views updated May 17 2018


BUTTER. Butter is made by churning milk fat. It has a solid, waxy texture and varies in color from almost white to deep yellow. It is mostly made from cow's milk, but water buffalo milk is used in the Indian subcontinent, yak milk in the Himalayas, and sheep milk in central Asia. Butter is an important food in North America, Europe, and western and central Asia but is of lesser importance in the rest of the world.

Butter Making

Until the late nineteenth century, butter was made by traditional small-scale methods. Milk was "set" in bowls until the cream rose and could be skimmed off. It was used fresh for sweet cream butter or "ripened" (soured) as the bacteria it contained converted the lactose (milk sugar) to lactic acid. Sometimes clotted (scalded) cream was used, and milk fat retrieved from whey after cheese making can also be used for making butter.

Once or twice a week the cream was churned in a standing churn with a plunger or in a barrel turned end-over-end. Eventually, granules of butter separated out, leaving buttermilk, which was drained off and used for drinking and baking. The butter was washed and worked (kneaded with a paddle) to get rid of excess liquid, then salted. Butter-making implements were wooden; they included bowls, butter paddles, and prints carved with motifs, such as swans or wheat ears, used to stamp finished pats.

In modern industrial manufacture, cream is separated by a centrifugal process to give a fat content of 30 to 38 percent. It is always pasteurized, and ripening is induced by adding a bacterial culture. The cream is churned at a temperature of 53 to 64°F (12 to 18°C). High-speed continuous churns were introduced after World War II. In these the cream is mixed by revolving blades, which induces granulation quickly. The butter granules are forced through a perforated plate and are worked mechanically. Salt and annatto (coloring) are added if desired. About twenty liters of milk are needed to make one kilogram of butter.

Physical Descriptions

The mechanism of butter production is not fully understood. The process inverts cream, an emulsion of minute fat globules dispersed in a liquid phase (water), to become butter, an emulsion in which minute drops of liquid are dispersed in a solid phase (fat). Churning first traps air in the cream, producing a foam. Continued agitation destabilizes the fat globules, disrupting the fine membranes that surround them and releasing naturally occurring emulsifiers such as lecithin. As agitation continues, the foam collapses, and the fat droplets are forced together in grains. Gradually they increase in size and become visible.

Finished butter has a complex structure of minute water droplets, air bubbles, and fat crystals distributed through amorphous fat. Proportions of solid and liquid fats present in butter vary. A lower churning temperature increases the proportion of crystalline fats, giving a harder, almost crumbly product. Higher temperatures produce a softer butter. Butter can also be whipped after churning to make it softer and easier to spread. Flavor is influenced by many factors (see sidebar).

Salt was originally added as a preservative. Butter made from unpasteurized milk is susceptible to bacterial spoilage. Even under modern conditions of hygiene, it is susceptible to oxidative rancidity. One way of extending shelf life is clarification, which includes two basic methods. One is to melt the butter gently and pour the fat off, discarding the milky residue. The second, used in India, is to simmer the butter until the water evaporates and the protein and milk sugar form a solid brown deposit. The fat, now with a nutty flavor, is strained off and stored as ghee, which keeps for months. Butter and ghee are significant in Indian cookery and Hindu religious ritual. In the Arab world samneh, a form of clarified butter, is also used for cookery. In Morocco it is mixed with herbs to make smen, a strongly flavored aged butter.


Nutritionally the composition of butter is roughly 80 percent fat (mostly saturated), 12 percent water, 2 to 3 percent nonfat milk solids (lactose, protein), and 2 percent added salt. It is the most concentrated of dairy products, containing about 740 kilocalories per 100 grams (210 kilocalories per ounce). Butter is a valuable source of vitamin A, plus it has a little vitamin D. It is also a source of dietary cholesterol. Vitamin content is higher in summer, when the cattle feed on fresh grass.

Nutritional debates over saturated fatty acids and cholesterol in relation to coronary heart disease have centered on butter. High fat consumption can be related to raised blood lipids, but the relationship of dietary cholesterol to blood cholesterol is less easy to demonstrate. Evidence for or against is seized in the debate between butter and margarine manufacturers over which is superior. The two groups have competed since margarine was invented in the 1870s. Their arguments were originally couched in terms of economics but subsequently obscured important health issues. In the United States butter consumption stands at about 500,000 metric tons per annum, as opposed to the European Union, which consumes almost 1.5 million tons with only about one-third more population than the United States. Much of the difference is probably due to preferential consumption of margarine for perceived health benefits by U.S. consumers.

