Butter has a sensuousness that other condiments just can’t match. It conveys decadence by its very existence – a product of thick, fat-infused cream. Its lusciousness has an almost magical power that excels at elevating the deliciousness of so many things.
Sweet, creamy, and tangy, salted or not, it makes everything we eat better. But that’s not a new discovery.
Its origins can be traced back more than 10,000 years to a time when our ancestors began to domesticate cows, sheep, and goats and use them for milk.
The first batch was likely a happy accident. It’s believed that milk stored in animal skins was shaken and agitated by some long journey, causing a separation of milk solids and fat.
Some enlightened person realized perhaps that those waxy bits of fat were very tasty, and very useful. That genius started a movement, making butter a versatile and indispensable kitchen staple we’re truly smitten with.
Though butter took a bit of a hit when margarine became all the rage, causing its popularity to take a downward turn in a fat-shunning society, our love affair is back in full swing. Consumption has been inching slowly upward over the last decade.
The latest data from 2014, compiled by the International Dairy Federation and Statistics Canada, showed Americans ate 2.5 kilograms (about 5.5 pounds) per person annually. Any guesses for which country eats the most?
No shock here – it’s France, with a whopping 8.3 kilograms per person a year (over 18 pounds!), followed by Germany (6.1 kilograms, or about 13.5 pounds) and Iceland (5.7 kilograms or 12.5 pounds).
Why Chefs Love It
To Jason Bangerter, a classically trained chef who heads up the kitchen at the Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa just an hour from Toronto, butter is everything.
“I can’t imagine cooking without it,” he says. “I just couldn’t. It serves as a lubricant, flavor enhancer, and a means to transfer flavors. It has so many uses – sautéing, poaching, as a base and thickener for sauces, to finish vegetables, fish, and risotto, and for baking. Or you can just spread it on a piece of bread. What’s better than that?”
Bangerter is so enamored that he does what very few chefs have the luxury of doing: He makes his own, both to cook with and to send out to patrons in the hotel’s dining room.
“It’s all about the quality of ingredients,” he explains. “You want them to be as wholesome and the best they can be. Good homemade butter is just another way to elevate a dish further.”
Defining “good” is tricky, because everyone has an individual preference for how they like it to taste. To Bangerter, “good” means a high fat content.
His cultured version has just three ingredients – “cream, yogurt, and love.” He whisks yogurt into the cream, and lets it sit for 24 hours to ferment a bit before whipping.
“I don’t think people should worry about butter,” he says. “You’re not really eating that much of it. Pay more attention to other types of less healthy fat. It is just cream. It’s a good thing.”
Curious about the chef’s favorite way to enjoy it? Bangerter snacks on radishes freshly plucked from the hotel’s on-site gardens, smeared with a dollop of the good stuff and topped with a dash of sea salt. If you haven’t tried it, this combination is delicious atop a toasted bagel, or slices of fresh bread.
How Butter Happens
It’s a biological, physical, and chemical miracle that turns cream into a beautiful, rich-tasting spread.
This process is so fascinating to pastry chef and food writer Elaine Khosrova that she spent more than three years researching it for her new book, Butter: A Rich History.
Butter: A Rich History, available on Amazon
Khosrova explains the fascinating history of its journey from farm to table and its cultural significance, plus the mechanics and artistry behind its production.
And though we primarily think of cows as the star supplier of whole milk – ground zero for butter production – it can also come from yaks, sheep, reindeer, goats, water buffalo, and camels, all members of a category of mammals called ruminants.
Regardless of the source, its origins are rooted in milk and its rich fatty byproduct, cream. Though whole milk can also be used, it’s a much more complicated, failure-prone process.
Once the cream is skimmed from the milk, it’s time to churn. This procedure is focused on coaxing every bit of fat from the cream, whether it’s done using a wooden bucket fitted with a plunger to thrust up and down through the milk, with a countertop kitchen mixer, or a large industrial-sized vat designed to whip.
