Apparently, while some people in Africa still go around unclothed, smearing some kind of dye across their faces and living off what they could hunt, someone somewhere was buttering up their pastries (and bread) for breakfast. Basically, if I go back about ten thousand years ago, I would find butter (at least a version of the one we know now) being used for a whole lot of different purposes; most of which we no longer use butter for.
Butter can essentially be made from any animal milk, however, it is usually churned from cow milk. I would wager that the first butter must have been made accidentally by a shepherd (a nomad most likely). The traditionally easy method of churning butter in tied up animal skin by shaking is, surprisingly, still in use today.
Throughout the ages, butter has gathered as much history as the oldest artifact in Egyptian culture. Surviving the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms, passing through the overthrow and restoration of many monarchs and emerging through many conflicts and wars; butter can be grouped alongside many of the greatest inventions in human history.
Throughout the ages, butter has been used for a whole lot of different purposes. Added to the fact that it can be eaten as an essential part of our diet, it also has many applications including medicinal and cosmetic uses.
What is butter made of?
Basically, milk from animals contain butter milk and butter fat. What we call butter is a dairy product consisting mostly of butter fat. A lot of other additives are included in butter to achieve a much smoother paste, improve flavor, and sweeten the butter or to help preserve butter longer than its normal shelf life.
Salted butter is neither uncommon nor a new practice. The salt improves the taste of the butter and helps preserve the fat which maintains a solid state at room temperature (in most places, especially where room temperature does not exceed 30 centigrade degrees) and turns to a smooth oily fluid when heated.
The butter fat exists in tiny globular bits in the cream or in fresh or fermented milk (milk that has not been separated into cream and skim milk is used). The fatty acids and milk protein prevent the globules in milk from gathering together to form a single mass of fat.
The basic work of the churning process is to break up these acid and protein membranes (essentially damaging them) thereby allowing the fat globules to grow, by amassing with one another, into one single mass.
The variation in butter production accounts for the various consistencies of butter we have. This is why, in many countries, butter is graded before distribution for sale. Essentially, there can be three forms of butter fat contained in different proportions in finished butter product. The free butterfat, butterfat crystals and undamaged fat globules account for the different grades of butter in accordance with their separate resulting consistencies. Hard butters are generally comprised of many butterfat crystals while softer grade butter contains a lot of free butterfat.
The butterfat is contained in emulsion with the buttermilk (butter is in fact a water-based emulsion). After churning, the small butter grains float in a watery liquid (the buttermilk) which is drained off. The grains are folded or kneaded into a more consistent paste or solid depending on the work temperature.
Large scale commercial butter production methods make use of pasteurized milk which produce butters that contain up to 80% butterfat in emulsion of about 15% water.
Butter is a major source of dietary cholesterol. It consists mostly of saturated fat (up to 7 grams per 14 grams or one tablespoon of butter), a total fat content of 11 grams and about 100 calories (all of which is derived from fat). As a result, many health reports consider butter a major contributor to health disease and many other health problems.
Essentially, one who consumes 100 grams of unsalted has consumed a total of 81 grams of fat (of which 51g is saturated, 21g is monounsaturated and 3g of polyunsaturated fat), 1 gram of protein, 684 micrograms of Vitamin A (vitamin A accounts for 76% of all vitamin content of most butters) and about 215 milligrams of cholesterol.
However, due to difference in production methods and difference in composition due to flavoring, nutritional content of different kinds of butter varies with varying fat content. Certain spices will effectively reduce amount of cholesterol content resulting to butters of greater nutritional quality.
Common Types of Butter
Ordinarily, due to difference in production method, different types or rather kinds of butter will emerge. In the past, when commercial production means were not yet developed, butter was made from a collection of daily milking; this means that the milk was mostly fermented before production. Commercial production eliminates use of fermented milk. Due to this reason, we have:
- Cultured butter: is the kind of butter made from fermented cream. The fermentation process releases a lot of aroma compounds adding more flavor and greater butter taste to this kind of butter. This points to the fact that locally made butter is of a higher quality than factory produced butter. A different method of producing cultured butter is by addition of bacterial cultures into butter made from fresh milk or cream. This can even be done commercially and in a factory.
