A long time ago in a school district far, far away, I was in the second grade. One day, my mother brought an antique butter churn to class, plus a large jar of cream.

The churn was a paddle type that had to be turned, and class members took turns sitting up front cranking the crank. Eventually, the butter was done. My mother also brought a loaf of homemade bread, which had cooled just enough to slice.

We each got a piece of warm bread with fresh-churned butter slathered on it.

The word that memory brings to mind is wow. Or maybe yum.

What is it about cream that even second-graders can turn it into butter? Why does prolonged, gentle agitation have such an effect. You don’t even need a churn to make the magic happen, you can simply shake a jar of cream, provided you have endurance enough to prolong the shaking.

The fat molecules in cream are surrounded by membranes – made of lipids and proteins, if you must know – that keep the fat molecules from lumping together. Keeping the molecules apart makes the cream creamy.

Agitating the cream makes the molecules bump into each other, which breaks the membranes. The fat molecules are now able to do what they really want to do, stick together. As they begin to do this, the cream turns into whipped cream, that fluffy stuff you dollop on hot chocolate and apple pie.

Keep the agitation going and before long, enough molecules have met up to form lumps and clumps of butter. The milk that is left is called butter milk because it has naturally occurring bacteria that produce lactic acid. This causes the milk to ferment slightly. It’s no longer cream, but it’s not exactly milk either. What it is, is yummy.

As I recall, it took my second grade class a half hour or more to turn cream into a huge glob of butter. That’s because we weren’t allowed to crank the churn at the high rate of speed we wanted to. No. We had to do it slowly, in a manner befitting an antique churn.

Two years ago, a couple of guys on the Internet attempted to make butter faster than they could make toast. They had an unopened quart of cream that had sat out for three hours to come to room temperature.

They took two plastic bottles of water, poured out the water, opened the cream, and got set. One of them dropped two pieces of bread into a toaster. The moment the bread was lowered so it could begin to toast, they each poured cream into an empty water bottle, put on the caps, and began to shake as hard as they could.

Just before the toast popped, one of the guys opened his bottle. A comet of butter shot out and landed on the counter. They knifed it up and spread it on the toast.

My second grade instincts were right. Antique, smantique. Faster churning would have made faster butter.


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