One chef ’s quest for another taste of the best butter of his life
PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA MCALPIN
It’s a little after 7am on a Thursday at a warehouse just off the Lincoln Highway in Ronks, the Lancaster County headquarters of the Oasis cooperative. Inside, men, women and children in both contemporary and Amish dress are checking inventory, packing the day’s CSA shares and prepping the cooperative’s retail store before it opens. And just as he does every week at this time, chef Tim Carr is making butter.
Three heaping hotel pans piled high with fluffy, deep-yellow butter wait on the counter under plastic film to be extruded, packaged and labeled. Thirty-five gallons of pale-golden cream—one of six batches on the day’s production schedule—churn in a stainless steel trough. Carr points to a portion of the roiling sea of cream, near where the tip of a propeller blade approaches the wall of the trough: “You can see it looks like it’s starting to separate—there’s sort of a chunkiness to it.” After 30 to 45 minutes of churning, depending on the season, the butter will “break”; the barriers between the fat globules suspended in the cream break down and the fat comes together to form little yellow granules swimming in a thin, whitish liquid: butter and buttermilk.
It was in the ’90s, on a road trip with his wife and children, that Carr stopped at American Bounty Restaurant in Hyde Park, the Culinary Institute of America’s take on what was then called “Californiainspired” dining—the kind of fare that would eventually be known as farm-to-table. Carr and his wife married while he was a student at the institute, and they wanted to show their kids some family history.
“Traditional foods got to be traditional by
nourishing more than they killed.”
“The only thing that I can remember from that dinner was the butter that they had in a ramekin on the table,” Carr says. “And as soon as I tasted it, I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never had butter like that before!’ ” He asked the waiter. It was cultured butter from Egg Farm Dairy, not far from Hyde Park. “That was one of my five great culinary experiences,” he says. “It made that kind of impression on me.”
Carr is a native of Lancaster County and the owner of downtown Lancaster mainstay Carr’s Restaurant as well as Carr’s at Central Market, a stand selling prepared foods and fresh cuts of local meat. Besides the CIA, his résumé includes Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, a slew of Atlantic City casinos and Lancaster’s toniest country clubs. But for one very early morning each week, he’s a dairyman.
“I never made butter before I started working for Oasis,” Carr says. The only reason he is compelled to make butter is his desperation to re-create that memorable butter experience he’d had so long ago. The butter, it turned out, had been made by Jonathan White.
Jonathan White, a software engineer turned cheesemaker, is one of grass-based dairy’s most respected voices, though he was less well-known when he made the butter that so affected Tim Carr. Today, White and his wife Nina own Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, New Jersey; they raise cows on pasture and produce rawmilk artisan cheese.
But before Bobolink, back in the ’90s, there was Egg Farm Dairy. And before that, the Whites lived in Westchester County, New York, where Jonathan worked as an engineer and Nina taught ballet. The family of one of her students kept a hobby farm, and they routinely brought excess goat and cow’s milk to the Whites.
This gift inspired White to take up cheesemaking in his spare time, but soon he wanted to try something different: cultured butter. Having never tasted this traditional food, he was intrigued.
“It basically had ceased to exist,” says White. After lots of recipe research in old books, White tested his technique. “I started playing around with cultured butter and never went back.”
That was the butter Tim Carr tasted.
“That butter was one of my
five great culinary experiences.
It made that kind of impression on me.”
What is it that makes cultured butter so special? “It used to be, there was something called butter,” White says. “And then they invented sweet cream butter, so then the [original] stuff was no longer called butter, it was called cultured butter. It’s sort of like, what we now call ‘organic farming’ used to be called ‘farming’ till they invented DDT, so we had to invent a new word to differentiate.”
The term “sweet cream” describes butter made from cream that hasn’t been fermented. Until about a century ago, butter was usually made on a small scale, using three days’ worth of cream at a time. Without modern refrigeration, the first day’s cream would sour thanks to natural fermentation from lactic acid bacteria. This process resulted in a butter with a heady aroma, a complex flavor and that signature tang of fermentation.
The byproduct of butter making—buttermilk—is also different when sweet cream is used. Cultured cream makes it thick and rich, with a bright, complex flavor that makes it quite drinkable. Without fermentation, sweet cream buttermilk will spoil quickly. The industrial buttermilk you buy at the store is often low-fat or reducedfat milk soured with added acid rather than through fermentation.
The results, when it’s used in breads or baked goods, can’t compare. True cultured buttermilk makes for superlative flavor and texture. While people in the 19th century may not have known how fermentation works at the microbial level, they knew which foods smelled and tasted good and which didn’t, and which made people sick and which kept them healthy, through trial and error. The best methods were passed down through the generations.
White has the air of a favorite science teacher about him, if your favorite science teacher were entirely preoccupied by milk and microbes. “Traditional foods got to be traditional by nourishing more than they killed,” he says. “Cheese caught on everywhere for the same reason that chicken sashimi didn’t catch on anywhere. Cultures that invented chicken sashimi didn’t pass it on to the next generation.”
When it comes to taste, cultured butter simply has more of what we think of as true butter flavor. This is due to the way it’s made: The milk from pastured animals is pasteurized in small batches at a lower-than-usual temperature, leaving some friendly microbes alive. These beneficial bacteria are responsible for the naturally occurring chemical compounds that give butter its characteristic flavor.
