Homemade goodness takes time and effort;  local woman shares her secrets to making butter

Linda Alexander is shown with the wooden dasher that fits inside the stoneware crock once used by farm wives every week to churn butter for their families.

Most of us who count ourselves fortunate enough to have been born and raised here in the South know about making butter with a churn. Well, it could have something to do with your age, depending on when you were born you might think butter comes from a factory somewhere and winds up on the grocery shelf. 

Here’s a trip down memory lane for those of you who have had the distinct pleasure of having real butter with your homemade biscuits, and for those of you who have not, well, here’s a history lesson for you. 

Farm wives everywhere had certain chores that people don’t have to do for themselves anymore. For those industrious women who worked the fields, cooked three big meals every day, planted, tended, harvested and preserved a garden and an orchard, washed clothes in a big black iron pot out near the clothes line (if you are unfamiliar with that term, google it) ironed those stiff wind and sun dried clothes for families that often included 10 or 12 children, and did all this without the benefit of electricity. Here is one more chore that you might not have ever considered. 

This actually begins with another chore, milking a cow. This task is usually accomplished in the hour before sunrise when everyone else is still sleeping.  Farm women got up, stoked the fire in the winter, washed up with water they had to pump from a well, and headed out for the barn by the light of the waning moon or sometimes with the help of a kerosene lantern. 

Barns were quiet places this time of the morning, with mules and horses dozing before their long day began, and cows shuffling around, ready to be milked. A three-legged stool was always kept for this unless you were really poor, then you just turned an old bucket upside down and made do with that. Cows normally like to be milked; it relieves the pressure on their mammary glands if they don’t have a calf still nursing. In the winter the cows were warm and often the woman would put her head against the sturdy rump of her bovine friend and rest while she worked her hands up and down the row of teats, squirting expertly into the clean waiting pail under the cow’s stomach. This provided milk for the family for the day.  And there was a byproduct that many folks love, but see little of today…homemade butter. 

In the days before electricity came to the valley farm wives took their milk inside or they put it in a well house made of concrete to keep it cool. Some families lived close enough to a creek to keep things cool in the shallow water, but the majority kept a well house stocked with perishables gleaned from their animals. Meat was dried and hung in a smoke house. 

After feeding the family a breakfast consisting of things grown on the farm, bacon, sausage or ham, eggs from the hens out in the coop, and hot homemade buttered biscuits, washed down with milk as fresh as you can get it, straight from the cow just an hour or so ago, the wives saw their children off to school carrying lunches packed with leftovers from last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast. Then the farmer’s wife would wash a mountain of dishes (google the invention of paper plates and plastic utensils,  this was way before then).  Typically, lunch was started as soon as breakfast was finished so as to be ready in time for the older children and the farmer to come in from the fields for lunch, called by most people, dinner. (You might think this is just colloquial Southern English, but if you bother to look it up, you’ll find that dinner refers to the largest meal of the day, not the time it’s served. And for farmers, the midday meal was always the largest of the day, with two or three meats, four or five vegetables, homemade bread or cornbread, and gallons of the sweetest tea you can imagine. People hadn’t yet learned to be scared of a little sugar). 

After what would be a day’s work for most women today, accustomed as we are to washing clothes by pushing a few buttons, loading them into a dryer and pushing another button, same thing with the dishes, presto, dishes washing quietly as we watch the morning talk shows. 

Our great-grandmothers’ lives were not nearly so easy. They did everything mentioned above and somehow they still found time to churn butter. If they hadn’t had the time, there would be no butter to season food, use in baking, or slather on those big ol’ cathead biscuits. 

Churning butter is almost a lost art these days. It involves sitting for a couple of hours and using a paddle, or dasher, to magically turn liquid milk into solid butter. It’s not as easy as it sounds, you can be sure of that! 

About 10 years ago Linda Alexander of the Aldridge Grove community, ran up on a young woman by the name of Jennifer Ledlow, in Hartselle.  Ledlow was selling fresh eggs, butter and milk from her cows. Linda knew the benefits of eating fresh, organic food so she became a regular customer. After a few months Linda approached the lady about teaching her the art of making butter. It didn’t take long to learn, but it does take a long time to hand churn even a small amount of butter. 

Here is Linda’s method: 

Two gallons of fresh milk at room temperature, a clean churn and dasher, and 2-3 uninterrupted hours.

This might be done during the baby’s nap, or while visiting with company or reading the Bible quietly as the dasher plunged up and down, fueled by elbow grease (yes, google that, too). 

Linda says that you might see little yellow flakes begin to form if you check your progress after about an hour.  You can just imagine how tired your arms would grow after that long, but you couldn’t stop because Wal-Mart hadn’t been invented yet, so butter was totally up to you! 

Linda’s friend, Becky Terry, gave her an old glazed crockery butter churn. Becky told her that her grandmother used the churn and that she would rather see it put to use than sitting on a shelf. 

After Linda learned the art of churning and molding butter she made her own butter several times. She used the hand churn at first, then invested in an electric churn. “It takes about the same amount of time to make butter in either one,” said Linda, “But using the electric one frees you up from sitting and churning for over two hours!”

“You absolutely have to have milk fresh from the cow,” Linda stressed. “You can’t make butter with pasteurized milk.” 

Linda’s churn holds about three gallons, the milk expands after making butter. “It’s a very slow process,” she warned. This yields about a pound of fresh butter. 

All it takes for the recipe is just like stated above, fresh milk. “Start out with room temperature milk,” Linda advised. After hours of churning you’ve separated the fat out of the milk and you have butter, but the work isn’t over yet! 

When it thickened to the consistency of butter, you carefully remove it from the churn. “Now you take your butter churn to the sink and lift off the butter into a bowl. Then you rinse your butter under cool running water, until it runs clean. Then knead it almost like bread to get out all the milk you can. If you want your butter salted, you should add salt to taste at the point where you are kneading it,” Linda advises.     

To knead it, you turn your butter out onto wax paper or a clean tea towel and knead it almost like dough, until the moisture is squeezed out of it. “Now all that’s left is putting your butter into a wooden or ceramic mold,” she said, pointing to her wooden molds. One was a gift that her husband, Ricky, made for her, the other was found in an antique shop. 

According to Linda, it takes several hours to mold the butter. Always refrigerate after removing from the mold,” Linda said. “What’s left over in the churn is your butter milk,” she added. “Probably about a gallon and a half is left. This will be the best butter and butter milk you’ve ever tasted.”

About the same time Linda started making butter, she  became interested in keeping chickens for their eggs. “Those eggs are so much better,” she exclaimed. “The yolks are deeper in color, richer, and more nutritious than eggs in a store.” 

She and Rick built their own chicken coop with a covered outdoor run to protect them from predator birds. She also let them free range several times a week, always putting them up at night. She says she averaged about one egg per chicken per day. She even had some Easter egg chickens which laid pastel eggs. 

Eventually, some varmint did away with her chickens and she hasn’t had the heart to start over, but says that keeping chickens is very rewarding and she loved having them in the yard because it reminded her of her grandmother. 

If you want to try making your own butter you can find further instructions online or contact your extension agent or a local farmer to find fresh milk. Your local extension office can also provide you with literature on raising your own chickens. 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.