Butter's rich history: 5 things you might not know

Farmer's wife churning butter. Emmet County, Iowa
Farmer's wife churning butter in Emmet County, Iowa, 1936. "Butter and people go back a really, really long way," writes Elaine Khosrova, the author of a new book all about the dairy staple.
Russell Lee | Library of Congress

"Butter's history is our history," Elaine Khosrova writes in her new book, "Butter."

'Butter' by Elaine Khosrova
'Butter' by Elaine Khosrova
Courtesy of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

It's an ancient creation and a modern delicacy, a diet staple and a cultural artifact; it has played a role in the economic, religious and culinary development of the world as we know it.

And it's delicious.

Khosrova's new book dives into the development of butter, from ancient Irish bogs to sacred Tibetan butter sculptures to a massive dairy in Wisconsin that churns out 42,000 pounds of butter an hour. "Butter" not only gives the history of the ubiquitous ingredient, but also provides recipes to make your very own at home. ("It's child's play!" Khosrova said.)

As you're spreading, melting and whipping butter this holiday season, churn up some conversation with these butter tidbits from the book.

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Butter's rich history

1) Butter has been around for 9,000 years

"Butter and people go back a really, really long way. It's been with us for at least 9,000 years," Khosrova said.

It likely began as an accident: some chilled milk shaken around in a sack on the back of an animal on a bumpy trail. But it quickly became a staple for people who lived near herds of ruminants — cows, goats, sheep, reindeer, camels, water buffalo.

One of the closest glimpses we have of ancient butter is bog butter — butter that was preserved in Ireland's wetlands. Some of the samples that have been discovered date as far back as 400 B.C.

2) Butter was once churned by dogs on a treadmill

Modern butter-making is a technological marvel — but there were a few steps between churning at home and the massive, motor-powered operations we know today.

One such invention involved harnessing "a dog, sheep, or horse to a treadmill, which in turn powered the churn," Khosrova writes.

3) Butter and margarine were bitter enemies

If there's a battle in your home over butter and margarine, that's fitting. Margarine got its start thanks to dreams of world domination: We have Napoleon to thank for butter's dairy(ish) doppelganger.

Facing a critical butter shortage and a potential war with Prussia, the military leader issued a cash prize in 1869 for anyone who could create a "cheap, plentiful butter substitute" to feed soldiers and the lower class, Khosrova writes.

Chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries rose to the challenge, crafting a combination of beef fat, milk and salt into the first margarine spread. The recipe has shifted from beef to veggie oils over time, so Khosrova isn't quite sure exactly the original tasted — but it was definitely salty.

The spread was a hit in the United States, but American butter makers instantly identified it was a threat.

"They launched a very fierce political campaign in federal and state courthouses to basically drive the margarine producers out of business using registration, legislation, taxation — all these different political tactics," Khosrova explained.

In fact, to keep the masses from forsaking butter forever, butter makers persuaded some state legislatures to decree that margarine could not be dyed yellow — to avoid confusion, they said. Some legislatures went even further: They ordered margarine to be dyed a completely different color: pink, red or even black. Mmmm.

Butter makers would have gotten their way and won the war, had it not been for another actual war: World War II. Between the Great Depression and World War II, there was a massive butter shortage, and the cheaper, long-lasting margarine could no longer be suppressed.

Margarine dominated America's kitchen tables for decades after, but today, Khosrova noted, "finally butter sales are outpacing margarine sales."

4) Butter played a role in mummification

Butter had all sorts of ancient uses that Khosrova dug up in her research, but perhaps the most unexpected was the Egyptians' use of butter for the afterlife.

"The Egyptians used to make a paste of butter and dirt and sawdust, and use it to plump the skin of their mummies," she said. "Sort of like an ancient Botox treatment."

5) Taking butter out of the American diet didn't make us healthier

"What emerged in the mid-20th century was essentially a very simplistic theory that we have fat in our arteries, so it must be coming from the fat in our diet," Khosrova explained. "People bought into it because, intuitively, it made sense, but now we know it's so much more complicated."

Because of this theory, butter became a target for low-fat and no-fat diets. It was cut out of recipes and labeled unhealthy. But the numbers didn't add up, Khosrova notes.

Throughout the 20th century, butter consumption dropped dramatically.

"People were eating 17 pounds of butter a year in the 1920s, and it dropped to about four and a half pounds by the end of the century," she said. "Meanwhile, heart disease was rising constantly. The fact that butter was blacklisted really never made any sense."

Make your own: Sweet Cream Butter

Butter sculpture
Erin Daninger, 20, checks the condition of the butter sculpture that is stored in a freezer on the family farm in Forest Lake, Minn., in August 2012. Daninger's likeness was carved in butter after she was named one of 12 finalists for the Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition at the Minnesota State Fair.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file 2012

This recipe comes from "Butter: A Rich History," by Elaine Khosrova, c 2016 by Elaine Khosrova. Reprinted by Permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.