Supermarket butter, produced with ultra-high-temperaturepasteurized cream from cows fed silage rather than fresh grass, simply lacks those compounds, says White. So, typically, manufacturers will add them back in. Diacetyl, one of those compounds, and lactic acid will give industrially produced product that distinctive buttery flavor.
“Cultured butter hasn’t been the norm since the 1940s, but somehow we still know what butter is supposed to taste like,” he says.
What is that flavor, exactly? “It’s almost an aroma more than a flavor,” White says. “You don’t taste the culture, you taste the byproduct of the culture”—minuscule amounts of buttermilk trapped in the butter and the effect the ripening of the cream has had on the butterfat. “I think it amplifies the grassy flavor.”
While most agree that cultured butter needs no adornment besides a hunk of crusty fresh bread and a sprinkle of good sea salt, the butter can make some seriously stellar baked goods. Nina White makes butter cookies to sell at Bobolink’s markets (the product’s full name is Nina’s Butter Cookies Made with Jonathan’s Butter: A Marriage Made in Heaven); the Whites also use the cultured butter in their biscuits to highlight sweet or savory flavors like apple or cheddar.
Jonathan White’s cultured butter suddenly disappeared from the market around 2000. The Egg Farm Dairy had joined forces with what turned out to be volatile venture capitalists and soon went out of business.
The Whites regrouped in 2002, starting Bobolink with their own small herd—“with cows as our partners instead of investors, because cows give you less shit, and it’s useful,” White says. But now all his milk went to cheesemaking. When chefs like Tim Carr asked if Bobolink would produce cultured butter, the answer was no.
“In order for a farmer to make butter profitably, you need to have the milk of about 600 cows,” White says. And then he’d have to find something to do with all the skim milk left over after the cream had been removed—a challenge that local dairies like Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg and Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville have encountered as consumer interest in full-fat dairy products like heavy cream and butter has risen and sales of low-fat and skim dairy products have waned.
Bobolink milks 36 cows today; the number back then was even smaller. Seeing the chef ’s disappointment at not having a cultured butter supply, White told Carr he’d work with him to get cultured butter back into production if a quality supply of 100% grass-fed, organic cream could be located, along with a production facility that included the right kind of pasteurizer and churning equipment. “I didn’t try real hard [after that],” Carr says, “because I thought, well, how am I going to build a dairy?” So Carr waited.
“Oasis is Amish-inspired. The visionaries behind it are all Amish,” says Dale Stoltzfus, general manager at the Oasis at Bird-in-Hand cooperative. “It’s really, really focused on good nutrition—this is what attracts people like Tim and Jonathan, because they know that you have to start with good stuff if you want a good end product.”
Oasis member farmers use organic practices to produce dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables; these farmers power their operations with horses, not petroleum. Nutrient-dense foods are their specialty, and traditional recipes inform their value-added goods like lactofermented pickles, beet kvass and raw-milk cheese. The cooperative dedicates space to process, pack, and store farm products for its members, and provides marketing and distribution for everything from kale to steaks to yogurt via CSA shares and wholesale accounts in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., as well as its retail store in Ronks and stand at Lancaster’s Central Market.
When Oasis secured its Central Market location in 2013, Stoltzfus paid a visit to Carr’s stand, hoping to find a new wholesale customer for the cooperative’s sweet cream butter. But Carr put him off: The butter he wanted was Jonathan White’s cultured butter, which he hadn’t tasted in some 14 years.
When Carr was persuaded to pay a visit to Oasis anyway, he found the dairy of his dreams—one that fit White’s specifications. White has long worked with Amish cheesemakers in Lancaster County like Henry Lapp of Wakefield Dairy, one of the first Amishmen in the area to move from conventional to artisan cheesemaking; the partnership with Oasis’s dairy farmers to produce cultured butter and buttermilk to White’s specifications was a natural fit for both parties.
At that first visit to Oasis in 2013, Tim Carr volunteered to help out the plant’s dairy manager with the day’s butter making. He came back the next Thursday, and the next; after about six months, they put him on payroll. He makes butter for Oasis every week and batches of cultured butter to be sold under Bobolink’s label every few weeks. Now, Bobolink sells cultured butter and cultured buttermilk at its farmers’ markets and through its website.
“It’s not like I’m doing it for the money,” Carr says of his 4am butter-making sessions. “I believe in what [Oasis] is doing.” The connection Carr made between Oasis and Bobolink has given the cooperative’s member dairy farms a new outlet for a high-profit product, which helps keep their farms financially stable. While the menus at his restaurants spotlight top-quality ingredients from his hometown and across the world, Carr admits that working with a farmers’ cooperative has given him a new outlook. “Working here, it helps me have more—I don’t want to say a worldview, a more local view.”
WHERE TO BUY
CULTURED BUTTER & BUTTERMILK
BOBOLINK DAIRY & BAKEHOUSE FARM STORE
369 Stamets Rd., Milford, NJ, or find farmers’ market
locations in New Jersey and New York at cowsoutside.com.
TRICKLING SPRINGS CREAMERY
2330 Molly Pitcher Hwy., Chambersburg, PA, or other retail
locations at tricklingspringscreamery.com.
VALLEY MILKHOUSE AT COVERED BRIDGE FARM
92 Covered Bridge Rd., Oley, PA, or find retail and farmers’
market locations at valleymilkhouse.com.
OASIS AT BIRD-IN-HAND FARM STORE
60 N. Ronks Rd., Ronks, PA, or Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday
at Lancaster Central Market, 23 N. Market St., Lancaster, PA,
or check reallivefood.org for other retail locations