With vigorous agitation, the fat separates from the liquid and thickens. The remaining liquid (a.k.a. buttermilk) is drained off, leaving soft, waxy bits of butter – a pale golden yellow, courtesy of beta carotene contained in the cream.
Those solids are gathered by machine, wood paddles, or by hand, then shaped into lumps of butter. These are destined for the fridge, or to be stored on the kitchen counter in an airtight container – and to be enjoyed, of course.
A Matter of Taste
Khosrova’s slippery journey into the world of butter started with an assignment for a restaurant trade magazine. She was to sample two dozen varieties, including domestic brands as well as others sourced globally from New Zealand, Italy, Ireland, and France.
“I was so surprised by their unique differences, the nuances in their texture and taste,” Khosrova says. “I realized that I was totally taking this basic kitchen staple for granted. I knew that there was a much larger story there. It was a light bulb moment.”
Taste is dictated by three main factors, which Khosrova describes as follows:
- That animal’s diet (or “the land”).
- The type of animal producing the milk (or “the beast”).
- The skill of the maker (or “man”).
Land, beast, and man all contribute to the flavor of the end result.
Cows are the ruminants of choice for milk production. They’re easy to manage and plentiful, generous with their milk, and relatively inexpensive to raise.
Other animals, such as camels and water buffalo, are much less cooperative about being milked regularly, and have much lower yields as a result.
Holstein cows (those lovely black and white ones) are the most common and most prolific producers – the sticks you pick up at your local supermarket most likely come to you courtesy of a Holstein.
In fact, there are more than 9 million dairy cows in the US, and 90 percent of those are of Holstein descent, according to Holstein Association USA. Each one can produce as much as 9 gallons of milk per day.
And what a cow consumes plays an important role in the composition and taste of its milk. Khosrova writes about the vivid yellow variety that comes from Ireland and how it is linked to the fresh, tender young grass that grows in the fields there.
Meanwhile, cows in the region of Isigny, in Normandy, France, graze near marshes next to the sea. The grass is rich in iodine and other trace minerals, which creates a distinct flavor.
Cows who live in Alpine regions make their annual trek up to mountain meadows each spring so they can gorge themselves on sweet, fresh grass. Milk from animals who enjoy this type of lifestyle has more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a good type of health-boosting fat that aids metabolism and the immune system.
Variations on a Theme
Not all butters are created equal. Some are better for cooking, while others are more suited for slathering on toast, or melting and pouring over popcorn.
Here’s a primer on some common types:
It may also be called “sweet cream” butter and is made simply with cream and/or milk. This is the preferred variety called for in most recipes, and it works well for cooking and baking.
This one is great for putting on fresh bread, pancakes, or steamed vegetables. You can use this in place of unsalted butter in a pinch – just remember to add less salt than whatever your recipe calls for.
Be sure to check out our article on using unsalted vs salted butter in baking for more information.
Air or a gas like nitrogen is added to make the regular stuff less dense, and to give it more volume. Dieters like it because one tablespoon has fewer calories (up to 50 percent less!).
Its light texture and frothiness also allows it to be spread more easily. But this type is not recommended for baking or cooking.
This type has a rich taste, made extra delicious because of its higher fat content – anywhere from 82 to 85 percent, compared to a minimum of 80 (by law) for commercially available versions found in the United States and Canada.
Because it contains less moisture and more fat, it produces super flaky and fluffy baked goods. The taste is slightly different, too – a bit tangy thanks to live bacteria similar to what’s found in yogurt, since the cream used is fermented before it’s churned.
The softness of this type comes from mixing butter and vegetable oil. It’s okay for putting on your English muffin when the real stuff is still hard as a rock in the fridge, but avoid using it for cooking and baking – its formulation throws off flavor and texture.
Common in Indian cuisine and that of other Eastern cultures, ghee is the result of a clarifying process, using heat to separate the three main components in butter – fat, water, and milk solids. Getting rid of those solids is the goal.
