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Why Won’t My Butter Churn?

Why Won’t My Butter Churn?

Butter is one of those foods that when you get it, you feel like you are on top of the world, you think, “How did I ever not do this before? Its so easy! Why doesn’t everyone do this?”

But there is another camp….. one where people struggle.

You could be in this camp from the beginning, or maybe you were making butter perfectly fine, but all of a sudden something is not right and it is Soooo frustrating! 

Why You May Be Struggling

Butter making is highly dependent on the cream that you are using. The frustrating part is that cream is a variable product. Depending on stage of lactation, if you are buying cream, pasteurized cream, different cows, there are a so many different variables related to cream, and it is up to us to troubleshoot what variable we are dealing with.  To understand this a little better, let’s look at how cream becomes butter.

How Does Cream Become Butter?

Cream is primarily made up of fat, and water. Each fat molecule in cream is surrounded by a fine membrane. In order for butter to be made, the fat needs to be jostled out of this membrane. As more and more fat globules are jostled out of their membranes, they become glommed together, as they glom together they trap water and air, (whip cream stage) but as these gloms become bigger and bigger, there is less room for air and water, and the air begins to be pushed out as foam, eventually the water is pushed out as well, the majority of the fat globules have been jostled from their casing, and have become grains of butter, leaving behind the buttermilk. 

Hardness Of The Fat

There are a few different things that determine how fast and how well butter churns. The main thing is how hard or soft the fat is. The softer the fat, the easier it churns. 

Diet plays a huge role in fat hardness. I’m not going to get into a whole lesson on fat hardness (even though I really want too 😅 there are just not enough words allocated in this little area). But let me break it down very simple. 

Basically you have two types of fat, saturated and unsaturated

Saturated (ex. Lard) stays solid at room temperature. 

Unsaturated (ex. olive oil) is liquid at room temp, and solid in the fridge. 

In summary, some fat is harder, some is softer, and it very basically comes down to the composition of the fatty acid chains and how well they stack together (like legos). Saturated fat stacks well, unsaturated – not so well.

Butterfat can contain saturated and unsaturated fats and it is the ratios of these in butter that are going to determine how hard that fat is. This can be determined by things like season, diet and cow specific. 

So if your butter is not churning, the first step, is make that fat slightly softer, by warming up cream or letting it it sit on the counter for awhile (60F is gold standard), that fat will become softer and churn more easily. But sometimes, it is not that simple!

Size Of The Fat Globules

The next thing that determines butter churning speed is the size of fat globules. 

Breed of cow and stage of lactation are important points here. As cows get farther into lactation their fat globule size can decrease, even though the overall fat content in the milk is higher. 

Remember that fat globules have a fine membrane surrounding each one of them. In order to make butter, they must be jostled out of this membrane. Simply – the smaller the surface area, compared to fat, the more jostling that needs to happen to break that fat free. 


As cream acidifies these membranes become weaker (think of it as a rusty nail sitting in vinegar) and the fat becomes more easily jostled out, this is why people will find cultured butter often churns quicker. It’s a fine line though, too acidic and you start loosing fat in your buttermilk. As cows get farther into lactation, their milk becomes more acidic.

Butter Churning Problems

When we understand how butter is actually made, and what causes it to churn quicker or slower, it makes it easier for us to troubleshoot butter problems. We are better able to understand what is going on when variables exist and how to make changes to have good butter churning outcome. 

So now that we understand the mechanics behind it, lets look at some of the most common situations where you may experience butter churning problems, and take a in-depth look at why for each one. 

✔ Stage of Lactation

✔ Diet / Season

✔ Cow Specific



Troubleshooting butter churning problems is a lot about taking a look at what your cream is doing and making small adjustments. Warming it up, letting it culture in some seasons, using it fresh from the fridge in others. 

Stage Of Lactation

As your cow gets farther and farther into lactation you may notice that her cream line gets larger and larger. 

The thing is, even though that cream line is beautiful! The cream can actually be a lot harder to churn. As cows get farther into lactation the size of the fat globules decreases, making churning feel like it is taking a lifetime. 

In 1939 the Journal of Dairy Science published a study titled, “The Effect Of Advanced Lactation In The Cow On The Physical and Composition of the Milk”.  

The purpose of the study was to showcase that mastitis is not the only reason for changes in milk composition, that stage of lactation also plays a role. 

It was stated in this study that

 “especially in pregnant cows their occurs a marked decrease of the milk flow during the later period of milking. This decrease in the milk yield is accompanied by an increase in the percentage of fat, a reduction in the size of the fat globules, and the development of a bitter taste attributed to the secretion of a fat lipase which also inter- feres with the churning ability of the cream.”

Journal Of Dairy Science

In  late lactation there are three things that need to be looked at

✔ Increased lipase production – Lipase is an enzyme that breaks down fat, it is helpful in butter making to a degree as it helps with flavour development and churning ability, but an increased amount of it will cause more fat breakdown and consequently less heavy cream. Not only is lipase affecting the butter churning ability of your milk, but it is also affecting the taste. This means, the longer your cream sits, the more it will degrade. So fresh is best in late lactation milk!

✔ Smaller fat globule size – Remember smaller fat globules = longer churning time. Expect that if your cow is in late lactation, churning will take longer!

✔ Acidity – Late lactation milk tends to be more acidic, meaning that there is no need to let it sit out on the counter, and that letting it sit out, can actually cause butter grains to be lost in the buttermilk.

If your cow is not in late lactation, but you suddenly start having butter churning problems, with no diet or life changes, test your milk for mastitis.

Diet/ Season

As we discussed above, there are two main types of fat, saturated and unsaturated. Depending on the diet of the cow, and the season to which they are eating from, the fat will be different types, meaning different hardness.

If you are experiencing very soft butter, that almost liquifies on the counter, consider that your butterfat is soft meaning you can expect quicker churning times but that loosing yield in the buttermilk is a risk. Knowing this, it means that you want to churn that cream cold. No need to let it sit out and warm up. Letting it sit out can really contribute to loss in your buttermilk and if you are not careful, you may just blend your butter grains back into the buttermilk.

If you are experiencing very hard butter, even on the counter it feels like it is coming from the fridge, you can assume that your butterfat is harder and that you will be churning for awhile. Try letting that butterfat soften up by leaving it at room temperature for a few hours, this not only with acidify it slightly, but the warmer temperature will move churning time along. The ideal temperature for churning harder fat is 60F.

Most of the time you will experience something between the two. Not too hard, not too soft and if you are not in late lactation, go ahead and let that cream sit out on the counter to warm up for a few hours, this will greatly reduce your churning time and make fitting butter making into your lifestyle, easier!

Cow Specific

Different breeds of cows will have different amounts of fat, and different size of fat globules.

When you first bring your cow home, it may take a little while to figure out what it is your cream needs to churn quicker. Once you figure it out, you will have a baseline and will be better able to troubleshoot when things go wrong!

There may come a point where your cream is just not making good butter, no matter how much you try and troubleshoot, you are feeling frustrated and defeated. Take a break! Some cream just does not want to be butter (usually late lactation cream). I always try to keep a stock of butter in the freezer for those times when my cream just is not cooperating!

I also try to change up what I’m doing to go in accordance with my cream. If that butterfat is so soft that working the buttermilk out seems like the ultimate chore, make it into ghee! Cream does not limit you just to butter, it is good for many different things!


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