What is butter?
Butter is one of the most highly concentrated forms of fluid milk. Twenty liters of whole milk are needed to produce approximately two pounds of butter. That leaves about 18 liters of skim milk and buttermilk. Commercial butter is 80-82% milk fat, 16-17% water and 1-2% milk solids (curd), so it is not pure fat but an emulsion. Because of that, butter must be handled with more care than other fats in the kitchen. Butter will burn easily at high temperatures so it must be clarified in order to use high heat. Butter is clarified by heating at low heat until the butterfat separates from the milk solids. The butterfat is then poured off which is the clarified butter. Salt may or may not be added. Unsalted butter is often referred to as “sweet” butter, not to be confused with sweet cream butter which may or may not be salted. Butter contains protein, calcium and phosphorous, including Vitamins A, D and E.
Humans have had an intimate culinary relationship with butter for over 6 millennia. Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, butter was reported to be the cause of many health problems. We now know that butter substitutes and manmade trans fats are the true culprits posing threats to our health. Fats do not make us fat and a diet too low in fat leaves us hungry and depressed. Recent studies show how butter contributes to our health by supplying vitamins and minerals, boosting our immune system, helping hormone production, supporting our bones, organs and brain.
Butter is unique in the world of fat as it does not require us to kill the animal in order to obtain it. It was probably created accidentally when whole milk carried in skin bags on horseback was naturally “churned” while traveling over rough terrains. The first documented mention of butter making dates back to 1500-2000 B.C, but butter is believed to date back several thousand more years. Butter back then was not only eaten, but used as illumination oil, medicine and as a skin coating to protect against harsh, cold winds. In the northern regions of Asia, where butter has its strongest roots, storage was not a problem due to the cold climate. As civilization expanded into the southern regions, they were the first to clarify butter in order to keep it from spoiling. In India, clarified butter is called ghee. It is considered a precious substance since it comes from a cow which they consider sacred and is the only animal fat eaten in the Hindu culture. Worldwide, India has the largest butter consumption, with Europe a distant second, followed in the third and fourth positions by the US and Russia.
Butter has been considered sacred and valuable throughout history. In the medieval times of Norway, the king was due taxes at Yule time, which included a bucket of butter from every household. It was a central part of barter economies, and a main theme in celebrations and ceremonies. Archeological digs have discovered that butter was buried in bogs and other areas for years to keep it cool and safe, which worked without refrigeration as long as the butter was in a “keeper” usually made of wood or earthen buckets or jars. Butter keepers are used today to store butter at room temperature to protect it from light and air and will keep butter fresh for up to a month.
Does this mean you need to throw out all the vegetable oils and load up the sticks of butter? No. Liquid cooking oils, especially olive and coconut oils, are still your healthiest fat choices, but don’t totally neglect butter. In the kitchen for baking and adding flavor, butter reigns supreme. A little butter can make a big difference in the taste and look of many dishes, without compromising health in terms of calories or saturated fat.
The information above in part was taken from: WebExhibits, a public service publication of the Institute for Dynamic Education (IDEA), funded by private donations. Douma, M., curator. (2008). Butter through the Ages. Retrieved May 1, 2011 from
Butter 101 in the kitchen: Butter 101, courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated
(1) Salted butter contains more water, which can cause problems in baking. Unsalted butter is considered by chefs to be superior because you can control the salt level and baked dishes come out crisper and flakier.
(2) Butter temperature dramatically affects the texture of baked goods. Temperature is best checked with an instant read thermometer. Chilled (about 35 degrees) is best used for pastry because it melts during baking, leaving behind small pockets of air that create flaky layers. Softened (65-67 degrees) is flexible enough to be whipped but firm enough to retain incorporated air, which is vital to cake making. Melted and cooled (85-90 degrees) allows the water in the butter to break away from the emulsion and create gluten for chewier cookies.
(3) Wait for butter to stop foaming before sautéing. When the foam is gone, so is the water and the butter will continue to heat. Smoke occurs at 250-300 degrees. If you want to sauté at a higher temperature, use clarified butter.
(4) Slip butter under the skin of chicken breasts. Two tablespoons of softened, unsalted butter mixed with ½ tsp salt and spread underneath the skin of a whole breast before roasting will baste the white meat.
(5) Add butter before dairy in mashed potatoes. When melted butter is added first, the fat coats the starch molecules in the potatoes and prevents them from reacting with the water in the dairy keeping them from being gummy.
(6) Add butter bits to uncooked eggs for omelets. Whisking a tablespoon of cold, diced butter into eggs before cooking coats the proteins in the egg whites, stopping them from forming tight, cross-linked bonds, which causes a dense, rubbery consistency to the omelet.
Placed in the back of the fridge where it’s coldest (not in the small door compartment), butter will keep for 2 ½ weeks. In tests we’ve found that any longer and it can turn rancid as its fatty acids oxidize. For longer storage (up to four months), move it to the freezer. Also, since butter quickly picks up odors and flavors, we like to slip the sticks into a zip-lock bag.