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I've reached the 'making my own butter' phase of quarantine

On day 94 of staying home, I churned.

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The dogs stuck close by, hoping to catch an errant butter globule.  

Megan Wollerton/CNET

Butter needs no introduction. It's delicious and essential to tons of dishes, but I never thought about making my own. 

Our office shut down on the evening of March 11. The coronavirus had reached the US and cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, had hit Kentucky. Nearly 100 days later and we're still home. 

I'm grateful, because I'm not super-comfortable out in the world yet, despite the reopening of restaurants and many other businesses

I have close family members at higher risk of illness due to existing medical conditions and cases of COVID-19 are currently on the rise in many states. We're still technically in the first wave of this pandemic.

So, here I am, at home with my husband and our two dogs, still in quarantine. I'm not sure what happened, but one day I found myself volunteering to try to make butter from scratch and write about it -- for science, but most importantly, for butter

Butter, but make it self care

It's a luxury to be able to try out a new hobby during this chaotic time, but this is also precisely when taking time for yourself, however brief, is most important.

Those in-between moments where we're watching TV, going for a walk or learning a new language matter. They give us the energy to show up for loved onesto navigate a strange world full of face masks and foggy glasses and, yes, to stand together against systemic racism.

So far, my quarantine-specific self-care rituals have varied from baking -- and eating -- all the cookies and brownies in the land, to painstakingly piecing together a puzzle the size of our dining table and starting a small backyard garden with herbs and a few vegetables

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Butter, and a very curious pup.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

A few weeks ago my editor sent out a link to a story in the Los Angeles Times, titled: We're churning butter and making our own candles. What has coronavirus done to us?

I'm not sure he expected someone to actually want to try this, but it's butter. And, for me, butter doesn't need a reason. 

I also maintain a highly romanticized notion of homesteader life, pulled from the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I figured, worse case, it doesn't work and I have a mess to clean up; best case, I realize my true calling as a butter-churning homesteader. The reality ended up being somewhere in the middle.

On the prairie

I bought a Dazey Butter Churn from Lehman's, the exact one featured in the LA Times article. Lehman's offers three different sizes -- a $200 original churn that can make up to 2.5 quarts of butter, a $35 mini churn that makes about two sticks, or 8 ounces of butter and a $30 micro churn that makes one stick, or about 4 ounces of butter.  

The largest churn was sold out when I placed my order, so I opted for the mini churn -- and bought four 16-ounce cartons of heavy cream to make two batches of butter (in case the first one didn't turn out). The churn is very simple: just a jar and a lid with a built-in hand crank and a mixer that extends into the jar. I washed and dried the jar and the lid, put two cartons of cream in the jar and let it sit at room temperature for a couple hours, according to the instructions. 

Once the cream was around room temperature, I screwed on the lid, took it outside and started turning the crank. At first, it moved easily. But after about 4 minutes, it got more challenging as the cream turned grainy and solid. Some of the gears skipped as I tried to turn the crank, but shortly after, it turned easily again and I noticed a larger section of solid butter forming and a smaller amount of liquid separating into buttermilk. 

When the solids and liquid separate like that, the instructions tell you to stop and pour the buttermilk into a storage container for later use. Then remove the butter from the jar -- I moved mine to a mesh strainer and rinsed it with water to get rid of any remaining buttermilk. 

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See that graininess as the cream turns into butter? It was hard to turn the handle at this stage. 

Megan Wollerton/CNET

Surprisingly easy

That was it. After roughly 10 minutes of churning, I had butter and buttermilk. The butter tasted exactly as you'd expect, like regular, unsalted butter, just fresher. At this point, you can add salt or honey -- or whatever other buttery add-on you want. 

I left mine plain and made a buttermilk pound cake. I regret nothing. 

The simplicity of turning the crank put me in a quasi-meditative state. You have to be just aware enough of what you're doing to keep turning the crank, but that's about it. I was able to zone out, while also managing to end up with two delicious homemade ingredients for the pound cake recipe. 

There's also a degree of pride that comes from making something yourself, especially something that seemed (to me, at least) kind of complicated at a glance. I was surprised how easy it was overall, despite the crank being hard to turn as the butter formed, and the messiness of removing the leftover buttermilk from the butter. That said, I made a pretty small amount of butter from heavy cream I bought from a store, so I have a less romantic view of what it probably takes to be a homesteader now.  

I have two cartons of heavy cream left and I'm going to make another batch of butter, but I don't expect butter churning to become a regular hobby. Yes, homemade butter tastes great, but not good enough to render its store-bought counterpart inedible. It's at least nice to know that I can make my own butter if and when my local grocery store runs out.

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Because how could I not immediately make a pound cake with the fresh butter and buttermilk?

Megan Wollerton/CNET