Some History of Butter
References to butter date back to as early as the ninth century B.C. in India, but its "real origin" is credited to the nomadic tribes of Asia around 3500 B.C. A picture of a primitive churn is evident in a Sumerian bas-relief dating from around 3500 B.C.
One of the first written references to what we know of as butter comes from India in the form of a ninth-century etiquette manual. It suggests that Hindu brides be given milk, honey, and butter on the day of their wedding.
There is also a reference from the Bible in Genesis:
"He said to Sarah to take three measures of meal and knead it quickly and make cakes upon the hearth; and it is said that he went to the herd and fetched a calf, tender and good, and gave it to be dressed, and he took butter and milk and the calf which he had dressed and set it before them and they did eat" .
The original process for butter making for the Arabs and Syrians, as we know it, was to use a bag made from goatskin for a churn. The animal was skinned, the skin sewed up tight, with only one small opening where the cream was poured in. The "churn" was then suspended and swung back and forth until the butter separated.
Documents from the first century show that butter was shipped from India to ports of the Red Sea.
When Julius Caesar invaded England, he found that the inhabitants hid an abundance of milk, from which they made butter, but could not make cheese until they were taught that art by their invaders.
What is Butter?
Butter is made of butterfat, water, and some milk proteins. Commercial butter is 80–82 percent milk fat, 16–17 percent water, and 1–2 percent milk solids other than fat (sometimes referred to as curd). It may contain salt , added directly to the butter in concentrations of 1 to 2 percent. Unsalted butter is often referred to as “sweet” butter. This should not be confused with “sweet cream” butter, which may or may not be salted. Reduced-fat, or “light,” butter at 40% fat ... Well, we shall choose not to discuss that here.
In the US, butter must contain 80% minimum butterfat by law, while in France, butter must be composed of at least 82% fat. Home churned butter will be right up there in the 86% range. Commercial butter is a very uniform dispersion of water in oil. The 80% target fat level and continuous churn processing require such a product.
Batch-churning cream into butter takes about 30 minutes, but it is only in the last few minutes that the butter begins to form. In Brief, the mechanical agitation of the churning process breaks down an emulsifying membrane around droplets of butterfat, allowing the butterfat to solidify as butter.
Butter from the Farm
Up until the early to mid 1900's, most farm wives were expert butter makers. Butter sales were very local and produced on family farms and in small creameries. This butter was usually made in small batches. In those days butter customers were connoisseurs in a way that we are not today. For example, the early spring butter brought a much higher price than any other.
Traditionally, butter making began with the separation of cream from milk by gravity. Just after milking, the milk was allowed to sit in pans or cans until the cream, being lighter, floated to the top of the milk. The cream was skimmed off and stored in a cool place for a few days. When several days' cream had accumulated, it was churned into butter.
This small scale butter making took time and energy, but only needed simple equipment. Low-tech methods were still well-known in rural parts of the USA in the mid-20th century. In the UK it became less common for ordinary families to make their own butter in the course of the 19th century, but the old ways were still used on small farms and in the dairies belonging to grand houses.
In the few hundred years prior to the industrialization of butter making, cream was always cultured before it was churned. Culturing was the result of their practice of keeping several milkings before churning. There was no refrigeration, so the cream was stored in a cool room and the natural bacteria from the milk worked to culture it.
After the cows were milked, the milk was left to settle in a cool place, in shallow pans so the cream would rise to the top. Brass and earthenware dishes were used in the UK in the 17th and 18th centuries, with earthenware becoming gradually more popular. It was found that the earthenware could hold the proper bacteria from day to day.
After half a day or so, the cream was skimmed off and placed in the churn. Small home producers would usually collect a few days of milking to have enough cream for churning, and the natural fermentation would "ripen" the flavor. The cream would, of course, ripen much quicker during the warm months.
Industrial Butter Making
Modern dairy practices ignore seasonal differences by feeding cows an unnatural diet of year-round grain. If you often make butter from good cream, you will begin to notice changes as the seasons progress.
Cream is removed from pasteurized whole milk in continuous centrifugal separators spinning at 30,000 RPM. The resulting cream contains 40% butterfat, and is known as heavy, or whipping cream. From the separator, the heavy cream travels directly into continuous “ribbon” churns, which process it into sweet cream butter and high-fat buttermilk. The buttermilk is high fat because ribbon churns are not very efficient at churning all of the butterfat into butter. This buttermilk is then re-separated to remove the excess butterfat, and dried for industrial applications such as commercial ice cream and baking products, as well as consumer packaged goods like buttermilk pancake and baking mixes. The butter made this way is called “sweet cream” butter because the cream it was made from was not cultured or acidified.
Types of Butter:
Sweet Cream Butter:
This is a sweet cream, churned from fresh cream, with a mild, creamy flavor . It is most commonly produced by large commercial operations.
This is a ripened or lactic butter made from soured cream. This should have a fuller and slightly nutty flavor from the natural fermentation.
In past times these cultures were found naturally in the dairies but today we can add these cultures to better control the process.
The cream is cultured before churning for two very specific reasons:
- Adding a lactic acid-producing culture to acidify the cream before churning helped to separate the butterfat during the churning process.
As the butterfat solidified as butter in the churn, the fluid that was drained away became known as “buttermilk,” the by-product of butter-making.
- Adding live cultures to the cream also yielded a better butter since they convert sugars (lactose) in the milk to produce lactic acid. This added to the storage life of butter, because any remaining milk sugars could ferment making the butter rancid.
In addition to these practical benefits, culturing the cream before churning gives the butter a unique flavor - one that is very different from the flavor of today's supermarket butter. Before the advent of the large commercial dairies, Minnesota and Wisconsin used to be dotted with small creameries, each with its own particular flavor of butter made from closely guarded family cultures.
These cultures ended up in the churned buttermilk, as well. Although buttermilk initially resembles skim milk when it is removed from the butter churn, the continuing action of the live cultures creates the tart, thick beverage that we know as buttermilk. Before the days of refrigeration, the consistency of buttermilk would change with the seasons: thin and less tart during winter and thick and clabbered in the summertime.
Cultured butter is very popular in Europe but not so popular in the US. The culturing intensifies the butter flavor itself and also introduces a number of subtler underlying flavors that greatly enhance the overall butter experience. The action of the lactic bacteria also helps to break down some of the structure which keeps the fat globules apart. This increases the yield of butter over sweet cream and also makes the butter come much quicker when churning.
If you make your own homemade butter, you have complete control over the type of cultures used for ripening the cream and how long you let them work before churning.
Since water is cheaper than butterfat, most commercial butter is blended down to 80% post churning. Cultured small batch butter ends up at more like 86%. The higher fat butter is more plastic at low temperature, which makes it easier to use in pastry, and the higher fat content also helps to make pastry flakier and brings a more full flavor.
Goat and Ewes Milk Butter:
Yes, it is possible to get cream and make butter from these milks but due to the very different fat structure, these milks do not rise naturally like the cows milk will do. Therefore a cream separator is required to collect the cream from these animals.