Homemade Cultured Butter

Homemade cultured butter is easy to make: all you need is heavy cream, yogurt, and sea salt.

Homemade Cultured Butter

As is abundantly obvious to anyone with the slightest acquaintance with my medical records, I’ve never met a buttah I didn’t like. Cultured butter or uncouth. Salted or unsalted; cow, goat, or sheep; French, English, Italian, American; compound or, er, singular.

However, the idea that I could whip up my own homemade butter, that I could play Dr. Frankenstein to a bunch of butterfat globules, was completely lost on me during my formative years. It wasn’t until one lazy afternoon in Pittsburgh, during my sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon University, that I became aware of the possibility that is homemade butter.

I’d recently dropped out of the university’s acting program. Never one to ignore the writing on the wall—in this case a report card with enough low grades to call myself “Failure in C Major”—I had quietly exited stage left before the curtain was rung down on my acting aspirations by a tyrannical acting teacher whose similarity to Miss Trunchbull, the evil headmistress in Matilda the Musical, cannot be overemphasized. My futon and I, along with my humiliation, had taken up residence in a sunny bedroom in a Squirrel Hill apartment recently vacated by a fellow “dramat” (that’s what they call drama majors at CMU) who had lost the battle with Miss Trunchbull.

Stripped of an identity that I’d clung to for years—that is, future Oscar, Tony, and Olivier Award-winning star—I became one with the couch, exhibiting signs of what I was certain was post-traumatic stress disorder or, at the very least, a debilitating fungal infection from having handled poorly wrapped cheese or wearing unsanitized bowling shoes. The sadness was monumental and unremitting. My days were filled with soap operas (“I can act better than you frickin’ idiots!” I shouted at the TV), game shows, solitaire, laundry, and long walks during which I sat down on park benches, tragic novels in my lap, and wept Chekhovian-size tears. The books served two purposes: 1.) They made me look smarter than I was, and 2.) they acted as a cover for my hysterics. I figured any passerby would be moved by the exquisite pain I clearly felt while reading Anna Karenina or The Scarlet Letter.

Homemade Butter

My college girlfriend, whom I will always think of as the Original Grace (as in Grace Adler from Will & Grace), tried to get me excited about cooking as a way of giving me something to do during the day while I killed time until my night shift at Gullifty’s restaurant, where I waited tables. One day while my two roommates were at school—one making believe he was a giant porpoise with an inferiority complex in improvisation class, the other deluding himself that he was Vincent van Gogh in art studio—I felt the slightest thrum of motivation.

Somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to make whipped cream. I don’t recall why. It could have been for dessert. It could have been simply so I could tell Original Grace that I’d accomplished something besides being the biggest armchair winner of The $20,000 Pyramid that day. I tramped over to the Giant Eagle on Murray Avenue and picked up a quart of heavy cream. After rooting through the kitchen cabinets, the only whizzing implement to be found in the apartment was the blender my wannabe Van Gogh roommate had brought all the way from Georgia. A whiz is a whiz is a whiz, I thought. So I poured in the heavy cream, hit liquefy, and fetched the basket of rumpled clothes that had taken up residence in the corner of my room, where it doubled as a bureau. (Yes, I had been that depressed.)

I was in the mood for some conversation, so I sat on the top step of the kitchen’s back staircase with my basket by my side and started folding. When my downstairs neighbor heard our door open, she scuffed her chair close to her back door and creaked it open, as she always did.

“YOU THERE?” she shouted up.

“I AM,” I yelled back. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”



During those endless afternoons we’d often talk about cooking, although, oddly, we never got together in either of our kitchens to actually cook. I suspect it’s because one night when I opened my closet I saw her in the apartment below taking a shower. A pipe had burst during winter break and the water had taken down her bathroom ceiling and part of my closet wall. When she looked up, as if she’d heard something, I flicked off the light and stood in the darkness, my heart rattling my chest like a gorilla in a cage. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I’m going to get arrested, I panicked to myself. I’m a freaking Peeping Tom! All I wanted to do was hang up my shirt! 

As I sat on the step bellowing out Duran Duran and the Tootsie soundtrack, folding whites I’d dragged from the Laundromat, I was reminded of my maternal grandmother, Vovó Costa. I told my neighbor how Vovó used to sit on our splintery back porch in Fall River, Massachusetts, her nylons rolled down below her swollen knees, yelling through the screened window to my godmother as she folded clothes that had dried in the backyard on the line just inches above my grandfather’s strawberry patch. Sometimes in mid-June I swear I could smell the sweetness of berries on my T-shirts.


