I must issue a warning before I begin this post about one of the most beautiful ingredients in cooking. There is no rant in this post. I will not review anything. There is nothing about restaurants. This is the latest in my Internet Deep Dives category where I take something small and expand it into as much information that I can find. If you’re a home cook looking to step your game up a little bit, this is probably a good post for you. If you’re just here to look at pictures and read a food blog, GTFO. This one isn’t for you.
The reason I dove into a deep exploration of butter is no oil seems to compete with it. Every tried to make scrambled eggs with canola or vegetable oil? They taste completely different. Ever tried to use an oil to brown meats and realized they didn’t do half the job that butter can? Well, I have. I knew the basics of where this beautiful yellow stick of fat came from but I wanted to more information.
So what is butter anyways? Butter is created by separating cream from milk, which actually produces thee separate products: Butter, skim milk and butter milk. Skim milk is the result of the cream being completely removed from the milk. The cream is beaten, or churned, until it separates into solids and liquids. The liquid is drained and the solid portion gives you that yellow fatty yellow substance. The liquid resulting in the churning process is butter milk. When you let the solid portion sit in room temperature it solidifies further and is formed into blocks of what is now butter. Typical American butter that you buy at the store is 80% butter fat, 15% water and 5% other stuff.
If you want to make your own, it’s actually very simple if you have the tools at home. If you don’t feel like reading all of this, here’s a seven minute video on how to make your own butter.
My next question was why is butter yellow when milk is white? Is this some kind of chemical reaction from the separation of liquid and fat? Well, this is where things get even more interesting. I think the single most interesting part of food is the effect of the animal’s diet and physical habits have on the taste and physical characteristics of the food that it produces. Butter is no different.
The difference in color is primarily due to the higher fat content of butter. Cows that eat grass and flowers store an orangish pigment in their fats that is found naturally in those plants. That pigment gets carried over through the fat in their milk. Through the churning process fat globules cluster together, membranes break apart, and that pigment is exposed within the fat which causes to be that yellow color you see.
If cows are raised on pasture, their butter is more yellow when the milk is collected in late spring or summer, when the cows have more grass to chew on. In wintertime, even cows raised on pasture are usually brought inside and fed grain, which doesn’t have much of that pigment. Some dairies freeze butter so they can sell the yellow-tinted kind year-round. Many industrial dairy producers raise cows without ever putting them out on pasture so yellow color is added to their pale butter to make it more appetizing to consumers expecting a yellow butter.
Now here’s one that most people ask. Isn’t butter really bad for you? The answer is yes, absolutely yes. It’s a very simple fact that eating too much fat in excess is bad for you. But to play devil’s advocate here, is it really that much worse than the substitute you’re probably eating?
Let’s use margarine as an example, which is most people’s favorite substitute for butter. At one point in history, 27 states had a ban against margarine. It’s still illegal in Wisconsin to serve margarine in schools. Why? Because margarine is terrible. Margarine was created in the early 1800s as an inexpensive substitute for butter. Early margarines were made from animal fat. In the 1900s, people discovered how to harden liquid oils and vegetable oil replacing animal fat. What is margarine? It is a manufactured, vegetable-oil-based substitute for butter.
Check out the ingredients of I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter:
Vegetable Oil Blend (palm oil, palm kernel oil), Soybean Oil, Water, Buttermilk, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Potassium Sorbate, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Lactic Acid, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta – Carotene.
Here’s my resolution with butter being unhealthy: Don’t eat a lot of it. It’s recommended that no more than 7% of you daily food intake should consist of saturated fats. If you eat at a lot of restaurants but you’re using margarine at home, you’re silly. Butter and fat are what make most restaurant food taste better than your home cooking.
So the final question, what is the best butter? Well, if you’re going to really do it right French butter is the way to go. When we talk about French butter, we’re really talking about a style in which butter is produced throughout Europe. French-style butter refers to a cultured butter that has been churned longer to achieve at least 82 percent butterfat. Often times the fat percentage reaches as high as 86 to 88%. Traditionally the butter is allowed to ferment to achieve a light sour taste, but you’re more likely to find butter made with added cultures. Either way, you still end up with a tangy butter. Some even re-inject cream into their final molds which adds even more richness to the butter.
You can actually find French butter at pretty much any grocery store and it is worth paying an extra few dollars for it. Scrambled eggs, which led me down this rabbit hole, taste completely different than with American butter. There is a rich, creamy taste added and the eggs become much fluffier. My personal recommendation is pick up a brick at Trader Joe’s and you will find yourself asking why you have been using Traditional American butter all these years.
Another type of butter worth checking out is Ghee. Ghee is an Indian clarified butter, meaning that the milk solids and water are removed leaving only the good stuff. Ghee has a higher smoke point than regular butter and most cooking oils, stays fresh for as long as a hundred years, contains no dairy and has actually proven to be healthier than traditional butter. Rub some Ghee on some Naan bread and your life will be changed forever.
If you chose to read through this entire post about butter, I hope you learned a few things. I would like to summarize by saying butter is delicious in the right portions. We spend so much time thinking about what ingredients are bad and what ingredients are good. If you stop and think, what is in that fat free sour cream you’re eating? Sure, it’s fat free but what engineered ingredients have been added to something that is primarily made from fat to make it fat free? Butter adds richness and depth to food and assists in making the meal an experience. Use it to brown your steaks, add richness to eggs, but don’t slather it all over your food on a daily basis.