Getting Some Culture

Homemade Cultured Butter 

In the grossly overburdened portion of my brain devoted to food memories, a few first-time experiences stand out from the rest almost as vividly as the day they happened. There was my first raw oyster, slippery and briny and gone before I’d even registered its subtle flavor; my first taste of truffles, which actually caused me to exclaim ‘butane!’ because of their bizarre likeness to camping stove fuel; my first mouthful of smooth-as-silk foie gras; my first taste of butter…


Yes butter, but not just any butter. Of course I’m not talking about the butter I grew up eating — or I should say, the butter I ate before the anti-butter scaremongering hit the media and my parents switched to some vile, purportedly heart-healthier substance. I honestly have no idea when I first tasted that butter, but it was probably long before I started making taste memories. I’m talking about the butter I discovered on my very first trip to France, at the home of the family friend who hosted me for a week and took it upon herself to introduce me to as many of France’s gastronomic delights as humanly possible. Among the cheeses and patés and potages and pastries she stuffed me with, I had a taste of a butter so remarkable I couldn’t stop thinking about it for years.

In my defence, it was amazing stuff. That butter possessed a creaminess beyond description, and a sweetly subtle, almost cheesy flavor. I had never had anything like it, and I slathered it on every surface I could find (including my naked fingers), probably consuming more in that week than in the totality of my life up to that point. What must they be feeding those French cows to get butter like this? I wondered. I imagined them lolling about in green fields, being hand-fed choice bits of tender spring stalks by doting farmers. Maybe they had regular massages à la Kobe cows, and perhaps soothing classical music was piped into their climate-controlled barns at night to help them sleep. I mean really, how else could you explain why this French butter was so good?

While I can’t say for sure that none of that actually happens in France, I do know something now that I didn’t know then. French butter is actually so delicious because the French routinely do something to their butter that Americans (and British, and most of the rest of the world) don’t: they give it some culture.

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 souring the cream, produces additional aroma compounds including diacetyl which make for a more complex and “buttery” taste (can you see I did my homework?). You wouldn’t think that souring cream would necessarily have a positive impact on the butter made from it (I mean, the thought of sour butter doesn’t exactly get your mouth watering, does it?), but surprisingly, it does: the butter absorbs just enough of the flavor compounds to acquire a subtle, mysterious and completely addictive tang.

When I was in the U.S. last summer, I noticed that Americans’ fascination with all things European has expanded to the dairy case, and cultured butter is now widely available. It was indeed delicious, but it was also obscenely expensive; I was almost glad that I don’t live there and have to face decisions such as either indulging in cultured butter or paying my rent on a regular basis. At home I still scanned the butter aisle religiously, however, hoping against hope that the cultured variety was about to catch on here in the UK, when lo and behold, I stumbled upon a completely unexpected piece of information. Did you know that cultured butter is actually a cinch to make at home? I certainly didn’t, but I have since confirmed it myself: it is not only a cinch, it is spectacular. All it takes is a quart of the richest, freshest organic cream you can lay your hands on, a few spoonfuls of a fermented dairy product like yogurt or buttermilk, and a little bit of patience. In 24 hours, you can have as much fresh, cultured butter as your long-suffering tastebuds desire – at a cost so low you will be able to slather it on not only your toast every morning, but each and every one of your fingers too, and you’ll still be able to pay your rent in the process.

Now if only I could find a way to make that happen with oysters, truffles and foie gras…

Cultured Butter

I actually have reader and fellow blogger Dominic to thank for clueing me in to the fact that cultured butter can be made at home. I had no idea, but after reading his description, I got to work and have now made my own not once, not twice, but three times in the last week. Uh yeah, I know that’s a lot of butter. But it’s amazing stuff, and worth every luscious, calorie-laden bite. There’s not much to tell you here that the recipe doesn’t; the only thing I’ll stress is the importance of getting yourself really good (preferably organic) cream, since tasty cream=tasty butter. But you could have probably figured that one out for yourself.
Yield: 12-14 ounces (340-400g) of butter, depending on the fat content of your cream (note that the recipe can easily be halved)

4 cups (1ltr) heavy or double cream (the best quality, and highest butterfat you can find)
1/3 cup (80ml) plain whole-milk yogurt, crème fraîche
or buttermilk (check the ingredients to make sure these do not conatin any gums or stabilizers)
salt, to taste (flaky fleur de sel or Maldon salt is great)

Begin by culturing your cream (this is an overnight process, so plan accordingly). In a clean glass or ceramic container (bowl, jar, etc) combine the cream and yogurt, crème fraîche or buttermilk. Cover loosely and place it in a warmish part of the house – the ideal temperature is around 75F (23C), but anywhere in the range from 70-80F (20-26C) is okay.

After 12-18 hours, the cream should be noticeably thicker and should taste slightly tangy, i.e. like crème fraîche. If it’s bubbling and gassy, some unwanted bacteria have gotten in there so discard your cream and start again (note that this has never happened to me). If it hasn’t thickened yet, leave it alone for another few hours and eventually it will. When your cream has thickened, if you are not ready to make your butter right away, transfer the container to the fridge where you can leave it for up to another 24 hours.