Industrial dairy producers have perfected the science of making sweet cream butter by the ton. They truck superfresh cream to a butter plant, pasteurize it, let it temper, then load it into continuous automated churns. Minutes later, out comes the pale golden spread — sweet, smooth, and mild.

Given the freshness and availability of supermarket butter, it might seem pointless to make your own. (It will rarely save you money.)

But there are good reasons to do it, beyond just the DIY satisfaction. Churning your own sweet butter allows you to make it higher in butterfat and lower in water than the commercial brands. And since a higher butterfat version — say, between 82% and 86% — is not just more unctuous and buttery but is also better for baking and cooking, it's worth keeping some on hand.

Second, if you have access to really good cream — say from pastured Jersey or Guernsey cows — your homemade butter will be more flavorful, contain more healthy CLAs, and have a gorgeous yellow color. If you're able to source raw cream from a local dairy farm that sells reliably safe raw milk, all the better. But in most states, raw cream is illegal to sell. Most likely you'll be using pasteurized cream, so try to find a brand that's not ultrapasteurized and is free of additives. Some so-called whipping creams have stabilizers added. Ideally you want an ingredient label that simply reads "cream."

As for equipment, anything that allows you to beat the cream will work, whether it's a jar with a tight-fitting lid that you shake, a bowl and whisk, an electric stand mixer, or a food processor.

Avid butter makers contend that it's better to spin or concuss the cream end over end rather than beat it with paddles or blades. The former method is said to be gentler on the fat molecules and makes for a better-textured butter. In my (humble) experience, churning with a food processor creates a spreadable, well-textured butter, but the important thing is not to overbeat the butter once it has formed.

One final point worth mentioning, since it's often confusing to new butter makers: the buttermilk that's left over from sweet cream butter making is not true buttermilk — a cultured dairy liquid with a tangy taste. Traditional buttermilk is the by-product of cultured butter making, whereas most buttermilk sold in supermarkets is actually low-fat milk that's been cultured with lactic acid bacteria. The milky byproduct of sweet cream butter is bland and not tangy, somewhat like skim milk, but without the protein content.

Sweet Cream Butter

Makes about 3/4 pound butter

1 quart (4 cups) heavy cream (preferably not ultrapasteurized), at about 55 degrees Fahrenheit
Salt (optional)

1) Pour the cream into a large spotlessly clean bowl, jar, or the container of a food processor. If using a stand mixer, fit it with the whisk attachment.

It's important when churning with a closed container, such as a jar, classic paddle churn, or food processor, that you leave as much headspace for air as you have volume of cream. The air is essential for getting the cream to whip its way to becoming butter.

2) Beat, paddle, process, or shake the cream to bring it to the whipped stage. Continue agitating the cream so it thickens further and then changes color from off-white to pale yellow; this will take at least 5 to 10 minutes, depending on your equipment.

When it starts to look pebbly, it's almost butter. (If using a stand mixer, you want to stop beating and drape a tent of plastic wrap over the bowl to enclose the whisk and top of the bowl so the ensuing liquid won't splash out.)

3) After another minute the cream will look curdled and then suddenly it will separate into opaque whitish liquid (so-called buttermilk) and small curds of yellow butter. Transfer the mixture to a fine-mesh strainer and drain off the liquid. Rinse the mass of butter curds with cold water briefly to harden them a bit and chase off any milky residue.

4) The final step is to briefly knead, or "work," the butter, which will drive off more of the liquid and make your butter more cohesive and smooth. The traditional way to work butter is with small wooden paddles, known as butterhands. Not many folks have butterhands these days (though you can get them online), so there are other ways to work butter.

It's best to avoid using your bare hands since your warm touch can spoil the texture of the butter, causing it to melt in spots. Instead, wrap the butter mass in a clean damp muslin cloth, or a few layers of cheesecloth, and then knead it with your hands inside a large bowl or on a cool, clean surface, such as marble. The cloth will absorb the excess moisture and be a barrier for your hands.

Alternatively, if you're using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment — on the lowest speed — to mix the mass of butter, draining the excess liquid that seeps out. One caveat: Don't knead the butter on a used wooden cutting board or surface, which generally has some lingering food odors. The butter will pick them up like a magnet.

5) Knead until the texture is dense and creamy — usually no more than 3 minutes — blending in coarse salt or fine salt as desired. A little salt goes a long way in butter, so add it carefully, tasting it as you blend. On average, a stick (1/4 pound) of commercial salted butter contains 1/4 teaspoon fine salt, so this 3/4-pound batch would have triple that amount by that standard. But it's your butter, so add as much or little salt as you like!

6) Your butter is ready to serve as-is. But it can also be molded, pressed, or shaped using a butter mold.