Development of Production

Annual world production of butter (including ghee) rose from about 5.35 million metric tons in 1961 to about 7.551 million metric tons in 2001, during which time the

Butter and ghee production
Butter and ghee production (mt) 1961 1971 1981 1991 1998 1999 2000 2001
World 5,344,948 5,712,823 6,846,762 7,230,231 6,842,943 6,991,151 7,201,428 7,551,093
Latin America & Caribbean 129,415 155,307 206,855 191,692 204,587 209,485 210,840 219,718
Canada 165,107 134,309 116,915 101,059 90,600 92,060 92,060 92,060
European Union (15) 1,825,529 1,916,890 2,396,300 1,931,824 1,794,111 1,768,090 1,738,656 1,730,629
India 433,000 432,000 670,300 1,050,000 1,600,000 1,750,000 1,950,000 2,250,000
Japan 13,214 47,699 63,636 75,922 88,931 85,349 87,578 82,000
New Zealand 213,500 230,800 247,200 250,881 343,658 317,000 344,000 384,000
United States 696,629 520,268 557,095 621,500 529,800 578,350 578,350 578,350
© Copyright FAO 19901998
Butter imports
Butter importsqty (mt) 1961 1971 1981 1991 1998 1999 2000
World 566,571 786,113 1,524,808 1,333,061 1,214,011 1,213,135 1,256,727
Latin America & Caribbean 15,092 61,809 71,324 87,551 65,778 70,056 71,217
European Union (15) 467,074 527,783 705,015 615,223 657,293 668,492 698,404
Canada 0 1,399 28 164 3,275 5,820 14,477
India 100 2,951 18,675 3,192 4,311 10,255 6,535
Japan 376 923 1,734 20,524 565 548 391
New Zealand 0 11 27 14 822 500 652
United States 390 320 938 2,381 40,096 29,468 22,160
© Copyright FAO 19901998
Butter exports
Butter exportsqty (mt) 1961 1971 1981 1991 1998 1999 2000
World 629,535 842,045 1,473,373 1,364,364 1,322,174 1,301,421 1,311,496
Latin America & Caribbean 14,799 8,612 10,088 8,126 17,380 25,654 24,249
European Union (15) 260,405 446,090 1,087,809 983,892 718,992 692,079 660,345
Canada 3 2,029 61 12,415 12,077 10,932 6,711
India 7 181 240 340 909 1,700 1,815
Japan 10 1,108 313 3 0 17 7
New Zealand 165,690 194,463 203,058 176,148 315,850 298,034 358,528
United States 2,597 43,006 54,207 32,006 9,024 3,536 8,906
© Copyright FAO 19901998

global population doubled. By the twenty-first century, India was the world's largest butter and ghee producer. Its production increased fivefold between 1961 and 2002, whereas the country's population increased about 2.25 times. The European Union, an area in which butter has enormous importance in traditional eating habits, is the next most important producer, followed by the United States. New Zealand, with a small population, produces much butter for export, but production in Canada, formerly an important exporter, has fallen.

The origins of butter are unknown. One theory is that migrating nomads discovered that milk they carried with them became butter (much as American pioneers made butter by allowing the motion of the wagons to churn milk as they traveled). Butter has been known in Eurasia since ancient times, although the classical Greeks regarded it as barbarian food. Later friction arose over Lenten food prohibitions by the church in medieval Europe. Oil, a southern staple, was allowed, but butter, derived from animals, was forbidden, creating difficulties for northerners who had to buy expensive imported oil or pay a fine to use butter.

In northern and western Europe, butter was an integral part of the pastoral economy. It was churned from surplus summer milk and was stored in wooden barrels. Butter production was women's work and in many places, such as early modern England, provided an income for farmer's wives, hence the frequency of Butter Market as a street name in English towns. Certain areas developed dairy food production as a specialty. By 1750 the Low Countries exported butter and cheese to neighboring regions. In Ireland butter is the most esteemed of all dairy products. In the Middle Ages it was used to pay taxes and was buried in peat bogs for preservation. Archeologists still find the occasional cache of "bog butter," which made Irish oat cake and later potatoes palatable. Migrants from the Low Countries, Britain, and Ireland took their taste for butter to North America, where observers remarked on the lavish use of it in cookery and at the table.

Creamery production of butter, in which milk collected from a large number of farms was taken to a central point for processing, began in the late nineteenth century. It gave benefits in economies of scale and quality control but reduced regional nuances. An important step toward the process was the introduction of a mechanical cream separator by Gustav de Laval in Denmark in the 1870s. In 1881 Alanson Slaughter built a creamery in Orange County, New York, using the milk produced by 375 cows. By 1900 a creamery in Vermont used the milk from thirty thousand cows to make over ten tons of butter a day, and the production of country butter declined rapidly. Canada and New Zealand developed butter as an export commodity for the British market. Most butter produced in the developed world is made in creameries.

