How Technologically Advanced Were Butter Churns? Farhad Manjoo Investigates.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 28 2012 5:25 AM

The Hunt for a Better Butter Churn

In which Farhad Manjoo reviews a very old technology, because Slate readers told him to.

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A woman churns butter in 1893.
A woman churns butter in 1893

Photo by W. Braybrooke Bayley/Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, on a lark, I decided to make butter. This sounds like it might be some kind of arduous, gourmand pursuit, but it was quite simple. Following chef Daniel Patterson’s instructions, I bought a whole lot of cream and poured it into my trusty KitchenAid mixer, whose top I’d covered in plastic wrap to prevent splashing all over my kitchen. I turned the mixer on high. Ten or so minutes later, I had curds and real buttermilk. I separated the two in a sieve then squeezed the curds by hand to form a mass of butter. I rolled it out into a log and covered it in plastic. In a little more time than it takes to make eggs and toast, I’d made enough butter to last for weeks.

I never did it again. Sure, as Patterson had promised, my homemade butter was delicious, just about the best butter I’d ever tasted. (I am an expert on the taste of butter; ask my wife or my doctor.) But it was also extremely expensive—I’d spent nearly $10 in high-end cream to make about a pound of butter, which is about $4 more than I’d have spent to buy very nice butter made from the same fancy dairy that had produced my cream. For doing the work myself, I’d paid 67 percent more. And even if I’d bought cheaper cream, I couldn’t have come close to matching the price (not to mention the convenience) of store-bought butter. (Jennifer Reese comes to the same conclusion in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, her awesome book about what you should and shouldn’t bother making at home.)

I got to thinking about my butter-making adventure when, as part of the Reader Takeover project, readers asked me to “review the most nontech gadgets you can think of—turn-of-the-century butter churns, cotton gins, trebuchets, etc!” (Thanks, you guys!) Let me start by confessing that I didn’t actually get hold of any of these things, so you will not hear me pass judgment on what features you should look for in a siege weapon this holiday season. I did, however, spend a lot of time researching and thinking about all of the energy and ingenuity humans have applied to the problem of making butter. As a result, I gained new respect both for butter (which I didn’t think possible) and for our ancestors, especially the women and children who spent many long hours every week turning cream into butter.

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But the most interesting thing I discovered about churns was how little they, er, churned over the years. To someone used to the relentless pace of change in modern gadgetry, the difference between the earliest butter churns and the latest churns—by which I mean, the difference between how people made butter in the 1700s and how they made butter in the 1940s—seems hopelessly small. Butter is formed when the membranes surrounding fat globules in cream are stripped through the process of physical agitation; this allows the fat to clump together into a single mass, i.e., butter. Thus all churns work the same way—they transfer human power into physical agitation within a vessel holding cream—and that’s why they never really advanced until humans found a feasible alternative to human power. Until industrialization came along, all churning was the same: You spent minutes or hours plunging or cranking a shaft until, at some point you couldn’t quite predict, long after you felt your arms were about to fall off, butter began to form.

Churning butter with old-fashioned dasher churn, creamery, East Aurora, NY, 1905.
Churning butter with old-fashioned dasher churn, East Aurora, N.Y., 1905.

Keystone View Co./Library of Congress.

The slow pace of progress in churns was not for lack of trying. Because making butter was so arduous and time-consuming, it was an active area of commercial invention. According to the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, inventors filed for 2,500 patents on better butter churns around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Doug & Linda’s Dairy Antique Site collects many of these patents and photos of churns over time. If you follow the timeline, you’ll notice lots of minor advances. For instance, before the mid-1800s or so, most people did not quite understand that the efficiency of churning depended on the temperature of the cream you were using; if the cream was too cold, butter wouldn’t form. The fact that you could sometimes churn and churn forever and still not see any butter sparked a great deal of superstition around butter-making. As Doug & Linda’s site explains:

Many times the cream would not form butter no matter how long one churned it. Many people felt that this was because the cream was haunted by a witch. Many people that churned butter believed in the "cream witch" and many churn advertisements referred to it. A couple of the remedies for a cream witch was to put a red hot horse shoe or a red hot poker into the cream. The cream would boil as the hot metal was put in the churn and people said this was the noise of the witch thrashing about as she was killed. In actuality the temperature of the cream was increased and often this was enough for the butter to start to form.

Around 1850, someone invented a “thermometer churn,” which featured two adjacent metallic chambers. You put your cream in one chamber, and in the second you added hot or cold water to raise or lower the cream’s temperature. (A thermometer mounted on the front let you know which to add.) Suddenly, thanks to a brilliant design change, the cream witch was dead.

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