Now that April is upon us at Locust Grove, we’re getting ready for all of our spring events and programming! This Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, Locust Grove is hosting our 18th-Century Thunder–a Revolutionary War Encampment! Join us from 10-4:30 each day to commemorate the 1778 arrival of George Rogers Clark’s troops to the area by meeting soldiers, learning about hearth cooking, touring the house, and enjoying the (hopefully) beautiful spring weather!
To celebrate spring, I’ve embarked upon a special project of my own. As regular readers are aware, I, your friendly neighborhood blogger, love everything about Locust Grove’s dairy. As an intern, my project involved researching and interpreting our reconstructed dairy building, and since I’ve returned as staff, my interest has continued to grow. I realized, however, that I have a great deal of dairy-related knowledge, but no actual practical experience. So, this Friday, I took advantage of the first truly balmy spring day and did as any self-respecting dairymaid would do–I churned butter!
Churning butter is a relatively simple task, but one that requires a lot of preparation and patience. Spring is the perfect time to think about churning–dairy production was most likely higher in the south in the 18th and 19th centuries because of the temperate weather. Here is my own recipe for butter, gleaned from many sources, both historic and modern:
- 8-16oz of heavy cream
- Salt to taste
- 1-2 cups of ice water
- Dash churn, crank churn or large mason jar
Simple enough, right? I thought so too, and I was mostly right! In the interest of cleanliness, one of the most important factors in dairying, I turned our catering kitchen into my dairy, but I propped the door open so I could enjoy the beautiful weather and convince myself I was actually in our real dairy building. The most important ingredient, the cream, was obtained from a local organic food store–I wanted to be as authentic as possible as our wooden cow, Nancy, doesn’t need to be milked twice daily. If I was truly dairying in the 18th century, I would have had to wait a few days between churnings, even though I would be collecting a large volume of milk. After milking, the milk would be placed in pancheons, or setting dishes, so it could cool. As the milk cooled, the cream would rise to the top, be skimmed off, and stored separately. Several days worth of cream would have been gathered in order to have enough for churning. Butter was not a necessity, but rather a commodity that would be used by the household or sold to add to the household economy. Butter could also last up to about ten days if stored properly, so churning butter was not an urgent matter. Not urgent, that is, unless you’re a 21st century dairy aficionada who can’t wait to start churning!
I decided to try two methods of churning–one with a more traditional recipe of cream and a dash churn, and a second with a jar, cream, a pebble, and yogurt. The first method is relatively straightforward, but I was intrigued by the idea that I could mimic the cultured flavor of butter made from cream that had sat out for a few days by adding yogurt. The pebble in the jar was intended to act as an additional agitator for the jar, which lacks the dash of a traditional churn.
First, the dash churn. I used our tabletop churn for demonstrations after a thorough cleaning, added a pint of cream and churned away.
Although I had researched churning songs and rhymes (yes, these do exist!), at the suggestion of our executive director, Carol, I also indulged in a listen or two of “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, which I have dubbed a modern churning song.
After about 20 minutes of serious churning, my butter was starting to come together, and looked like this:
By the 30 minute mark, I had achieved butter!
My next step was to strain out the buttermilk, which I did using cheesecloth, although I could have also used a strainer.
After straining the buttermilk, I rinsed the ball of butter in cold water until the water ran clear, added salt, and then reshaped it into a ball so I could admire it!
Next, I gathered my supplies for my second method of butter-making.
I added about a tablespoon of yogurt to the pint of cream, dropped the pebble into the jar, secured the lid, and began to shake. And shake and shake. Churning using this method took about 40 minutes, and was slightly less fun, even though it was more portable. The loss of the dash as an agitator did seem to slow the process a little, and I’m not sure the pebble helped.
After straining the buttermilk, and rinsing the butter, I had another beautiful ball of butter, with a very subtle flavor. Perhaps if I’d added more yogurt, the cultured flavor might be more defined, but all in all, I’m very pleased with my experiment. Not to mention, it made a delicious lunch!
I stored my butter in plastic containers, but in the Croghan era, it would have been even more heavily salted, placed in airtight crocks, and whisked away to the springhouse for cold storage. For now, my butter is in the Locust Grove refrigerator for taste-testing by staff and volunteers!
If you’re the type of person who enjoys learning about historical cooking, people, places and things, why not consider volunteering at Locust Grove? Or if you are a undergraduate or graduate student who thinks spending a summer getting practical museum experience sounds like the most fun ever, consider our summer internships! We’re looking for a curatorial intern, and a programming intern this summer to help grow the knowledge of Locust Grove! We’d love to have you!
Finally, thank you to all of those who have already taken the blog survey! If you’d still like to weigh in, you can find the survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/W5X9CS3. Thank you and I hope to see you all at Encampment this weekend! Huzzah!
I remain, dairily yours,
Come, butter, come,
Come, butter, come,
Peter’s standing at the gate,
Waiting for a buttered cake,
Come, butter, come.
–Traditional Nursery Rhyme
P.S. For more butter information, check out these great links: