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Bacteria For Better Butter

Woohoo - home made butter!

Woohoo – home made butter!

Since the first time I read the “Little House” books as a child, I was fascinated by butter making.  We didn’t have a churn or dairy cows, so I learned to make butter by shaking whipping cream in a jar.  I thought home-made butter tasted fabulous when I was 8 years old, but when I grew up and made butter again, my homemade butter just didn’t taste quite as wonderful as I remembered.  So what do people in the 21st century do when they have a question?  They go on an internet search.  I was lucky enough to come across an old (30+ years old) article from Mother Earth about butter making.  Apparently the secret to better tasting butter (besides having your own dairy cow for fresh cream) is CULTURED butter – made by leaving your fresh cream to sit out until it is soured and then churning it.

Terrific.  Except I don’t have fresh, unpasteurized milk and cream available – much less my own cow (yet).    The internet did not fail me though and I came across a blog that had the answer I was looking for – YOGURT.  Adding yogurt with live cultures and then leaving the mixture sit out until it gets a sour, tangy taste,  is the secret to going from acceptable tasting butter to butter with some zing.  And I even used ultra high pasteurized whipping cream that was available at the store to make my first few batches of cultured butter and it did just fine – contrary to other people’s experiences.

The photo is of 2 cups of whipping cream mixed with about 5 ounces of Greek yogurt, with live cultures in it, after sitting out on the counter for 36 hours covered with an air-permeable cloth.  It has thickened quite a bit since sitting out.

The cultured cream before churning.

The cultured cream before churning.

I also use regular, plain flavor yogurt instead of thick Greek yogurt and get the same results.  The live cultures are what’s important.  I don’t even measure, I just pour the cream into large Mason jars, filling them halfway, plop a spoonful or two of yogurt into the jar, stir, cover with a paper towel (to allow any gas buildup from the cultures to escape), and let the jars sit.  The longer it sits the more tangy the butter will be, so you can experiment on how long you prefer the cream to sit before churning.

The combination of being warm from sitting out for so long, together with the yogurt cultures, made churning faster than making sweet cream butter.  It took about 10 minutes to go from thickened liquid to separated butter and buttermilk in the jar.  When I’ve used plain whipping cream without culturing (which is how you make sweet cream butter), I’ve had it take a half hour or more of jar shaking to get it churned.  Cutting down on churning time is a big plus in my book.

The butter after "churning" in a canning jar.

The butter after “churning” in a canning jar.

You’ll need to drain the butter after churning – I use cheesecloth AND a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl to catch the buttermilk.  We do NOT toss out our buttermilk.

Draining the buttermilk from the butter.
Draining the buttermilk from the butter.


The final draining of buttermilk.

The final draining off of buttermilk










After draining, there is still some buttermilk left in the butter that needs to be washed out, otherwise the butter goes rancid much faster.  Using cold water (refrigerator or iced water works best), stir and smush the butter around in the bowl of cold water.  The water will turn a milky color.  Pour out the water and repeat the process of pouring cool water into the bowl and squishing the butter around in the water to work out the buttermilk.  Continue this rinsing process until the water is clear when you smush the butter around.  The butter becomes more solid as it cools down during the cold water rinsing.  In winter I sometimes have to add a bit of warm water to the washing because the cold faucet water is so cold that the butter becomes hardened too quickly before the washing is complete.

Rinsing the butter.

Washing the butter – the first rinse has the most buttermilk as you can see by how white the water is.

After washing the butter, you can add salt to it or leave it plain depending on your tastebuds.  Some types of cooking and baking are better if unsalted butter is used.

Salt is a preservative and will keep your butter fresh longer, particularly if you use larger quantities in it.  Before refrigeration was common, there were recommendations to salt butter very heavily or to keep it submerged in a salty brine.  When a new batch of butter was taken from storage, they would wash the butter again to get enough salt out of it to be able to use it.  You can also freeze your butter or clarify your unsalted butter (clarified butter also goes by the names of “drawn butter” and sometimes “ghee”) to increase storage life.  There is also “canned” butter that you can make, but in some cases it may not be the safest option depending on how you choose to can it.

If you divide your butter up into portions by weight, it makes it easier to use your homemade butter in place of store-bought butter in recipes.

