Back in the Stone Age, somewhere around the time people figured out that collecting animals was a good way to keep from starving to death, some charmed herdsman screwed up, and improved food for the billions of people to come after him. As the story goes, he milked one of his animals into the hide of another animal, which he tied to yet another animal. After an afternoon romping around in the grass, the microscopic blobs of fat in that milk had had enough of the jostling, joined together and separated from the liquid they were suspended in. Imagine the cowpoke (or shepherd’s?) surprise when he attempted to take a refreshing swig of milk, only to receive a mouthful of sweet cream bouturon, as the Ancient Greeks would go on to call it.
Making butter is no more complicated now than it was back then, and chefs are taking advantage of the premium pastured milk they’re getting from farmers to whip their own house versions, culturing, compounding, and even smoking butter to maximize flavors in the butter used for table service and in the kitchen.
For Matthew Accarrino of San Francisco’s SQPR, there’s no point in making butter with milk that isn’t special. “For me, a lot of the purpose of even doing it in the first place is you have to access a dairy base that’s worthwhile,” he says. “If you’re just using cream and beating it until it separates and it’s the same cream everyone else uses, that’s not exactly the most unique creation.”
Accarrino buys goat and buffalo whole fat cream from two farmstead cheesemakers, accessing it most frequently in high summer when they have it to spare. “They need it, and you’re not gonna get an unlimited quantity for that reason,” he notes.
From there, it’s a simple matter of spinning the cream at medium speed in the kitchen mixer until it breaks, and then separating the buttermilk from the butterfat. Strain out and squeeze the buttermilk through cheesecloth, salt it, and that’s it. Right now, he’s serving a boudin al bianco in an herbed brioche and whipping marigolds into goat butter. This spring, he’ll serve a duo of fried and pickled herring with a raisin puree-filled rye flour bao, topped with a pat of herb whipped buffalo butter. “We want that butter to have a unique application at that point,” he says. “It’s like small production cheese.”
Justin Carlisle of Ardent in Milwaukee wanted to tip his hat to the Dairy State (a place where margarine was once banned) by serving a bread, butter, and cheese course, with all components made with milk from the same local herd of cows. He buys milk from the same co-op his cheesemaker visits to make his Muenster. While the cheese is aging, he freezes the cream for pain au lait, a rich brioche-like bread that he bakes once the cheese and butter have matured.
Carlisle likes a tangy European-style cultured butter, so he warms his cream up to 77 degrees F, adds a ladleful to a few grams of the soft cheese culture starter MM100, then brings the rest of the cream up to 100 degrees F. After stirring it, he covers it and leaves at it room temperature so it starts to sour like crème fraîche. Transferred to the cooler, the mixture matures for three weeks before it is whipped into butter. By then, the cheese is ready, the bread is baked, the butter is spread. “We pair it with Spotted Cow, a cream ale from the area,” he says. “Everything that you get in that moment is from 10 miles from each other.”
Butter making is a happy byproduct of the cheesemaking done by Greg Biggers of Chicago’s Café des Architectes. Biggers’ restaurant is the only game in town with a dairy manufacturing plant license that allows him to produce his own cave-aged cheeses. By law, he uses a pasteurizer for that process, and he uses the same machine to make butters, adding flora danica—his brie and camembert culture—to good, almost-raw milk and letting it ferment for 12 hours between 74 and 77 degrees F. “You’re adding this earthiness and you’re letting it ferment, and adding this depth of flavor that you’re not gonna get unless you do something to that cream,” he says.
After churning, Biggers takes the unusual step of leaving the buttermilk and butterfat together, which can hasten spoilage, but adds more depth of flavor. “We use it so fast,” he explains. “I’m notorious for making way too much of everything. The idea would be to make it for table service and then we have 10-15 quarts of this stuff. So we’ll mount it into sauces. We’ll use it on the line. I’ve put it up for staff meal before. We use it till it’s gone.”
“Butter is one of those that gives you a really nice window into what things used to taste like,” says Shola Olunluyo of Studio Kitchen in Philadelphia. He drives out to a farm in rural Pennsylvania and buys cream on the day it‘s been produced—as many as 15 to 20 quarts at a time. “When the cows graze in the summer it’s definitely richer,” he notes. “It’s yellower. It has a creamier mouthfeel. It’s not terrible in the winter—it’s awesome—but in the summer, it’s like a difference between a Mercedes and a Ferrari.”
Olunluyo whisks his cream and culture in a large glass jar and lets it sit at room temperature for three days before he slows down the culturing process by transferring it to the cooler for another 5 to 6 days. He whips it at a high speed with a Thermomix, which separates fat from buttermilk at a greater rate than a regular mixer. After squeezing out the buttermilk in several changes of cold water, he salts it, and it’s ready to go.
But he’s not finished yet. “Smoke is obviously a pleasing flavor, especially for fatty things like pork or butter,” he says. “Smoked butter is delicious.” Olunluyo puts his fresh butter in a blast chiller before cold-smoking it for 3 to 4 hours as it slowly comes up to room temperature. Then he mixes it so the surface smoke emulsifies with the entire batch.
He found he could get a more nuanced balance between smokiness and creaminess by reverse smoking—or smoking the cream before culturing and whipping. The applications are endless: uni toast with smoked butter brioche; smoked butter hollandaise, and béarnaise; skate wings with capers and brown butter; even smoked lemon curd ice cream. “Any avenue you can pursue with butter you can pursue with smoked butter.”
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