The Milk and Human Kindness: A Look at Butter Churns
by Suzanne Lupien of Thetford Center, VT
Finding an old butter churn at a flea market, one that is still usable can be a lot of fun, and because there are so many types, it’s good to know a few tips to help you find one that works well for you. For one thing, the size of your butter churn must match your cream supply so that your valuable cream gets transformed into golden butter while it’s fresh and sweet, and that your valuable time is not eaten up by churning batch after batch because your churn is too small.
So the factors in choosing a butter churn are: size, cost, efficiency –- how long it takes for the butter to come — and care, cleaning, and maintenance.
If you have a very small amount of cream, say a pint a day, you might consider simply shaking the cream in a wide-mouthed half gallon mason jar — or better yet having your teenage son do it. It takes a bit more physical energy in the shaking, but you end up with beautiful butter and no dasher to clean, and therefore every speck of butter ends up in the butter dish rather than going down the drain with the wash water. I much prefer dasher — less churns for these reasons. Large, coopered “tumble” barrel churns are my favorite but their capacity is usually too much for the family cow scenario. If you are very lucky you may even find a ceramic tumble churn perhaps one small enough to fit your cream supply.
Many folks love their 2 1/2 gallon daisy churns with the little plastic propeller-type dasher. I personally do not favor this type as they are slow. I suspect people like them because their capacity is bigger than most glass churns – a little over a gallon. (Keep in mind that you can only fill a butter churn half full owing to the fact that cream expands as you go.)
I once had a 2 gallon glass motorized churn with a cylindrical metal dasher that worked like a dream. The old motor went on it and it was a simple matter to mount a new one. If you find one of these prize churns, treat it ever so gently, it’s a great loss should the jar get broken.
People think they can plug in their electric churn and then nip outside for a quick errand to the henhouse but I don’t recommend it. Things happen: if the butter comes and forms into a solid mass thereby stopping the dasher from turning you can burn out your motor in a jiffy. There are plenty of things to do right there in the kitchen while the cream is spinning.
I used to pooh-pooh the tall plunger style dasher churns but actually they work very well. And I’m sure they fit nicely into many multi-tasking kitchen plans like dandling a colicky baby on your knee and working the dasher with one hand. Or bottle feeding a baby lamb. Certainly you could be adding up the week’s farmer’s market receipts while churning, or calling everyone on the bake sale list while running your plunger churn, it’s not very noisy at all.
Old ceramic plunger churns are surprisingly easy to find. They are distinguishable from crocks by their deeply cut-in rim, like bean pots, to receive the circular wooden lid with the central hole for the dasher handle. You could easily fashion the lid and dasher and be merrily making butter before you know it.
Old wooden butter churns, the classic tall narrow slant-sided hooped style, the tumble churns with metal hoops and a clamping lid, the table top drum style churns with the hopper top and the crank handle, and the cradle-like swing churns are all marvelous and very functional styles. However, in the intervening years the wood shrinks, mice chew and other little bug varmints’ drill holes and tunnels. Occasionally I’ve found one that looks like it would hold cream after the pre-requisite soaking in water, but it is hard to tell. I’ve got a beautiful three gallon barrel churn that leaks like a sieve even after I meticulously removed the hoops and snagged them up and re-riveted them. These barrel churns were advertised in Back to the Land catalogues so perhaps they’re are still being made (hopefully not in China!) and in any case they were produced up until 2000 so you may find one someplace. I love using these churns. The thumping of the dasher as you turn the crank sound like the team trotting along, it’s easy to pull the plug and drain the buttermilk and rinse and turn after adding cold water, and the ladder dasher is very easy to clean.
In my estimation, all hand operated churns do a much better job than the electric versions which spin the cream a bit too fast with the result that washing the butter is harder since it is often no longer in grain or kernel form, but rather like peanut butter.
Another drawback with the electric models is that cream always splashes up the motor shaft and gets up where you really can’t sanitize it.
To make good butter your equipment needs to be spotless, sweet and in good order. Your cream needs to be fresh, and not too cold. 50ºF works well.
In the next issue I will write about making good butter: skimming, and churning, and washing, and draining, and working, and pressing, and forming, and salting, and storing!