And what to do with the buttermilk you drained off?  The buttermilk keeps for a good long time in the refrigerator and we use it whenever we have a recipe for sour milk/buttermilk and even as a special orange-buttermilk-honey drink that I’m fond of.  It is not as thick as the cultured buttermilk you get at the store.  I even use some of the buttermilk for the live cultures when making sour cream or another batch of butter

These photos were taken using the cheapest whipping cream available at the store and it still turned out great.  If you use fresh cream or “better” quality cream like organic/grass fed cream, you’ll get a butter that is even more yellow and buttery tasting.  You can also make butter from other sources of milk like sheep and goat milk.

A butter bell is a great way to store your butter on the counter so it is still soft and can be used right away.  If you use refrigerated water in the bowl and change it at least every other day, you can keep your butter fresh much longer, even during the heat of summer, without having it in the refrigerator.  Click here to go to a site that has photos of butter bells if you have never seen one.

I’ve been making homemade butter routinely for a couple of years now and it is well worth the little bit of effort it takes.  Plus, you know what you’re eating, unlike the various artificial butter flavored products with names of ingredients you can’t pronounce and have no idea what they are.

Quick version of making homemade cultured butter:

  1. Obtain whipping cream if you don’t have a dairy animal that you can get cream from.
  2. Take a jar with a tight-fitting lid and fill it no more than half full with cream.  I usually use a quart Mason jar.  If you fill the jar too full, you won’t have room to churn the butter in the jar.
  3. Put a large spoonful or two of yogurt with live active cultures into the cream.  You can also use live cultured buttermilk – like the leftover buttermilk from the last time you made butter.
  4. Mix the yogurt/buttermilk into the cream.
  5. Cover the jar with a cloth that is NOT air tight.  I usually use a paper towel held in place by the ring of the canning jar.
  6. Leave the jar on your counter at room temp for at least 12 hours to let the bacteria grow and sour the cream.  (Time on counter is based on your preference for how much tang you want in your butter and the room temperature.)
  7. Once your cream is cultured, put the jar’s tight-fitting lid into place.
  8. Shake your jar back and forth, up and down to churn the butter.  You’ll feel the difference as the butter forms.  At first it will just slosh, then you’ll feel more of a solid thumping mixed with liquid.  Keep going past this point to finish the butter.  By the end, you’ll have a much more solid mass surrounded by buttermilk and you will have felt another change in the way it thumps and sloshes when churning.  That’s when it is done.
  9. Drain the butter through cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve (I use both).  Drain over a bowl if you plan on saving your buttermilk for us (recommended so as not to waste anything).
  10. Put your drained butter into a bowl and wash the butter with cool/cold water to get all the buttermilk out.  Periodically drain out the dirty water and put in fresh water.  The water will be milky at first but should be clear before you call your washing finished.
  11. After your butter is washed, you can mix in a little salt (about 1/4-1/2 tsp is usually sufficient to enhance the flavor if you used 2 cups of cream), or you can leave it unsalted.
  12. Marvel at the wonderful tasting butter you’ve made.

Old Fashioned Beef Tallow

????????????????????Ah fat.  That horrible word that causes people to cringe.  Fat is pretty important in life, despite the bad reputation it has gotten.  Not only do you need fat to cook with, but you can use fat and oil to burn for light (either as a candle or an oil lamp), and you also need fat and oils to make soap.  In a pinch, even animal/plant based oil can be used to silence squeaks and help things slide and move easier.  Since we need fat for various reasons and we have been getting away from things like “diet butter”, having a more natural, renewable source of fat interested me.  Even though we aren’t at the point where we can keep large animals like cattle for a natural source of fat, and I have no idea what it would take to start pressing oil from plant-based sources, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make our own fat from the raw ingredients.  After all, I’ve been making our own butter for a couple of years now and it is great – so why not try something new?

Rendering beef tallow is easy once you have obtained the fat. Luckily I found a local butcher that didn’t think I was crazy when I walked into his shop and asked if he had any fat to sell.  We don’t have many fat scraps to save, so it would have taken forever to try to save up scraps to make tallow with.

There seems to be different thoughts on what is considered beef “tallow”.  Some people think of tallow as only being the fat around the cow’s kidneys.  This kidney fat is usually called suet.  Other people make the separate distinction between beef suet and beef tallow – the tallow being made from all the other bits of fat from the cow except from the kidney fat.  The kidney suet is supposed to be the purest, whitest fat in the cow and therefore a little more expensive than just regular fat trimmings.