Butter is important in European food habits and cuisines derived from them. It is used as a spread for bread, crackers, and toast and to dress cooked vegetables and pasta. In baking it adds flavor and shortness to cakes and some pastries. Butter has a privileged position in French cookery, especially in sauces, such as beurre blanc, hollandaise, and béarnaise. It is not ideal for frying as the protein it contains burns at about 250°F (120°C), but clarified butter can be heated to about 375°F (190°C) and is often used for shallow frying fish. Butter or ghee also gives character to northern Indian food. For instance, a small amount heated with spices is added to pulse dishes for richness and to finish the cooking process. In Tibet butter is floated on bowls of tea, the residues of which are mixed with tsampa (barley flour) and eaten.

See also Dairy Products; Margarine.


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999.

Garard, Ira D. The Story of Food. Westport, Conn.: AVI Publishing, 1974.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1984; New York: Scribners, 1984.

Visser, Margaret. Much Depends on Dinner. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Laura Mason

Flavor in Butter

Flavor in butter is influenced by many factors. Two basic types exist in European and North American tradition: sweet cream, churned from fresh cream, with a mild, creamy flavor and ripened; or lactic butter, made from soured cream, which should have a fuller, slightly nutty flavor. Salt butter can be of either type. Regional tastes in this vary widely. In Europe, Welsh butter is noted for being very salty, whereas French butter is often not salted at all. Under modern conditions, salt is only added for flavor, its original preservative function now obsolete.

The characteristic butter flavor comes partly from the high proportion of short-chain fatty acids milk fat contains, especially butyric acid. Ripening gives a "lactic" flavor derived principally from a substance called diacetyl, produced by the bacterial species involved. In the United States, most butter has a mild lactic flavor, although it is stronger in "cultured" butter, which is closer to that produced in Germany and central Europe, where strongly flavored butters are preferred.

Differences in butter flavor were far more apparent in the past. Factors that influenced the flavor of farm-made butter included the food the cattle ate. Turnips, introduced as a fodder crop in eighteenth-century England, were notorious for giving a characteristic and much-disliked taint to butter. Some pastures, such as those of Normandy, are recognized as producing excellently flavored butter. Poor storage conditions for milk or butter also led to taints, as fats pick up odors quickly. Storage in rooms that also contained, for instance, onions was not recommended. Care during handling is also important. Length of ripening time, hygienic handling, and complete expression of the buttermilk from the finished product influence flavor.

Finally, from the moment it is finished, butter is susceptible to rancidity of two types. Hydrolitic rancidity is produced by the presence of moisture and is hastened by enzymes and microorganisms, and consumers have developed a taste for some forms. Oxidative rancidity, produced by reaction with oxygen in the air, is found unacceptable by everyone.


views updated Jun 08 2018

butter Made from separated cream by churning (sweet cream butter); legally not less than 80% fat (and not more than 16% water) of which around 60% is saturated, a small proportion (3%) polyunsaturated, the rest being mono‐unsaturated. Lactic butter is made by ripening the cream with a bacterial culture to produce lactic acid and increase the flavour (due to diacetyl). This is normally unsalted or up to 0.5% salt added. Sweet cream butter may be salted up to 2%. Butter supplies 72 kcal (300 kJ) per g; a 40‐g portion (as spread on 4 slices of bread) is a rich source of vitamin A and contains 32 g of fat, of which two‐thirds is saturated; supplies 300 kcal (1260 kJ).

Clarified butter is butter fat, prepared by heating butter and separating the fat from the water. It does not become rancid as rapidly as butter. Also known as ghee or ghrt (India) and samna (Egypt). Process or renovated butter has been melted and rechurned with the addition of milk, cream, or water. Drawn butter is melted butter used as a dressing for cooked vegetables. Devilled butter is mixed with lemon juice, cayenne and black pepper, and curry powder. Ravigote butter is creamed with chopped fresh aromatic herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives, chervil), usually served with grilled meat. Green butter is mixed with chopped herbs and other seasonings to produce a savoury spread. Black butter is browned by heating, then vinegar and seasonings are added.


views updated May 17 2018

but·ter / ˈbətər/ • n. a pale yellow edible fatty substance made by churning cream and used as a spread or in cooking. ∎  a substance of a similar consistency: cocoa butter.• v. [tr.] spread (something) with butter: she buttered the toast.PHRASES: look as if butter wouldn't melt in one's mouth inf. appear gentle or innocent while typically being the opposite.PHRASAL VERBS: butter someone up inf. flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with someone.


views updated May 21 2018

butter Edible fat made from milk. A churning process changes the milk from a water-in-oil emulsion to an oil-in-water emulsion. The fat (oil) globules of the milk collide and coalesce, losing their protective shield of protein and turning into butter, thus separating out from the more watery whey. Commercial butter contains about 80% fat, 1–3% added salt, 1% milk solids and 16% water.


views updated Jun 08 2018

butter OE. butere, corr. to OHG. butera (G. butter), Du. boter; WGmc. — L. būtȳrum — Gr. boútūron. The L. word is repr. in Rom. by OF. burre (mod. beurre), Pr. buire, It. butirro.