In order to churn properly, the cream needs to be at about 60F (15C).  If you’re taking it out of the fridge just let it warm up until it reaches this temperature; if you’re making it from room temperature you’ll need to place the bowl in a bath of ice water for a few minutes to cool it down. Also, fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes and keep it handy.

You can use any method you want to beat the cream; handheld electric beater, stand mixer, etc – even whisking by hand if you’re trying to pre-emptively burn off a few calories. Basically, just put the thickened cream in a clean, deep bowl and start beating as if you’re making whipped cream. When the cream starts to form stiff peaks, reduce the speed to low. At this point watch carefully; first the peaks will start to look grainy, and a few seconds later the cream will break. When it does you’ll know it – globules of yellow butterfat will be swimming in a sea of buttermilk (see picture, below left), and if you’re beating too fast you’ll have buttermilk everywhere. Stop beating and carefully tilt the bowl over a cup, holding back the butter clumps as best you can, and drain away as much buttermilk as possible. You can use this just like commercial buttermilk, by the way, and it’s delicious.

Now you have to wash the butter to get rid of all the residual buttermilk, which would cause it to spoil prematurely. Using a fork (my preferred implement) or a stiff rubber spatula, pour some of your reserved icewater over the butter, kneading and stirring it around vigorously. The water will turn whitish and the butter will firm up, making it cohere and knead more easily (see picture, below right). Pour out the liquid and repeat as many times as needed until the water sloshing around in your bowl is completely clear. After you’ve poured off the last of the liquid, continue kneading for a few more minutes to get as much water as possible out of the butter. If you want salted butter, add your favorite salt now, to taste.

You’ve now got a generous supply of your very own cultured butter. Pack it into ramekins, roll it in waxed paper, or fill cute little molds with it before refrigerating; I recommend freezing some if you won’t be able to finish what you’ve made within a week or so. Whether storing it in the fridge or freezer, though, keep it tightly covered, as butter is a sponge for other aromas.

Left: the cream just after breaking. Right: the butter after two or three washes. 


The Lip Lady’s Secret Granola



When somebody around me mentions Peruvian food, there are a lot of wonderful things that should pop into my mind. I could, for instance, think back to my first taste of tiradito, a refined take on ceviche that features nearly transparent slices of milky-white fish in an addictive chile-laced marinade. I could also remember Peruvian potatoes and their spectrum of shapes, sizes and colors, or the hot ears of corn with kernels the size of walnuts I would buy from the women who boarded trains in small villages, selling all manner of homemade snacks from large baskets. I could think about anticuchos, I suppose, the famous beef-heart kebabs I was too chicken to try, or the enormous Peruvian tamales stuffed with chicken, olives, raisins and hardboiled eggs. I could even think of sushi, considering I had some of the best of my life in Lima. But I don’t. Embarrassing as it is to admit, my memories of Peruvian food are almost completely dominated by longings for the best granola I ever had.

I’ll tell you the story. Seven years ago I went to Peru to conduct research for my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Although my main base was in the Andes (I was ostensibly researching Quechua language survival), I also did some traveling with an old friend whose visit to Peru happened to coincide with mine. As she had a particular interest in ruins, I agreed to accompany her on a long bus ride north to visit Chan Chan, the ancient mud city of the pre-Incan Chimu Empire. According to our guidebook, the best base for visiting the ruins was a sleepy little beach town a few miles away called Huanchaco.

Huanchaco was a nice enough place, quiet and easygoing by Peruvian standards, though it had gloomy overcast skies and the kind of lonely vibe of a beach resort off-season (it was the start of winter in the southern hemisphere). The guest house we chose, like the town itself, was also pretty dead; apart from us there was only a solitary Dutch backpacker and the owners, a local man, his petite French wife, and their toddler son who ran around waking everyone up with his screams at six o’clock each morning. The husband seemed perfectly nice on the one and only occasion we saw him; his wife, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more unwelcoming if she tried. Not only did she watch our every move like a hawk, she complained about everything we did, from talking too loudly in the courtyard at night to not hanging our wet towels properly in our room. When she had nothing to complain about, she just glowered. And then there were her lips. I don’t know if they had anything to do with her foul temperament, but they were at least three sizes too big; our speculations ranged from birth defect to Botox treatment gone wrong. In any case, though I’m fully understanding of the fact that hospitality is a tough business, that seeing different faces parade in and out every day can be exhausting and that any number of personal tragedies may have befallen her shortly before our arrival, this woman really should not have been let loose near paying customers. To us, at any rate, she was just plain hostile, and to exact our revenge (and, well, because she never told us her name) we started calling her the Lip Lady.

As much as we disliked her, though, I probably would have forgotten about the Lip Lady entirely in the intervening years—I mean, she wasn’t that memorable—if it weren’t for her granola. You see, apart from rooms, the guest house ran a casual café on its terrace, and along with the usual backpacker pizzas and omelettes they served the world’s most delicious homemade granola. “What’s in this granola?” I remember asking the young girl who waited the cafe’s tables, but she had no idea. I could make out sliced almonds—or so I thought—bound together into light, crisp clusters with some sort of grain, but the rest was a mystery. I scrutinized it for days, trying to read its crumbly topography for clues, but in the end I realized there was only one way I was going to be able to reproduce this remarkable cereal at home. On the day of our departure, as I settled our bill, I took a deep breath, put on my brightest smile and asked the Lip Lady for the recipe.