So far, I’m going with the idea of suet and tallow being different, since the antique cookbooks that I read generally make a distinction in using suet for certain things where you might want a more purer, whiter fat if you are using it for an ingredient,  and mentioning tallow for use as a frying agent, an ingredient where the “whiteness” is not a factor, and in the instructions for making non-food items where it wouldn’t seem to matter as much just how white or “pure” the fat is.

Quick version of how to make your beef tallow shortening for food and non-food items:

  1. Cut off as much meat from the fat as possible.
  2. Cut the fat into small chunks, or if you have a meat grinder you can grind the fat up like hamburger meat.
  3. Put the fat into the pot and cook it down slowly, stirring as needed.  This will probably take at least a couple of hours depending on how much fat you are doing at one time.
  4. When it looks like a bunch of crispy stuff floating in a sea of oil, and isn’t changing its appearance/consistency any more, it’s done.
  5. Skim off the floaties.  Keep or throw away the floaties – your choice.
  6. Strain the hot fat through a fine mesh sieve or at least some cheesecloth.
  7. Pour into a heat-resistant storage container with a lid.
  8. Cool.  Store. Use.

Longer version of rendering beef tallow:


Trimming the meat from the fat.

1.  Trim the meat off your fat as much as possible.

Sometimes you can’t get it off unless you are willing to lose some fingers, so don’t worry about getting every bit off.  The meat will cook off the fat.

2.  Cut the fat into manageable chunks to help them melt better.

3.  Put the fat into your pot.

I used my cast iron dutch oven since it’s the deepest iron pot I have.  I chose to use the cast iron for specific reasons.  One – if I were to be without my gas stove or an even an electric stove, I probably wouldn’t be using my good stainless steel stock pots over an open fire.  So I wanted to know what to expect from cooking the fat in a cast iron pot like my ancestors would have done.  Two – a cast iron pot is thick and can take heat well for long periods.  Since it’s difficult to find copper clad Revere Ware these days, I didn’t want to accidentally kill my good stock pots that I’ve had for twenty-plus years – just in case things went wrong with my rendering process.

Approximately 10 lbs of beef fat in the cast iron pot.
Approximately 10 lbs of beef fat in the cast iron pot.


I cooked the fat on a medium-low flame for pretty much an entire afternoon, stirring it occasionally to get the fat chunks down to the bottom to melt faster.  Since I used a lower flame with a thick iron pot, I didn’t have any problem with the fat burning.  I could probably have sped up the process to just a couple of hours or so if I had used a higher flame and watched the pot more closely.

Some people say that rendering tallow is really horrible smelling.  There was a smell, but it wasn’t that “horrible” to me – not like if your hair gets burnt.  I did try to get a good deal of meat off the fat so there wasn’t a lot of meat to cook off, and I turned the vent hood on to help vent off heat and moisture from the kitchen.

About half-way through the rendering process.

About half-way through the rendering process.

4.  The fat finally gets to a point where it has a bunch of stuff floating on top of a sea of oil.  Here in the South, these floaty things are called “cracklins” when they come from rendering lard.  Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned lard cracklings as a treat in her Little House books.  Ma Ingalls used the cracklins to flavor Johnny Cake.  Hubby tasted our beef cracklins and said they would be fine to eat with a little salt on them, otherwise they did not have a lot of flavor on their own.  I tried to save our cracklins.  In a big plastic bag.  Apparently the cats thought the cracklins were wonderful.  They got on the counter after we went to bed and ripped open the bag of cracklins.  Next time I’ll put the cracklins in something the cats can’t open.

Ready to skim off the cracklins.

Ready to skim off the cracklins.

5.  After taking out the cracklins with a slotted spoon, you’ll need to strain the hot fat.  I lined a fine mesh sieve with cheesecloth to do this.  This gets the smallest cracklins out, however I discovered that it does not get out the tiny specks of black that comes from cooking this in the cast iron pot.  For using the tallow for food, I really don’t care if there are tiny black specks in the tallow since we eat them anyway whenever we cook with cast iron.  But in the case of using tallow for pretty candles or for soap, I’m thinking that I’d want the black specks out of the tallow.

To get the tiny black specks out of the tallow, I think using a finer woven cheesecloth or cotton cloth would work.  I just used the cheap cheesecloth available at Wally World, which is NOT a super-fine mesh fabric.  I could also just wait for the tallow to harden and then not use the tallow at the bottom of the jar since that is where the black specks sink to the bottom.  Or I could use a metal stockpot instead of an iron pot.  Some people pour water into their fat during the rendering process and then refrigerate the tallow to be able to separate the fat on the top from the water and any impurities at the bottom.

