjoy the holiday season! I know I will.
Makes about ¼ cup
¾ to 1 cup heavy cream
1 Mason jar
Kosher salt (Optional, but recommended)
- Fill a jar about halfway full with the heavy cream. If desired, add a few good pinches of kosher salt. Screw the lid onto your jar tightly (important!).
- Shake, shake, and shake some more!
- When your butter ball has formed, strain the ball over a container, catching the liquid. This is buttermilk, so keep it for your holiday baking!
- Rinse your butter off with ice-cold water. Use your fingers to massage the butter—pushing out any remaining liquid. If you leave any remaining buttermilk in the butter, it will encourage rancidity.
- Gently dry your butter with a paper towel, and store in the fridge until ready to use.
OR make one of these fun flavored butters!
¼ cup butter (see above), softened
2 teaspoons honey
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
A big pinch kosher salt
- Combine all ingredients together in a bowl. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
Sugar Cookie Butter
Adapted from Savoring the Thyme
¼ cup butter (see above), softened
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
A splash vanilla extract
Colored sugar or colorful nonpareils
- Combine all ingredients except for the sprinkles together in a bowl. Gently mix in the sprinkles—they will color the butter if you mix too much! Store in the fridge until ready to use.
Looking for more butter? Try my Burnt-Honey Butter!