To my complete surprise, she had only three words for me: “It’s a secret.”

Instantly I could feel panic swelling in my chest; I needed that recipe. “But it’s the best granola I’ve ever had,” I pleaded, searching her face for any shred of compassion. Surely she didn’t think I was going to take her secret recipe and open up a competing café down the street, did she? I forced a smile again and said in my most polite Spanish, “Can’t you just tell me the ingredients?”

She eyed me without expression for a long moment before shrugging. “I don’t give away my recipes. All I can tell you is that I make it with oats, and that the recipe comes from Germany.”

I was sorely tempted to grab her by her overgrown lips and shake the recipe out of her, but instead I paid my bill, cursing under my breath, and made a mental note of everything she had said. Surely if I looked long and hard enough I would eventually come across a recipe that yielded similar results… wouldn’t I?

I didn’t. For seven years I scoured every cookbook I ran across, spent hours typing search terms into google and quizzed every German I knew on their baked-cereal knowledge. I baked batch after batch of granola and tried every combination of ingredients and techniques imaginable, but none yielded exactly what I was looking for. There were plenty of good ones, of course, full of oaty wholesomeness and warm spice, but they were all lacking something, some elusive combination of flavor and texture I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I started to question whether my perfect granola even existed. What if my memory had been playing tricks on me? What if Lip Lady’s granola wasn’t actually as good as I remembered it? What if I had romanticized it to the point where every granola I ate for the rest of my life would disappoint me?

But of course I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it didn’t have a happy ending. As it happened, one night a couple of weeks ago, on the fifth straight batch to come out of my oven in as many days, I finally cracked the code. It was a remarkably small thing that did it, actually—just a change in the type of oats I use—but it was enough; before it had even finished cooling I knew this was the one. I delivered a handful to Manuel to get a second opinion and was met with astonishment. “This is the best granola you’ve ever made,” he exclaimed, and quickly inhaled half the batch. It certainly was, possessing every quality I have been trying to recreate for seven years: large, irregular clusters that retain their crunch to the bottom of the bowl; a light, crisp texture; a heady blend of vanilla and spice that conjures up oatmeal cookies and fragrant spice cakes. I’ll be the first to admit it may not be an exact replica of the granola I tasted in Huanchaco—heck, even my tastebuds don’t have that kind of memory—but knowing that actually makes it taste even better. It’s my recipe, after all, not the Lip Lady’s. And of course it’s yours now too, because the last thing I would ever dream of doing is keep it to myself.

Seven-Year Granola

Okay, so what exactly makes this granola different? I’m no kitchen scientist, but I can point out the things that seem to have the biggest impact. One thing is the addition of oat flour, which helps the grains and nuts stick together into those much-coveted clusters. Another is the use of sugar; as much I like liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, they seem to produce a tougher, chewier granola. Finally, the right kind of oats are essential. For years I only baked with regular rolled (‘old fashioned’) oats because that’s what recipes called for, but as soon as I switched to the smaller, thinner ‘quick oats’, the changes were remarkable—clusters formed, everything baked faster, and the texture became exquisitely light and crunchy. If you can’t find quick oats where you live—and I have lived in a few places where oats come in one variety only—here’s what I would do: pulse rolled oats in a food processor a few times to break them down to about half their original size. It won’t be exactly the same but it will come close.
Yield: about 8 cups

1 lb. (450g) quick oats*
3 cups (750ml/about 300g) coarsely chopped raw nuts and/or seeds (I usually use a mixture of almonds, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds, but use whatever tickles your fancy)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
(or nutmeg)
1 cup, packed (200g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (115g/1 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (80ml) water
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
dried fruit, at your discretion

*if you’re not familiar with the difference between quick and regular (also called ‘old fashioned’) rolled oats, take a look at the pictures here

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. In a food processor, coffee grinder or blender, grind half the oats to a fine powder. In a large bowl, combine the whole oats, ground oats, nuts, seeds and spices. In a microwave-safe bowl (or in a saucepan over medium heat), combine the brown sugar, butter and water and heat just until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbly. Stir the mixture together until smooth, then stir in the salt and vanilla. Pour this mixture over the oats and nuts, stirring well to coat (I usually do this with my hands). It should be uniformly moist – stir in another tablespoon or two of water if it isn’t. Let stand for about ten minutes.

Spread the mixture out on a large baking sheet, separating it into irregular clumps with your fingers, and allowing space between the clumps for the hot air to circulate. Slide into the middle of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and stir, gently breaking up the mixture into small-to-medium sized clumps. Return to the oven and bake another 15 minutes or so before stirring again. Repeat the bake-and-stir until the mixture is a uniform golden brown and completely dry; this usually takes 1-1 1/2 hours. Cool completely, then stir in any dried fruit you want to use.

Store in a covered container at room temperature. Serve with milk or plain yogurt and fresh fruit as desired.