How The DIY Butter Trend Got Churning

Jul 4, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 12:38 pm

Artisanal food fever is raging, and the latest sign is the rise in sales of old-fashioned butter churns.

Purveyor Glenda Lehman Ervin of Lehman's sells old-timey kitchen gadgets online and at her family's store in Kidron, Ohio. She says the clientele is quite diverse. "There are lots of people interested," she says.

It's not just homesteaders, hipsters and do-it-yourself-minded foodies getting in on the hands-on pursuit.

This hobby has now spread to 40-something suburbanites, as I learned a few weeks back when I received an email invite to a butter-churning party.

Bring the kids, and bring your own cream (BYOC), the note said. The host, my friend Jerry Casagrande, promised pingpong too, perhaps in anticipation that the churning might get old quick.

Now, if you listen to my story, you'll appreciate that the technical feat of turning cream into butter is not much of a feat — if you follow the directions.

One of the most important make-or-break steps is the 15 to 20 minutes of continuous, vigorous churning, which entails cranking a handle. This can be a real workout for the arms — if you actually stick with the task. "It gets tiring," said Casagrande, the butter-churn owner. "That's why it's good to have a butter-churning party."

Now, I was skeptical that the churn, which basically looks like a gallon-sized glass jar with a crank on top, would hold the crowd's attention.

But it turned out that we gathered around the churn as if it was a campfire.

And as a few of the kids at the party started beating a toy drum to the rhythm of the churning, the whole scene felt part ceremony, part circus.

"Sounds like fun," Bee Wilson, British food writer and author of the food-gadget history book Consider the Fork, said when I told her about the party.

She had some smart ideas about why simple crafts like butter-churning have become trendy again.

"I think it's kind of a response to the computer age," Wilson says. And it is part of a larger, do-it-yourself food movement that includes everything from canning, to making homemade bitters or DIY ricotta.

"We're just spending so much of our lives living in a sort-of virtual capacity, staring at things, that's it very therapeutic to do things again," Wilson said.

And these hands-on projects can help us get our hands off our tiny, electronic devices.

Now, of course, foodies don't need to go so low-tech to get freshly churned butter. Specialty shops and home-delivery dairies offer lots of options.

Or, hey, you can also whip up some butter using a stand-mixer recipe in a jiffy.

So, after an evening of butter-churning, were there any converts among the group? Well, Riley Casagrande, Jerry's daughter, seemed to sum it up best.

"It's kinda fun, like, as something special," Riley said. "But if you had to do it all the time, it wouldn't be very fun."

Seems it was the novelty that made it entertaining.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

It's our Independence Day program and it's about time we get to the food. So here's something tasty that brings the ruggedness of Colonial days right up into present day America with do-it-yourself enthusiasm. Butter made the old-fashioned way.

As NPR's Allison Aubrey learned, the butter churn is back.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: So the invitation I got to a butter churning party arrived in an email. Bring the kids, the note said, Saturday at five and BYOC - bring your own cream. By the time I arrived, our host was ready to churn.

JERRY CASAGRANDE: All right, time to make butter. Woo.

AUBREY: That's Jerry Casagrande, a 40-something suburban dad from Alexandria, Virginia, who says he is aware that butter churning has become a bit of a hipster trend, popular with do-it-yourself minded urbanites and homesteaders. But his interest was piqued, he tells his friend Kevin Williams, during a class trip to a Colonial farm with his daughter.

CASAGRANDE: Where we dressed all in Colonial clothing and pretended to live in Colonial days. And one of the big things we did was churn butter.


CASAGRANDE: You are the captain of hip.


CASAGRANDE: It's true.

AUBREY: So what makes this old-fashioned past time so satisfying? Well, Jer says he'll show us.

CASAGRANDE: So, now, I'm pouring in some heavy whipping cream. It's got to be at least 30 percent cream.

AUBREY: As about 10 of us gathered around the churn, which basically looks like a gallon sized glass jar with a crank on top, there's a sense that the show is about to begin. And as two kids beat on a toy drum, the mood is part ceremony, part circus.


CASAGRANDE: And we're off and churning. It's pretty good.


AUBREY: Now to make it work, Jerry says you need about 15 to 20 minutes of vigorous churning.

CASAGRANDE: 'Cause it gets tiring. That's why it's good to have a butter-churning party like this. Here, Kev, you want to churn?

AUBREY: His friend Kevin puts his drink down to give it a whirl.

KEVIN WILLIAMS: You can see it congealing at the top. That's pretty cool.

AUBREY: So why has the simple craft become trendy again? Well, British food writer Bee Wilson has some ideas. She's written a history of kitchen tools.

BEE WILSON: So I think it's kind of a response to the computer age.

AUBREY: Wilson says butter churning is part of a larger do-it-yourself food movement that includes everything from homemade bitters to make your own salami or ricotta cheese.

WILSON: We're just spending so much of our lives living in a sort of virtual capacity staring at things, that's it very therapeutic to do things again.

AUBREY: These are hands-on projects that help us get our hands off our tiny electronic devices.

But back at the butter churning party, things aren't going so well.

CASAGRANDE: It's been a butter disaster.

AUBREY: The buttermilk isn't separating. And Jerry's wife, Kara, steps in to start cranking again.

KARA CASAGRANDE: See if you can bring it to a better battered butter.

AUBREY: So why was it so difficult? Well, afterwards I reached out to Glenda Lehman Ervin, who sells butter churns to small dairies and serious butter makers.

GLENDA LEHMAN ERVIN: Oh my, it could have been a lack of constant churning at a steady pace.

AUBREY: Yeah, come to think of it, that's probably it. We did kind of hand if off to the kids. Now, since I had Glenda on the phone, I asked her about the uptick in butter churn sales to urban foodies. Are there really a growing number of people taking up this hobby?

ERVIN: There are. There are lots of people.

AUBREY: And she says sales tend to spike after bad news events, such as Hurricane Sandy or the Boston Marathon bombings.

ERVIN: They're looking for something that's real, that's authentic.

AUBREY: That helps them circle back to the safety and comfort of home. But at the butter churning party, well, things turned out less than perfect.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It tastes like whipped cream.

AUBREY: But that doesn't stop everyone from spreading it on some really good bread. Kevin Williams is the first to taste.

WILLIAMS: Very smooth and it's sweet. It's pleasant.

AUBREY: And Kevin says...

WILLIAMS: I mean, if we had to actually make everything we eat, we would need less and it would be better tasting.

AUBREY: And that might be good for lots of us.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.