- Sweet cream butter: is the class of butter made from pasteurized fresh butter (pasteurization is necessary to eliminate bacteria and other microorganisms in milk). This was first popularly practiced in the 19th century during the global industrialization era. Refrigeration is important in sweet cream butter production alongside a mechanical means of butterfat separation.
- Raw cream butter: is made from unpasteurized fresh or fermented milk or cream. This achieves some level of culturing when fermented milk is used and it has a more original buttery taste than butter made from pasteurized cream.
Across continental Europe, cultured butter is preferred due to its reach flavor and original butter taste while the sweet cream is largely favored in the US and the United Kingdom.
Butter can also be classified and differentiated according to the grade or level of consistency achieved during production:
- Hard butter: consisting mainly of more butterfat crystals than any other butterfat.
- Soft butter: mainly comprising of freer butterfat bits than crystals or undamaged globules.
Note that each of these grades of butter may contain other forms of butterfat and some other ingredients in varying proportions.
Butter types may also be grouped and differentiated based on their major flavoring ingredient. See Common Butter Flavoring.
Common Butter Flavoring
Butterfat and water accounts for 95% of the entire content of commercial butter. The remaining 5% is a combination of the numerous additives in butter. The purpose of adding these ingredients, like we have mentioned, could include improving the nutritional values of butter; essentially making more rich for human consumption and manipulating its qualities for other applications as we shall find out in the uses of butter.
The different types of butter can be in the salted or unsalted forms where salt is added in the granular form or as solution in water (brine) during production. In the US, salted butter is favored as well as Sweet cream butter; pointing to the bland taste of most cultured butters. Salting also helps to preserve the butter.
It is common to flavor butter with certain spices and herbs or even spirits giving it its specific aroma. Notably, such flavored butters are called composite or composite butters. There can be sweet cream composed butter, raw cream composed butter, even cultured butter can be composed.
Butter flavoring can be done in the factory during production of butter or it can be done domestically at home with any store bought type of butter in the market. Flavoring is done, basically, by simply adding the desired flavoring ingredient into butter substrate and churning (in room temperature) till butter paste of smooth consistency is achieved. As a matter of fact, we can have as many flavored butter as there are flavoring ingredients:
- Cinnamon brown sugar butter: the main thing to do here is pour in the cinnamon sugar, which is the flavoring ingredient, into the butter of choice and churn. The butter must be at room temperature to enable easy hand churning.
- Strawberry vanilla butter: any food processor will be used to cut up the strawberries and added with the sugar and vanilla. Mixing can be done by hand churning.
- Hot chocolate butter: uses a mixture of warm cream, chocolate powder and marshmallows as the flavoring ingredient.
- Garlic dill butter: all we need to do to produce this is to add the garlic ingredient into the butter.
It is basically easy to produce composed butters by spicing up our brand butter kinds.
Created in France by Hippolyte in 1869, it represents a butter substitute made, basically, from vegetable oils satisfying the fact that it contains more unsaturated fat which is good; therefore margarine offers less adverse effect to human health than butter.
Essentially, per 100 grams of margarine, one can derive about 10-20% saturated fat while regular butter may contain up to 65% of saturated fat. Calorie content is higher in Margarines and there is noticeably less cholesterol content.
Below is a summary of the many uses of butter:
- Butter at room temperature softens to a spreadable consistency and can be served as a spread for bread and pastries at breakfast or as salad dressing.
- Butter melts to an oily liquid which can be used as cooking oil in a lot of cooking methods.
- Butter is an essential ingredient in baking. It is creamed and folded into flour and other dry ingredients to make the cake batter.
- There have been many mayonnaise kinds that are made, essentially, with butter instead of oil. These are Hollandaise sauces and are basically emulsions of egg yolk and melted butter.
- Using a low temperature, butter can be used for frying and sautéing.
- In many ancient cultures, butters made from many other fat means such as Shea butter are preferred for their medicinal properties. Butter flavored with herbal extracts and mints are used as substrates for arthritis remedies and for the treatment of other health problems.
Butter enjoys a rich historical placing in the world. Many traditions derive their meaning from butter and the use of butter. Many dishes lose meaning and flavor or even taste without butter. Butter is used in more applications that just culinary uses.