Strawberries and whipped cream.

Suddenly I remembered what had gotten me into the kitchen in the first place.

“I’LL TALK TO YOU LATER!” I shouted down the stairs and scrambled into the kitchen as I heard my neighbor’s door close.

I hovered like an expectant father over my creamy newborn. In the blender, though, was an inelegant glump–a giant, deformed blob–floating in a pool of murky liquid. I was appalled. Well, look at that, I thought. The damn store sold cream that was past its time. I picked through the trash bin for the receipt so I could get my money back. When I came up empty-handed, I dumped the contents of the blender into the garbage and stomped off to my room, feeling like the failure I knew I was.

“Oh, silly!” said Original Grace later that night, chucking me on the chin. (She was a big chucker.) “That was butter you made.” I knew she was trying to do the look-at-the-glass-half-full thing, but I was miserable and felt entitled to remain so. I’d figured that, much like a milkshake, whipped cream would keep whipping until I spooned its plush, ivory-colored pillows out of the blender. How was I to know? It’s not like the Internet was invented yet.

Over the years I’d forgotten all about that incident (the overbeating of the cream, not the accidental peeping–I’ll never be able to un-etch that from my neural pathways) until this summer, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time defending the glories of country living to The One, for whom the center of the universe is NYC. I knew I’d better put my DIY money where my mouth was and make as many things as I could myself–everything from mustard and mayonnaise to nonstick cooking spray and butter–to prove my point.

The problem is, if you have mustard, mayo, and butter lying around, you need homemade bread for sandwiches to slather with mayo and mustard and butter; and potato salad to go with the sandwiches; and pies with flaky crusts to go with the potato salad that accompanies the sandwiches. And then comes the cholesterol medication….

David Leite's signature

You can make cultured butter in a wooden churn, a bowl with a hand mixer or a balloon whisk, even a jar if you shake it hard and long enough. But I don’t think I’m being elitist by specifying that if you want to make cultured butter my way, you must use a stand mixer. I’m just lazy.  Plus I like to lean my forehead against the mixer and watch the transformation from liquid to solid take place.–David Leite

LC Uh, Is That Buttermilk? Note

When you make butter, there’s quite a lot of attendant liquid left over, which may lead you to ask, “Uh, is that buttermilk?” (That liquid up there in the antique milk bottle.) It actually is buttermilk, although it isn’t the same as the rich, creamy, cultured buttermilk you’ll find in the refrigerator case at the market. Still, if you want to lend a little tang to pancakes, biscuits, and the like, go ahead and use a little of it.

Homemade Cultured Butter

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  • 5 M
  • 5 M
  • Makes about 1 pound
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Mix the cream and yogurt in a medium bowl and let the cream stand on the counter for 18 hours. I know, I know. It goes against everything you’ve learned about food safety. By setting out the cream-yogurt mixture, it develops the delicious tang, which lends the cultured butter an oh-so-marvelous flavor. Now here’s the counterintuitive part: put the milk back in the refrigerator until it’s fully chilled. You want cold cream to make butter.

Fill a bowl with ice and water.

Pour the cream mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beginning on the lowest setting, gently whisk the cream. There’s no lost-to-the-ages secret in starting low. You simply sidestep getting bathed in cream until it thickens. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Gradually bump up the speed higher as the cream starts to billow. Eventually, you’ll form soft peaks, them firmer peaks, then–that’s it!–you’re past the point of no return when you see little grains in the cream. That’s the butter forming. Now, cover the mixer with a dish towel. Trust me. You don’t want to bathe in buttermilk.

Let the cream go on like this until a, well, butter-yellow clomp clings to the whisk. Continue on, for a minute or two, to release as much of the buttermilk as you can.

Drop the butter, and its attendant buttermilk, into a fine-mesh screen. Let the butter drain for several minutes.

Dunk the butter into the water, and save the buttermilk for another use. Squeeze and massage the butter with your hands under the ice water to release the last little bits of buttermilk. If you’re fanatical, you can dump the now-cloudy water, replenish, and repeat. About this time, you’ll lose most of the feeling in your fingers due to early-stage hypothermia. (Kidding, but it’s bitchin’ cold.)

Remove the butter from the water and pat it dry with paper towels. If you’d like salted butter, sprinkle the butter with the salt, and knead it thoroughly.

