Sunday, June 11, 2023

Butter Making - Elementary STEM Program

Dairy Month

June is National Dairy Month, which I used for the theme of our first week of summer programs. For the big family event I had a
mobile dairy classroom come give a presentation on dairy nutrition and farm to table with a milking demonstration, along with a life-size fake cow simulator from our local extension office that the kids could try to milk. I also did dairy cow-themed storytimes and a book display with cow, dairy, and farm books.

For the elementary-aged program I decided to do butter-making, which is fun to do and I thought would appeal to our large homeschool population in particular. It would also be a program that any younger siblings tagging along could participate in. I've done this as a program once before, but this time I discovered a couple of tricks to make it go a little faster/easier (more on that below).

Prior to beginning the activity, I talked about the different kinds of dairy cows, how butter is made, the science behind it, and the process we were going to use, accompanied by a brief slide show. I warned them they were going to have to shake their containers REALLY hard, and demonstrated. I also warned them not to SQUEEZE their containers because, depending on the container, the lids might pop off or the container might crack. Soft hands, strong arms! I explained the steps both on a molecular level, and what it would look and sound like as they did it.

Age Group: Elementary (ages 6-10), would also work well for family program

Time: 1 hour

# Participants: 40 (individuals, can accommodate more if siblings/families share 1)

Budget: $60 with optional items/$45 without, $1.13-$1.50 per participant or family


  • 40 1/2 cup plastic storage containers, $12*
  • 3 quarts heavy cream, $15
  • 40 glass marbles, $5 (one of the tips for making it go faster!)
  • 40 plastic knives, $5 
  • small dixie cups, $2?
  • 2 boxes crackers, $5
  • salt, $1
  • honey, $5 (optional)
  • garlic paste, $5 (optional)
  • herb paste, $5 (optional)

1. Here is the other tip for making it go faster - Take the cream out an hour or two in advance and allow to warm up to near room temperature. This cuts 5 minutes off the shaking time.

2. Pass out containers to participants, if you don't have enough for everyone then siblings can share. There will be enough shaking for everyone, and yield enough butter for everyone to taste. [This is what I had to do both times, as I had a much larger turnout that expected the first time, and did not have enough containers for younger siblings tagging along to have their own the second time.]

3. Add a marble to each container. This will cut another 5 minutes off the shaking time, but is optional. [I put the marbles in a mesh bag and ran through the dishwasher to clean before and after.] Don't use marbles if you are using glass containers, however.

4. Fill each container about half-full with cream. Since I had a large group, I and two other adults quickly went around the room dispensing the cream. With a small group, I would have the kids do it themselves. Put the lids on and ask grown-ups to check to be sure they are sealed.

5. Now, shake the crap out of it! Remember not to squeeze the container, just to shake it hard. It will take about 10-15 minutes of hard shaking, if the cream is room temp and using a marble. With cold cream and just shaking, no marble, it takes about 25 minutes. To make it more fun, i had put together a "shaking" play list:

Shake playlist

6. As you shake observe the following stages:
  • As you begin shaking, you hear the liquid cream sloshing around. As this stage the butterfat is small globules.
  • After a few minutes of shaking, you no longer hear sloshing or feel movement. At this stage, the globules have been broken up and fairly evenly distributed to create a foam, what we know better as whipped cream.
  • Keep shaking, and eventually you will start to hear liquid sloshing again, as the liquids and fat solids begin to separate, leaving one big glob of solid (but soft) butter and liquid buttermilk. Keep shaking until you have a nice solid defined glob of butter.
7. Drain off the buttermilk into a dixie cup, or into multiple dixie cups if needed, and drink if desired. It has a mild taste, but it is slightly different and thicker than regular milk and nothing like purchased cultured "buttermilk", which isn't actually buttermilk at all.

8. Stir the butter around a little with the knife until no more liquid separates out. Drain the last bit of liquid, and remove the marble. [If you were making a larger quantity of butter for long-term storage, you would then need to knead and rinse the butter with ice water until it ran clear to get all the buttermilk out, otherwise it will go rancid. But, for a small quantity for immediate consumption, we can skip this step and it will last 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator.]

9. Sprinkle in a tiny bit of salt, if desired, and mix in well. Just a tiny bit! This is optional, but most people are used to and prefer salted butter.

10. If desired, add a tiny bit of honey, garlic paste, or herbs. Caution kids to use only ONE, not all three, and just a TINY bit. *I probably will skip this in the future as the additional expense and amount left over isn't justified for the small amounts used.

11. Spread on crackers to taste; take remaining home and refrigerate. Use within 1-2 weeks.

Pictured below are the various stages - liquid cream, foam (whipped cream), butterfat and liquid starting to separate, separation complete and butterfat has formed into solid lump of butter, buttermilk drained off and butter ready for spreading.

Making butter kids activity, making butter by shaking in small container

*Note on Containers - These have become difficult to find for a reasonable price. I used 1/2 cup Zip-loc disposable snap-lid storage containers both times, but the design had changed (the first was more prone to popping the lid, the second more prone to cracking). I found these last containers on clearance at a local store and unavailable anywhere else or online, leading me to believe they have likely been discontinued. Screw-top containers are available, but more expensive. Traditionally, this was done with baby-food jars, but now most commercial baby food no longer comes in glass jars, and I don't like to use glass with kids anyway.

How It Went

This went really well, and the kids had a lot of fun with it. Although I was not able to accommodate all the younger siblings with their own containers, it became readily apparent to everyone that was for the best once it was realized how much shaking was involved. Everyone got to have a turn and do all the shaking they wanted, and there was plenty of butter made for all family members to taste.

Allowing the cream to come to room temperature, or close, and adding the marble really made a big difference! It went faster, with less frustration and less adult help required than previously. The only minor problem was that despite being cautioned not to squeeze the container, 3 kids did end up cracking them (but that was better than popping the lids off!). I did have a couple of extras, but the third kid just had to wrap theirs in paper towels and make the best of it. If you have heavier containers, this shouldn't be a problem, though they will be more expensive.

The best part was seeing all the kids get up and start dancing and shaking along to the music. Last time, the speaker I had was too small, and they couldn't really hear the music over everything else, but this time I had a good speaker. It definitely made it even more fun.

Kids make butter

Most of the kids reported liking the buttermilk, but did note it was different than regular milk, and they all liked the butter, though one did say he regretted adding honey to it and liked it better plain. I had a total of 38 kids of the target age (6-10 years old), and several younger siblings, for a total of close to 45 kids and about 20 adults, so it was a packed program!


  1. I used to do butter-making demonstrations when I worked at a living history museum, it was always eye-opening to my city kid audience to find out where butter comes from!

    1. My library is in a small, somewhat rural town, but there are almost no working dairy farms left in our area, so this was new for most of them, too. A friend from library school also worked at a living history museum prior to becoming a librarian, and loved it.