How to Make a French Butter Dish

A pottery throwing technique that solves the nonspreadable butter problem!

french butter dish

In this post, an excerpt from In the Potter’s Kitchen, Sumi von Dassow shows how to throw a French butter dish on the pottery wheel. If you are unfamiliar with French butter dishes, they are a great way to store real butter (as opposed to margarine) outside the fridge without it going bad. A great solution to the hard-to-spread-butter conundrum that plagues many a household. So, how do you do this on the potter’s wheel? Read on to find out! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

If you make and sell lidded pieces you usually don’t have to tell your customers what to do with them—if they are looking for a cookie jar, casserole dish, or honey pot, they’ll know what they want (although it can’t hurt to put a favorite cookie recipe in a cookie jar). But there are some special lidded forms that do need instructions. One of these forms is the French butter crock.

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This post was excerpted from In the Potter’s Kitchen, which is available in the Ceramic Arts Shop!

Wheel-Thrown Butter Crocks

These crocks are for households that use butter on a daily basis, say for spreading on morning toast and mashed potatoes at dinner. Rather than getting the stick of butter out of the refrigerator and waiting for it to soften, you keep the butter in the butter crock and it stays fresh and spreadable. The butter crock is a simple cylinder with a special kind of lid. The lid has a flange on it that is almost as deep as the crock, and the butter is packed into this lid. What keeps the butter fresh is a small amount of water in the crock, just enough to touch the lip of the lid to seal it from air circulation. In most climates, water is enough to keep the butter fresh, but if the temperature is hot enough to melt butter, chipped ice can be added to the water.

The butter-holding portion of the lid should taper in just slightly, to keep the butter from sliding out, and you may also want to avoid using a very glossy glaze in the butter portion to help keep the butter in place. Some users in warm climates report that the butter keeps better if there are a couple of small holes in the sides of the butter chamber. When the crock is full, the butter covers these holes but as the butter is used, the holes allow the water level to rise inside the butter chamber. This way there is less air in the butter chamber to cause the butter to go rancid. Two or three holes at ½–1 inch vertical intervals are all that is needed. Some potters also put holes in the top of the butter chamber to help keep air pockets from forming as the butter is packed in. Butter crocks should be made of vitrified stoneware for two reasons: butter may seep into earthenware and go rancid eventually; and of course the base section of the crock must be vitrified or the water will seep through. Earthenware can be used for a butter crock if care is taken to make sure the glaze fits the clay well so it doesn’t craze, and if the bottom is either glazed or coated with terra sigillata to make it leak-proof.

Firing Note: The two pieces will be fired separately to avoid leaving the rim of the base and the corresponding area on the top unglazed. This requires firing the lid on a “sacrificial slab” so that the long flange won’t be deformed by shrinking in the firing. A “sacrificial slab” is a bisque-fired disk of clay that the piece is placed on for the glaze firing. The disk shrinks evenly in the firing, allowing the piece placed on it to shrink with it and avoid deformation. Without this disc, the lid will tend to become oval or irregularly shaped in the firing and might not fit properly into the base after firing.

1.Using 1 to 1½ pounds of clay, throw a cylinder leaving ¼ inch of clay on the bottom, no need to trim a foot. Measure inside the rim and the height using Lid Master calipers.

2. Use a little less clay for the insert. Open it wider than your caliper measurement. Push the edge of the clay flat and start pulling up a cylinder from the rest.

3. Leaving the outer edge flat, pull the central cylinder up to slightly less than the height of the base section. The top of the crock should end up about ½ inch shorter than the base.

4. Measure the lid and make sure one end of the caliper set fits inside the rim of the base, and the lid fits inside the other end of the caliper set. Make sure the lid is ½ inch shorter than the base.

5. When the two pieces are leather hard, try them together. The lid should fit snugly inside the base, and it should be about ½ inch shorter.

6. The glazed butter crock ready to be fired, showing the top on a “sacrificial slab.”

How to Fill Your Butter Crock

from Gayle Bair

1. Allow a stick of butter to get almost to room temperature.

2. Remove wax paper from butter.

3. Place stick vertically into butter chamber.

4. Place wax paper on top of the stick of butter.

5. Placing the heel of your hand on the wax paper, mash the butter into the chamber. If necessary use your fingers (keeping wax paper in place) to push butter more tightly into the chamber. The chamber doesn’t need to be full to the brim.

6. Put ¼ to ½ inch cool water in the base of the butter crock.

7. If it is very warm, add chipped ice to the water.

8. Put the top on the crock. Don’t worry about the butter getting wet—the water will be displaced by the butter chamber but it won’t go inside.

french butter dish

Finished Butter Crock by Sumi von Dassow.

**First published in 2014.
  • Carlotta I.

    I have made butter crocks and love them. However I am at a new studio and my last batch of lids were oval and I am thankful you mentioned the sacrificial slab. Not sure how my last teacher fired them but it never happened at his studio. What glazes did you use in this picture? It is beautiful.

  • Tamara D.

    Hi, Ingrid

    Under the Glossary section on the site here, I found this:

    Wad/Wadding: Small balls or rolls of refractory clay mixture (40 alumina, 10 ball clay, 50 kaolin) placed under wares and posts, and between pots, lids, etc., in vapor-glazing and wood firing processes, to keep surfaces from sticking together. Source: Clay: A Studio Handbook

    Hope this helps!

  • Carol N.

    I don’t understand putting “the coil of wad between the 2 pieces”. How does one do that so that both pieces could be totally glazed and not stuck together

  • The lid edge can be dipped in water and then rolled in sand…the sand works like ball bearings and the edge stays in its original shape as it shrinks during the firing.

  • Ingrid G.

    Hi Ana,

    What is a coiled wad? What material? Do you place it directly on the glazed lid or glazed crock?
    I love butter keepers, but haven’t yet made one. I have used it on unsalted butter with good success, but only 3-4 days at a time if summer temperatures are over 80 degrees.

    Thanks Ingrid

  • I’ve never heard of a butter keeper, and love the idea. Hopefully your explanation of glaze firing with a sacrificial slab will also solve the warping problem I’ve been having when I glaze fire microwavable dish covers. Very good instructions, thank you.

  • I fire my together with a coil of wad between the two pieces, so I can glaze the whole pot, including the lid.

  • Butter Keepers are great. I use mine all the time and I enjoy making them.

    I love the idea of the sacrifical slab. Most times I am lucky but occasionally my lidded cup will become misshapened. I have never put holes in mine but understand the concept.

    I always recommend using salted butter because the salt is the perservative and the water keeps the air away from the butter, together keeping the butter from going rancid.

    Mine will be on the table for Thanksgiving today. Susan

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