Press the cultured butter into a crock or small bowl, cover well with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

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  1. I made the butter and am preparing to do so again. It is wonderful, but I have a couple of thoughts on the process. Costco sells organic cream and I thought I’d double the recipe. WTH_ I’ve got a big ass KitchenAid -no problem. WELL – although it does all fit in that 6-qt bowl, once the butter started to congeal it threw the buttermilk all over the kitchen in spectacular fashion. Once you wipe off the buttermilk from everywhere, wash the kitchen floor, knead out the excess water, knead in the salt and pack the large amount of the butter in containers I figure you are at a net zero for the calories.

    Thanks for the recipe.

    This time I am wrapping the mixer in plastic film.

    1. Elizabeth, oh, the vagaries of doubling recipes! Yes, twice the buttermilk sloshing around. It must have been awful! (I’m laughing, but I really don’t mean to. It’s just that when I was in a rush one time, I knocked it up to speed 10 and got a bath, too.) I’ll add a mention to cover the mixer with a towel. Thanks.

  2. I can almost smell the fresh salted butter after reading this.

    David, thank you for your very interesting posts, and this website and newsletter in general. While I haven’t had the chance to try many (or maybe any) of the recipes here (my kitchen is practically a closet… such is city life, *sigh*), they’re always an enjoyable read… sometimes I imagine I’m eating something I’m reading about or watching on Food Network instead of what I’m actually eating (especially if it’s the second or third day in a row I’m eating it).

    I’ve hand-churned butter once, too… at one of those fun little historic villages you visit on field trips as a kid. So delicious on proper homemade bread…

    The more I read of your site, the more I wish I had counter space!

    And I too hear you on the anxiety, depression and etc. of acting life… but I’m still pursuing it anyway.

    Reading about your hole in the closet made me laugh – and reminded me of a friend’s (rented) house back in University… there was a hole in the floor of the 2nd floor bathroom, and when you were lounging on the living room futon, you could see up into it – the hole about the size of a person’s head between the bathtub and toilet! After I noticed it (and I had to be the one to do so) I became increasingly more nervous using my friend’s toilet, and more careful not to lean back while watching their TV… so I understand!

    1. Christine, your comment gave me a much-needed laugh today. Thank you. And thank you for the compliment. Oh, and they’re are plenty of recipes on the site that can be made in a tiny NYC kitchen. Renee and I can attest to that!

  3. I have an empty butter bell to be filled and local corn in tassel! You couldn’t be more of a resource right now. And aren’t there some reports of butter being healthy from grass fed cows? Butter is one thing I have not made and I have even made wine salt. The time has come and thanks for being part of it.

    I was in Pittsburgh, Pa while attending The Art Institute. I became familiar with both inferiority complex’s and delusions during my stay. Yin Yang to the creative process.

    1. Penny, so glad this is a resource for you. do let me know how it turns out for you. I’m making more tomorrow. I’m not sure about butter from grass-fed cows being better for you, but it makes sense.

  4. I love your stories. When is a publisher going to put all your blogs into a journal/book. Isn’t that how “Carrie” came to be. Just imagine…. Your story brought back to mind how I over whipped cream in 1973, and I never knew it was butter…duh…no one was there to tell me. I too felt that I failed.

    But I was using a hand held mixer so I had no one to blame but myself ! Thank you for all your entertaining / heartfelt / informative articles :)

    PS: Your Cherry Lattice Pie is a work of art.

    1. Randi, thank you for that! Well, I’m at work on a memoir. It will contain parts of some of these posts, but it focuses on other elements of my life people don’t know about as much: my suffering from bipolar disorder, my terribly, terribly hard time coming out as a gay man and getting involved in a cult to change, and, of course, stories about The One and food.

      1. Can’t wait to read it. You have so much support out there from your blahg readahs and friends. I hope life is easier for you now in many ways. I have to tell you, I went to the HS of Art & Design, NY in the late 60’s and I never gave a second thought to people who were gay, transgender, I accepted them for who they were. Wish everyone felt like that.

        You have a great writing style, and I know your book will help many, while entertaining them, too. Good things happen to Good people.

        1. Randi, from your mouth…! Thank you for the wonderful support. I do hope readahs will like it. It’s not a ha-ha-ha book. Parts are funny (made a friend snort her Diet Coke out her nose), but I find it to be hilarious about mental illness, suicidal thoughts, manic highs, etc. My greatest hope is readahs will trust me and come along on the journey.

  5. Oh, David, we have more in common than I knew… My short-lived 10 months of working in the theatre in Pgh had me going for long walks through Shadyside and sobbing on a park bench in Schenley Park! Hah!

    Love your description of making butter. You make it sound much more awesome than my “pass the milk bottle around the circle and shake five times” experience in kindergarten or first grade. Can’t wait to make it!

