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Originally published Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Taste

The secret to rich homemade butter is in the culturing

Following the French way, homemade butter is made richer and creamier by culturing the cream first — fermenting it with pure yogurt, crème fraîche or buttermilk before churning.

Revelations come in many forms, but one of the greatest I've ever experienced was about 4 inches long, and deep golden-yellow in color. It was a slab of butter, actually, which I tasted at a friend's home in France, and its effect on me was so profound I almost threw away my passport and applied for culinary asylum on the spot.

In my defense, it was some pretty spectacular butter. So intensely buttery, it was dense and creamy beyond description. I had never tasted anything like it, and I slathered it on every surface I could find, wondering what they must be feeding those French cows to get butter like this. Hand-picked spring grass, perhaps, chased down with foie gras and Champagne?

While I still don't know what those cows eat, I do know something now I didn't know then. French butter is so delicious because the French routinely do something to their butter that we don't: They culture it.

Simply put, culturing butter consists of fermenting the cream before the butter is churned. Have you ever had crème fraîche? Then you've tasted cultured butter's parent. By introducing some dairy-friendly bacteria to the fresh cream, the sugars in the cream are converted to lactic acid; this, along with thickening the cream, produces additional aroma compounds that make for a more complex and "buttery" taste. You wouldn't think that souring cream would necessarily have a positive impact on the butter made from it, but surprisingly, it does: The butter absorbs just enough of the flavor compounds to acquire a subtle and completely addictive tang.

Here in the U.S., though, finding cultured butter — particularly good cultured butter — is a challenge. A couple of national brands are marketing European-style cultured butters with echoes of that unmistakable flavor, but to my taste none of them really hit the mark, and they don't come cheap.

Unfortunately, the pickings are even slimmer locally; of the few Washington dairies making small-batch butter, I couldn't find any that culture before churning. I was beginning to think I'd have to fly to Paris to satisfy my butter cravings until a tipoff led me to George Page, owner of Seabreeze Farm on Vashon Island. Page suggested I make my own.

"There's nothing easier," he told me on the phone. "Just get yourself some really good cream — raw has the most flavor, if you're comfortable with it, but any organic cream will do — add a bit of starter culture, and leave it to thicken for a day or so before churning. Also, a little-known trick is to hold back a bit of the cream each time to use as the starter in the next batch. The flavor will continue to develop."

But will it really be good enough to justify the trouble of making it at home?

He laughed. "Oh, there's no comparison. The flavor of cultured butter is so much more deep, rich and complex. Once you taste it you'll never want to go back."

Believe me, that I know.

Melissa Kronenthal is a Seattle freelance food photographer and writer. Check out her other work at www.melissakronenthal.com.

Cultured Butter

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Makes 12 to 14 ounces, depending on the cream's fat content

4 cups organic heavy cream (not ultrapasteurized)*

1/3 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, crème fraîche or buttermilk (without gums or stabilizers)

4 cups water

1 cup ice cubes

Salt, to taste (optional)

1. To culture the cream: In a clean glass or ceramic container, combine the cream and yogurt, crème fraîche or buttermilk. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature for 12 to 36 hours, or until the cream has thickened and tastes slightly tangy. If you're not going to make butter immediately, transfer the cream to the fridge.

2. To churn the cream: The cream needs to be at about 60 degrees, or slightly cooler than room temperature, to churn properly. If you're taking it out of the fridge, let it warm up until it reaches this temperature; if you're making it from room temperature, chill it for a little while to cool it down.

You can agitate the cream using many methods, but I recommend a handheld electric beater, because it allows you the most control. Place the thickened cream in a clean, deep bowl and start beating as if you're making whipped cream. When the cream forms stiff peaks, reduce the speed to low. At this point watch carefully; first the peaks will start to look grainy, then the cream will break, leaving globules of yellow butterfat swimming in liquid. Stop beating and carefully tilt the bowl over a cup, holding back the solids, and drain away as much liquid as possible.

3. To wash the butter: This step is crucial to prevent premature spoilage. Fill another large bowl with the water and ice cubes. Pour ½ cup of the ice water over the butter and then, using a fork or a stiff rubber spatula, knead it against the side of the bowl for about 30 seconds. The water will turn cloudy and the butter will firm up, making it knead more easily. Pour out the liquid and pour on another ½ cup of ice water, and knead it until the water turns cloudy again. Repeat as many times as needed until the washing liquid is completely clear. Four to six ought to do it.

After you've poured off the last batch of liquid, continue kneading the butter against the side of the bowl for another minute or two to get as much water as possible out of the butter. If you want salted butter, add your favorite salt now, to taste.

Pack the butter into ramekins, roll it in waxed paper or fill molds with it before refrigerating, and freeze whatever you won't be able to finish within a week. Whether storing it in the fridge or freezer, keep it tightly wrapped so it doesn't absorb other odors.

*Note: Raw milk from Seabreeze Farm is available at several Seattle-area farmers markets, Madison Market on Capitol Hill and La Boucherie on Vashon Island.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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