Once the milk solids are out of the equation, the remaining “butter oil” can be heated to a much higher temperature without burning, and it lasts much longer without going rancid – a property that’s especially handy in hot, tropical climates.
Sometimes referred to as “beurre noisette” or “hazelnut butter,” a nutty flavor develops when the milk solids are heated until they are dark and toasted.
It’s fabulous drizzled over cooked vegetables and fish like cod as a grand finale before serving in classic French style, or it makes an excellent sauce with a little fresh sage on pumpkin or butternut squash ravioli.
Chef Bangerter likes to make a smoked variety. His kitchen equipment at Langdon Hall includes a large cast iron smoker that looks like a scaled-down locomotive.
He takes fresh butter wrapped in cheesecloth, puts it in a stainless steel tray, then sits it on top of another matching tray filled with ice cubes. While the butter sits on a rack farthest away from the flame, it stays cool while being infused with smoky, campfire-like flavor and aromas.
Home cooks can get a similar effect without a smoker by adding three or four drops of liquid smoke, and working them into a half pound of softened butter with a rubber spatula. Shape the mixture into a log, wrap it in cellophane, and refrigerate or freeze.
Flavored (A.K.A. Compound)
One of the many joys of butter is the ease with which it blends with other ingredients to create new and interesting flavor combinations.
Using a food processor or working it by hand with a rubber spatula, you can mix in a variety of tasty things – like chives, dill, parsley, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, whole grain mustard, honey, lemon zest, or fresh berries – for delicious sweet or savory results.
Tips and Tricks
Freshness and Storage
Butter is at its best when fresh. Keep only what you’ll use within one or two weeks on hand, wrap the rest well, and store it in the freezer.
If you purchase your butter in something other than convenient sticks, try cutting the rest into half-cup portions, wrap each tightly in cellophane, then wrap in foil, and place in a zip-top a freezer bag.
Keep the flavor true and unfettered in the refrigerator by storing it in an airtight container. Butter can easily pick up odors from other foods that can change its taste, so doing whatever you can to seal those out is important.
Need to make it spreadable quickly? Cut your butter into chunks and place it in a freezer bag or between two sheets of wax paper. Whack with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer until it softens.
Melt butter gently on low to medium heat in a heavy saucepan or on top of a double boiler, to avoid burning it or having the milk solids separate. Watch it carefully and pull it off the stove when the butter is about three-quarters melted.
To melt in the microwave, cut butter into small pieces and place in a bowl covered with a paper towel or microwave cover. Heat on 30 percent power (medium-low) and stop every few seconds to check your progress, until just a few small bits remain. Stir until completely melted.
Dot on Top
If a recipe calls for dotting it over a pie or casserole, use a vegetable peeler to easily cut frozen butter into curls.
Boost Your Beverage
To give your morning coffee a rich kick, add a heaping tablespoon to two cups of hot java and blend well, either by using a frother or tossing it into a blender to mix.
That’s the key – otherwise, you’ll have an oil slick floating in your cup. Yuck.
But is it Healthy?
Poor butter. For the last couple of decades, it sat on the sidelines while growing numbers of people have embraced healthy eating.
Its saturated fat content had many in medical and nutrition circles condemning it, and advising that it should be avoided because of its connection to chronic conditions. Low-fat diets ruled.
Fortunately for fans of the creamy spread, the tide is turning. A growing body of evidence shows that low-fat diets aren’t all they were once cracked up to be. Jacqueline Howard reported on CNN.com that butter may in fact have a neutral effect on health.
Howard referenced a study published in PLOS One this year, which reviewed nine scientific papers that included test results from more than 600,000 people. It concluded butter had no significant links to heart disease. Scientists aren’t saying it is healthy, just not the villain as once reported.
