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When we need a stick of butter, we rarely think twice about running to the shops and grabbing a block. But in rural settings and remote villages where cows are more abundant than corner stores, figuring out how to replenish diet staples requires a hands-on approach, creativity, and just a touch of food science - gleaned usually through trial and error.
Enter butter made from yoghurt. To the ears of city-slickers, this might sound like an improbable feat, but It’s a process that’s long been the gold standard for rural villagers in countries such as Turkey, India and Jordan.
The practise is not dissimilar to modern cultured butter, which is made using cream spiked with live bacteria (like the stuff you use to make yoghurt) but can differ in that the cream in un-homogenised milk is first turned into yoghurt, then skimmed before churning. Fermenting both butter and cream keeps the dairy fresher for longer in remote communities with sparse refrigeration.
Making butter from yoghurt is a common thing in my family,” says Vivek Kumar, a Senior Producer at SBS Hindi whose wife churns butter from yoghurt most weekends. “I’m from northern India, a region known for milk products because of the cattle – it’s an agrarian society. Back home, if we’re making butter, it’s from yoghurt.”
Other families may opt to make yoghurt from unhomogenised milk, then skim the cream that sets on top away, storing until they have enough for a batch of butter – but Kumar’s family uses a process very similar to cultured cream.
“You know when it’s ready because you can smell it. The whole kitchen will smell of it."
“Buffalo milk is boiled to make the cream, which is then stored in a cool place for a few days. Curd (usually from leftover milk) is added to the cream, and the mixture is left alone for another day or two.
“You know when it’s ready because you can smell it,” Kumar says. “The whole kitchen will smell of it. But it should never have any sort of mould growing on it. If it moulds, it’s gone.”
Next comes the churn. Transfer the mixture to a big jar, and churn, churn, churn. Kumar’s mother used a wooden churn with her hands; nowadays, we can call on trusty machines to bear the brunt of the hard work. After half an hour or so, add warm water to the mixture, and when it starts thickening up, that means the butter is forming. Add a touch more water, until the butter fully separates from the buttermilk. At this point, a secondary liquid product called aryan, or chhaach in India, is often siphoned off, salted and served as a drink.
“It’s creamier than regular butter, and a bit tangy,” Kumar says. “You can add salt, but we always used to eat it fresh.”
Adem Genc from Turkish-via-Melbourne dairy company Sahara recognises the value of traditional techniques like these.
“Butter making is ... common across the Silk Road from Europe through Turkey and across South Asia," he tells SBS. "The obvious benefits, like with how most ancient dairy products came about, are that something different is made utilising what is seemingly a ‘waste’ product.”
Yoghurt butter is also free of the preservatives that give commercially-produced butter a longer shelf life. “It’s fresh, homemade and organic, and there’s no processing involved,” says Kumar. “We believed it was healthier for us. At least, that’s what my mother used to say.”
While Sahara is yet to find a commercially viable technique for bringing yoghurt butter into the mainstream dairy market, their aryan is making waves.
“Our aryan is legendary and made to a traditional Turkish recipe,” he says. “Smooth to drink, slightly salty and full-bodied with a hint of tanginess. We were also the first to introduce aryan in a cup to the Australian market.”
“For centuries, dairy products, curd, yoghurt, kefir, kaymak, tulum, dahi, lassi, yoghurt butter, paneer and so many others have evolved and spread to other parts of the globe,” Genc says. “Specialty dairy products are becoming more mainstream in Western countries. This, of course, takes time and education, with some products like kefir being adopted faster than others.”
If you’d like to dabble in some fermented butter-making at home (recipe above), kefir grains work just as well to culture cream for those who aren’t in the market for a large tub of yoghurt. Just make sure you don’t throw away the aryan at the end.
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