You Can Make Hand Churned Cow Butter at Home

Lowell Humphreys milking his Guernsey cow. Photos: Lynn Coffey.

It wasn’t that many years ago that every rural household kept at least one cow for the family’s milk supply; more if they were blessed with a large number of children. Along with the milk came other nourishing byproducts such as buttermilk, yogurt, cheese and fresh-churned butter.  Although I’ve heard the older people talk about making butter the old-fashioned way, I had never actually seen the process or tasted the final product until Viola Humphreys asked if I’d like to watch her make it.  Viola and her husband, Lowell, were raised on mountain farms and growing up were well acquainted with milking the family cows as part of their everyday chores. The Brown Swiss, Guernsey, and Jersey breeds give milk with the most butterfat content, they explained, making for a creamier and better-tasting product.

The Humphreys have a gentle Guernsey cow named Shannon Gold that Lowell milks every day.  Many people think a cow has to be milked twice; once in the morning and again in the afternoon, but sometimes Lowell milks in the morning and lets Shannon’s calf have the afternoon shift. People who haven’t been raised around cows are not aware that they only give milk, or come “fresh,” after they have been bred and have a calf. Milk production is only for a season, after the calf is born.

Viola Humphreys hand-churning butter.

Lowell hand-milked Shannon and brought the bucket of raw milk back to the house where Viola strained it to trap debris and any stray hairs that might have gotten into the bucket. A fine metal strainer or some type of porous cloth, such as cheesecloth, can be used, she said. The strained milk was put into the refrigerator in covered wide-mouth gallon jars. By evening approximately three to four inches of cream will have risen to the top of the jar.  The cream is then refrigerated until a gallon can be saved.

When the required amount was ready, she took the container out and let it sit at room temperature for a few days. The cream was then poured into some type of churn to be made into butter. In the past, Viola has used a ceramic churn with a wooden “dasher,” a long wooden handle with a flat, square bottom that was moved in an up-and-down motion in order to make the butter come.  Earlier models were made entirely of wood and used for the same purpose. Today electric models are available, but Viola now uses a glass, two-gallon hand-cranked table model with a wooden paddle. It takes about twenty minutes of cranking for the butter to be ready to come off. As she lifted out the butter, the remaining liquid was buttermilk, a tasty by-product that my husband Billy has a fondness for, so the Humphreys kindly keep him well-supplied with his favorite drink.

Rinsing butter in water to remove excess milk.

Salt was added to the finished butter and then it was rinsed in very cold water, which brings out the rest of the remaining milk. This was done until the water ran clear. The water was then poured off and Viola made a ball out of the butter and worked it until as much of the liquid as possible was squeezed out.

One pound “pats” of butter were then put into a round wooden mold with an intricate flower design carved in the bottom. When the soft butter is pressed into the mold, the design shows up after it is pushed out by the mold’s handle, adding a lovely touch to the final product.

Flower pattern in finished butter.

The flattened pats of butter are placed on squares of waxed paper and wrapped and put in the freezer. Once frozen, they are transferred to Ziploc bags or Saran Wrap. When fresh butter is needed, all that has to be done is to thaw the appropriate amount. Making homemade butter is still a time-consuming task but it is much easier than in years past.

Viola told the story of her mother, Ivetta Allen Mays, making butter and wrapping it up in cheesecloth. It was then put into a gallon crock and salted before storing the container in the cold water of her springhouse. These were the days before freezers, but Viola said that butter kept this way could be preserved all winter.

Today there is a resurgence of self-sufficient living and people are finding ways to incorporate healthy, homemade foods into their diets the same way their grandmothers did. One taste of the Humphreys’ hand-churned cow butter will convince anyone that some of the old ways are still the best ways!

Pats of butter ready for the freezer.


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