To all of you who follow this blog, I thank you for your continued patience! We have just had a two-week stretch of company, so crafting and blogging had to be put on hold for a time while we enjoyed time with family. 🙂
Stories of the daily lives of people who lived in the centuries before electricity have always interested and intrigued my children. Because of this interest, we have visited numerous museums and living history displays and allowed them the opportunity to try their hand at doing some of the common household tasks of yesteryear as they would have been done before electricity changed our lives forever. This has involved allowing them to try weaving, doing small maintenance jobs with basic hand tools, small-scale gardening starting from seeds, and making butter from cream.
In spite of the fact that butter is readily available in any supermarket they could care to shop at, my children have loved making butter to such a degree that they still like doing it even though they are now young adults! For most people in modern America, this would simply mean putting cream into the food processor and turning it on, however, we do not own a food processor, so butter-making for us has remained something that has to be done by hand. Perhaps that is part of the charm for our family. Whatever the reason, making our own butter has become a kind of recreation that has also involved the challenge (for my son and me!) of designing and making a fast, easy-to-use churn from food-safe items that are inexpensive and easy-to-come-by. In the next couple of articles I hope to chronicle our experiments for those who would like to have an electricity-free backup to the food processor method.
Though the churns we used are capable of churning greater quantities of cream, we field tested each of them with a quart of cream. I know that allowing cream to come to room temperature shortens the time required for it to become butter, but for these articles, I needed to insure that my results were because of the differences in the churns and not it the differences of temperature in the cream. To this end, I began each experiment with cream chilled in the refrigerator.
The most basic method we used to churn butter when the children were still young enough to be enthralled by the magic of seeing a liquid form a solid before their eyes, was to use a large glass jar. Since my family enjoys dill pickles, we were able to re-purpose a gallon-size pickle jar. We simply bought whipping cream, poured it into the thoroughly-cleaned jar, screwed the lid on tightly, and allowed the (supervised!) children to shake or roll the jar back and forth until the butter formed. The action was similar to the old swing-style churns, except that the children were acting in the place of the swing frame. The obvious advantages to this method are that it requires very little preparation (just clean the empty jar), is easy to clean after the butter is made, and that the clear sides allow for the progress of the butter-making to be seen. Churning a quart of chilled cream (straight from the fridge) this way using a steady rocking motion required an hour and ten minutes for the cream to form into butter, but that time would vary some on how vigorously the jar was shaken. The disadvantages were largely that it required a lot of physical labor (it was a great pre-nap activity!) and the children’s patience would sometimes wear out before the butter formed. Ideas to mechanize the action without using electricity even included putting the jar in the seat of a wind-up baby swing, though this was never tried! 🙂
Though shaking the jar was successful in making butter, it was really not exactly the action that most of the early churns depicted. In order to try to mimic something closer to a standard up-and-down dasher-style churn, we knew that we would have to not only make a food-safe dasher, but we would also have to prepare the lid with a shaft for the dasher to pass through. My son’s idea for the shaft was to use a piece of 1/2″ PVC pipe with two end caps from which the ends had been drilled out. By passing the pipe through a hole in the lid and snapping the caps in place, one on top of the lid and one on bottom, it would form a guide for the dasher and provide some measure of protection against splashing. My son worked with cutting the PVC pipe into a section just long enough to extend from one end cap, through the lid, and into the other end cap. He also handled drilling out the ends of the caps so that they would be tubes. While he was involved with that, I made a hole in the lid of the pickle jar. I began by tracing a pencil mark around the PVC pipe in the center of the metal lid. On a protected surface, I used a small nail to perforate the traced circle, just to the inside of the marking. Then I used a small flat-head screw driver to punch through the metal left between the nail holes until the inside circle was removed. I then painted the lid white to it some class! With the hole formed and the paint dry, we added the pipe and caps and the shaft was complete.
We puzzled for a while as to how to make a dasher for the new churn. Old-style dashers were simply a long wooden handle with two pieces of wood affixed to the end in the shape of an X. What could be used in our churn that would be safe? We wanted to avoid more plastic if we could, we didn’t think metal was a good option for a glass jar, and we were hesitant to use a pressure-treated wooden dowel. In the effort to find something food-safe, we ended up purchasing a 24″ wooden stock pot spoon, which turned out to be the most expensive element in any of our churn designs, since we did not have one on hand and could not find one in the thrift or salvage shops. By separating the bowl from the handle, drilling a hole through its center that was the same diameter as the handle, and pressing it in place on the end of the handle, we were able to make a dasher that was about the right size for our gallon-size churn. To help protect it from being damaged by soaking in the cream, I coated it in a food-grade mineral oil used to protect other wooden kitchen equipment like cutting boards. This churn worked just like the ones that my children had seen pictured in their history books. The up-and-down action needed to make the butter on this churn was easier than that of having to shake the whole jar without a dasher, was still very easy to clean, and we were still able to watch the progress of the butter through the sides of the jar. The downsides to this design were that there was a little bit of splashing through the shaft in the beginning stages and that a little butter built up on the sides of the handle and spilled out onto the lid toward the end. But this churn was able to make butter from a quart of chilled cream in about an hour of even, steady motion.
Even though the dasher-style churn was effective, investigation revealed yet another old butter churn design, this time with a spinning dasher that was operated by a crank attached to the lid of the churn. This led to speculation about the speed with which it could turn the cream into butter and the ease with which it could be used. So we set about to test another design which would allow for a spinning dasher. Since the instructions for this are rather involved, I will add those in a separate article!