At a time when fears about it are softening, consumer views on the dangers of margarine are hardening. Some say they trust a cow more than they do chemists – a dig at margarine’s synthetic origins dating back to 1869, when it was first patented by French chemist Hippolyte Mége-Mouriés. He responded to a challenge from ruler Napoleon III to find a cheaper alternative to butter for his troops and the poorer classes.
This new invention wasn’t popular in France, so Mége-Mouriés sold the patent to the US Diary Company. They were the ones who colored margarine yellow, so that it looked like its more expensive cousin. Consumers ever since have been seduced by margarine’s lower price point and reported health benefits.
But findings of a study from Canada’s McMaster University published in the British Medical Journal last year asserted consumption of trans fats, such as those found in processed foods such as margarine, was associated with an increased risk of heart disease and death.
As the public mood has shifted more toward clean eating and whole foods – and away from processed, synthetic ones – it’s clear that this is butter’s time to shine.
But margarine still has its place. It’s still a great go-to option for vegans, and for those who are lactose intolerant. And many versions are available today that do not include the dreaded trans fats.
11 Wordly Facts Sure to Impress Your Friends
Elaine Khosrova’s book is a goldmine of fascinating knowledge. Here are a few factoids that got our attention:
1. In ancient times, Tibetans used butter sculptures (known as tormas) to predict the future. A holy man would drop one into boiling water to see if it floated (indicating positive days ahead), or simply melted (bad news).
2. Marie Antoinette had her own dairy built on the grounds of Versailles, so that she and her ladies-in-waiting could dress up and pretend to be milkmaids, milking cows and churning butter to amuse themselves.
3. Around the time of the American Revolution, the Philadelphia area was considered the US butter capital, overtaking Boston as the leading exporter.
4. The Cork Butter Museum in Ireland features a pail of butter that’s more than 1,000 years old – behind glass, thankfully!
5. In European regions including Ireland, Sweden, and Norway, it was once believed that a failed batch of butter was the result of a witch’s evil meddling. For protection, makers would bind twigs from mountain ash trees around their milk pails and churns.
6. Byzantine physicians once prescribed unsalted, fresh butter as a treatment for tuberculosis.
7. Buddhist monks in monasteries located in Nepal and India create sculptures inspired by plants, animals, and stories about the Buddha out of yak butter, flour, and wax for use in religious rituals.
8. At the Iowa State Fairgrounds, 600 pounds of the golden fat is transformed into a life-size sculpture of a cow – an annual tradition.
9. Built in 1506, the Butter Tower in Rouen, France, was reportedly financed using the donations Catholics made to the church in exchange for permission to eat butter during Lent.
10. In the remote Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, it’s customary to spread butter and red clay from head to toe on the skin of brides-to-be.
11. If you visit Humla Province in the Himalayas, be prepared: locals welcome guests and say goodbye by smearing butter on their heads three times while reciting a blessing.
It’s Time to Enjoy
Go ahead – stock your kitchen with glorious, delicious butter. Buy one for everyday use for cooking and baking, for recipes like our flavorful vanilla butter cake, and a fancier kind (like an artisanal local variety or an imported one from Europe) for your table to spread on your favorite foods – in moderation, of course.
Experiment with it, and whip up a batch at home when the urge strikes! You’ll be amazed by how easy it is to make, and how delicious it is.
Do you have a favorite way to enjoy butter, or a tip to share with Foodal readers? Please send us your comments!
The staff at Foodal are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice. Foodal and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet, or using supplements or manufactured or natural medications.
Photos by Michele Sponagle, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Additional photo provided by Brian Douglas. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Michele Sponagle
Based near Toronto, Ontario in the small town of Paris, Michele Sponagle specializes in lifestyle subjects, especially food, travel, and health. She has written three books and contributes to many top media outlets. Her adventurous slants on food and culture have taken her to 70 countries and still counting. She has fished for king crabs in the freezing waters off the coast of Norway, and foraged for chanterelle mushrooms in the forests of Oregon. Her proudest accomplishment to date is learning to like eggs.