  6. When I taught kindergarten, the kids made butter in baby food jars – passing them around so everyone got a turn “shaking.” They loved the butter on saltines.

    1. And to think, I sat in the corner of kindergarten smelling my crayons and wondering why the orange one didn’t smell like an orange. What the hell was my teacher doing…?

  7. Ladies and Gentleman, Honoured Guests, and Blahg Readers,

    Tonight we present the most coveted Award in culinary greatness. A most deserved award for a man who can cook and has a damn good sense of humor (if he is not peeping in at you)…Drum Roll…

    The Costa Award goes to – Please Please hold your applause…


    He makes cultured butter with a simple flick of the wrist and is able to wrestle a kitchen full of Thanksgiving smoke with a mere spatula and apron. Firemen not included. He is a man of few words, but perhaps we could get The One to tell us in his own words how wonderful it is to share a life with this passionate and inspirational culinary delight.


  8. I LOVE to make butter and use the buttermilk to make scones or biscuits…A vicious yet, beautiful cycle.

  9. I tell all my butter and egg fearing friends that the dementia unit of the local nursing home is filled with very thin people who did not eat anything with butter or egg yolks. Better they should have enjoyed a pat or two of real butter and maybe eaten an egg bread, brioche or egg bagel rather than living so long with low cholesterols but now not knowing who they are or who their children are.

  10. Dying to try this! How well would this butter keep at room temperature what with it being made by hand? I normally keep my butter in the fridge, but I’ve been told it keeps well at room temperature if kept from contaminants.

    1. Sanya, I’m legally obligated to say it’s best kept in the fridge. So there, I’ve said it. (But, personally, I’ve found it keeps perfectly fine at room temperature.)

  11. My doctor once said “Your cholesterol is a little high. Do you eat a lot of butter?”

    Innocently and rather truthfully I replied, “Oh five or six sticks a week if I have time to cook.”

    Once he had picked himself off the floor and resumed breathing he had the temerity to imply that I might want to eat less (LESS!) butter. I openly laughed in his face and asked him if he knew what I did for a living. He acquiesced a tad and asked if I could get it down to one stick a week. The day I casually mentioned to him that I’m curing my own bacon (see Rhulman, Michael, for the blame) and whipping up my own butter these days made him mutter a few choice words under his breath.

    1. KitchenBeard, I think we’re twins who were separated at birth. That’s the same situation I had with my previous doctor. (Operative word: “previous.”) And the weird thing is he’s a huge fan of the site and blahg, yet he still shook his finger at me and made me get on the scale, even when I was going in just for blood tests. Sadistic.

  12. Oh David, how you toy with me! Was at the doctor’s last week, complete with stern talk, pointed forefinger waving in front of my nose, and the Lipitor threat-promise if I don’t mend my culinary ways! I’m ok cutting a lot of things out, but when dairy sings its siren song, what’s a gal to do?

    1. Well, Ann, you can go my route, which is to change doctors! Or you can give him a container of your freshly made butter and ask him how hard is it for him to resist it. I’m sure he’s no culinary Ulysses who will bind himself to the mast in the face of your butter.

  13. Another fantastic story, David! All the while you were folding laundry, I was thinking, “No! No! The cream’s turning to butter!”

    I really enjoy making butter, too. And mayonnaise. And mustard. Even marshmallows. There’s just something so rewarding about making from scratch some of the things we take for granted as a grocery store purchase.

    1. I’m with you on making staples. It’s so much better.

      I remember a friend, upon seeing a box of tomatoes on our counter, ask me, “What are you going to do with them?”

      “Make ketchup,” I replied.


      “Because I can.” Jeesh.

        1. I can think of all kinds of wickedly evil retorts, but perhaps when you’re done canning leave a jar on top of her desk with a note that says, “From the Little House on the Prairie.”

  14. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother all made butter. It is the one thing that I never attempted but you have inspired me to try it. (And then I will have an excuse to make bread!) Bless you, David!

  15. We’ve all made butter by accident, bent on good intentions and a bowl of berries and whipped cream, resulting in a shocking serendipity of yellow gorgeousness – which then send us clattering about making scones to slather the stuff on.

    Love, love, love your stories, David.

  16. You’re full of interesting stories. First a strange man in your cabin late at night, a girlfriend, and a naked woman. Oh my! I once over-whipped cream. The butter was yummy, but it didn’t go with my strawberry shortcake.

      1. I think it suffices to say the smile on my face held within it the pure joy and expectation of all the wonderful possibilities of homemade butter…
        Oh, and “A whiz is a whiz is a whiz.”

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