Hot tallow poured into jars.

Hot tallow poured into jars.

6.  Once you have the fat strained, you can put it into containers for storage.  Plastic is not recommended since this stuff is literally boiling hot.

There isn’t any specific shelf life for beef tallow.  I found people saying they kept it refrigerated for over a year and it was still good.  Others said that they kept theirs on the kitchen counter for a year with good results.  And of course if you follow what government entities say is max shelf life for food storage…well you get a whole ‘nother story there.

I decided that I wanted to get maximum storage time from this stuff – at room temperature – so I actually went ahead and pressure canned the tallow.  I boiled the jars in a water bath to get them hot to avoid cracking the glass when the tallow was poured in.  Then I “canned” the tallow like I would can any other low-acid food.  I used my pressure canner with the 10 lb weight for about 30 minutes for these small jars.

Some folks say they water bath can their tallow with good results for shelf life.  Others just pour the hot tallow into clean containers.  It’s a personal preference.  Even if I had not pressure canned my tallow, I would still have boiled my jars before filling them to help get rid of any germs that might cause spoilage sooner.

One jar did get sterilized and filled, but I did not bother to pressure can it – that way I could see how it did without the extra step of pressure canning.  I just put a plastic lid on the jar and left it on the counter.  I’ve used this jar of tallow to cook with, after several months of sitting on the counter.  There is no indication of any spoilage at all.  No flavor change, nothing.  So while the pressure canning of tallow might be overkill, I’ll do it, just to try to get the most storage time for this stuff.  But it isn’t absolutely necessary.

7.  Let the jars cool.  It took about 24 hours for the tallow to completely solidify and the jars to be cool.

Finished beef tallow, cooled and solid like shortening.

Finished beef tallow, cooled and solid like shortening.

8.  Use your tallow.  So far I’ve used the tallow to make home-made flour tortillas and refried beans.  Both turned out terrific.  Definitely thinking I’d like to try my hand at making dipped candles with tallow.  And home-made soap.  In addition to using the tallow for more cooking recipes.  There is a bit of a flavor to the food from the tallow, so I’m not sure how it would work in something like cookies.  Guess that is another project – see if there is a way to get rid of more of the meaty taste to be able to use the fat in more delicate food items…

The Little Chore Train That Could

August was miserably hot, as it usually is here in Texas, but the chickens still had to have their wading pools and drinking buckets refilled with fresh water every day.  Of course we hadn’t thought about what would happen with me having carpal tunnel surgery and not being able to use my hand for a while.  Hubby was good and did chicken chores for a few days, but after that I was on my own and still couldn’t use my hand.  Leave it to my imaginative hubby to come up with something to help make one-handed chicken chores easier – The Chore Train.

The Chore Train

The Chore Train

Instead of having to fill numerous milk jugs and buckets with water (like I had been doing for what seems like forever), tote them outside to a utility cart, and then pull the cart by hand around the pasture, the Chore Train saves time and lets me haul heavy supply laden carts around the pasture more easily.

The train starts with our garden tractor/mower.  A water tank mounted on a cart comes next, with a utility cart making up the caboose.

The water cart isn’t just any old water reservoir.  A battery-powered bilge pump is attached to the water tank, allowing the water to run much faster through the hose and out to the chickens than simple gravity feed does.  I just hook the pump clamps to the battery terminals, and I’m in business.  A solar panel helps to recharge the battery.

The utility cart lets me haul frozen water bottles, feed, treats, and other supplies at the same time as the water.  Not having to make multiple trips to and from the house is a time saver and saves wear and tear on me, trying to haul heavy stuff around by hand.

(click the photos to see them closeup if you need a better look at how the pump assembly is put together so you can make your own)

Moral of the story:  Necessity is often the mother of invention.  Work smarter not harder.  If you’re still hand-carrying supplies to do your chicken chores with, consider making your own chore train to help decrease your workload a little.  A chore train like this is easy to put together and you can customize it to suit your needs.

I’ve been told that I have too much fun with my little train.  Have to admit, it IS kinda fun to drive around with it – kinda like riding those little kiddie trains that they have at carnivals and zoos.  I love my chore train, but I sure wish the hubby would have thought of this sooner!  🙂


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