The History of Butter

Floris van Schooten, Breakfast,   Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, the Netherlands

Floris van Schooten, Breakfast, Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, the Netherlands

Butter is as old as Western civilization. In ancient Rome, it was medicinal--swallowed for coughs or spread on aching joints. In India, Hindus have been offering Lord Krishna tins full of ghee —luscious, clarified butter —for at least 3,000 years. And in the Bible, butter is a food for celebration, first mentioned when Abraham and Sarah offer three visiting angels a feast of meat, milk and the creamy yellow spread.

Butter’s origins are likely more humble, though. Rumor has it a nomad made the first batch by accident. He probably tied a sheepskin bag of milk to his horse and, after a day of jostling, discovered the handy transformation so many generations have noticed and learned to apply: Churned milk fat solidifies into something amazing. The oldest known butter-making technique still in use today is remarkably similar: Farmers in Syria skin a goat, tie the hide up tight, then fill it with milk and begin shaking.

            Although some of the earliest records of butter consumption come from Roman and Arabian sources, Mediterranean people have always favored oil in their cooking. Butter, it seems, was the fat of choice for the tribes of northern Europe — so much so that Anaxandrides, the Greek poet, derisively referred to barbarians from the north as “butter-eaters.” Climate likely played a key role in regional tastes, as the cool weather at northern latitudes allowed people to store butter longer than Mediterranean cultures could. By the 12th century, the butter business was booming across northern Europe. Records show that Scandinavian merchants exported tremendous amounts each year, making the spread a central part of their economy. Butter was so essential to life in Norway, for example, that the King demanded a full bucket every year as a tax.

By the Middle Ages, eaters across much of Europe were hooked. Butter was popular among peasants as a cheap source of nourishment and prized by nobility for the richness it added to cooked meats and vegetables. For one month out of each year, however, the mostly-Christian Europeans made due without their favorite fat. Until the 1600s, butter-eating was banned during Lent. For northern Europeans without access to cooking oils, meal-making could be a struggle during the weeks before Easter. Butter proved so necessary to cooking, in fact, that the wealthy often paid the Church a hefty tithe for permission to eat the fat during the month of self-denial. Demand for this perk was so high that in Rouen, in northwestern France, the Cathedral’s Tour de Beurre — or Butter Tower — was financed and built with such tithes.

Across the English Channel in Ireland, butter was so critical to the Irish economy that merchants opened a Butter Exchange in Cork to help regulate the trade. Today, barrels of ancient Irish butter, which were traditionally buried in bogs for aging, are among the most common archeological finds in the Emerald Isle. In France, butter was in such high demand by the 19th century that Emperor Napoleon III offered a large prize for anyone who could manufacture a substitute. In 1869, a French chemist won the award for a new spread made of rendered beef fat and flavored with milk. He called it “oleomargarine,” later shortened to just margarine.  

Motte de Beurre, Antoine Vollon, c.1880, National Gallery of Art

Motte de Beurre, Antoine Vollon, c.1880, National Gallery of Art

Across the Atlantic, butter consumption started with the pilgrims, who packed several barrels for their journey on the Mayflower. During the next three centuries, butter became a staple of the American farm.  At the turn of the 20th century, Americans’ annual consumption was an astonishing 18 pounds of butter per capita—nearly a stick and a half per person per week!

The Great Depression and World War II challenged America’s love affair with butter. The turmoil brought shortages and rationing, and margarine — now made with vegetable oil and yellow food coloring — became a cheaper option for American families. Butter consumption took a nosedive. In addition, dieticians and the USDA began promoting a low-fat diet in the 1980s, and butter became déclassé. By 1997, consumption had fallen to 4.1 pounds per capita per year.

Since then, however, butter has staged a comeback. Researchers have discovered that the ingredients in old-style margarine are significantly worse for heart health than the saturated fats found in natural butter. The news has lured more and more Americans back to their buttery traditions. The passion for delectable cuisine is bolstering consumption once again as artisanal butters appear in chilled grocery cases across the country. And at top restaurants around the globe, chefs are doing extraordinary things with this millennia-old food, creating an exciting new page in the history of butter.

Types of Butter

Unsalted Butter (often called Sweet Butter) is butter made without salt. Many cooks like to use unsalted butter in baking or cooking to control the total amount of salt in the recipe. Sweet butter spoils faster than salted butter but many think it has a fresh flavor that enhances both cooking and baking.

Salted Butter is butter made with added saltSalt acts as a preserve and extends the butter’s shelf life. Salt also enhances flavor. It is a matter of preference whether you choose salted or unsalted butter. The salt content varies slightly from one manufacturer to the next, but they generally add about ¼ teaspoon of salt per 1 stick (¼ lb) of butter.

Sweet Cream Butter vs. Sweet Butter can be a confusing distinction. Most of the commercially produced butter in the US is sweet cream butter (produced from fresh sweet cream), as opposed to butter made from cultured or soured cream. Sweet cream butter comes in salted and unsalted varieties.  Cookbooks and food writers often use the term Sweet Butter to describe unsalted butter, even though most sticks of “Sweet Cream Butter” are salted butter!  It pays to read the label closely if you are trying to reduce or control salt in recipes since “sweet cream butter” could apply to any butter made from sweet cream.

European-Style Butter is butter with a higher butter fat content: 82 to 86 percent compared to the typical American or Canadian butter with its average of 81 percent butter fat. European-style butter has less moisture and therefore produces flakier pastries and fluffier cakes. European-style butter can be used for all cooking and baking tasks, although some bakers use less than the recipe requests due to the product’s high fat content. European-style butter also has a tangier flavor than lower-fat sweet cream butter.

Cultured Butter is traditionally made from fermented cream. Nowadays, dairies make much of the commercial cultured butter by incorporating live bacterial cultures and lactic acid. European–style butter is often made from cultured butter.

Ghee is a class of clarified butter that originated in South Asia. The cook heats the butter until all the water evaporates. The milk solids are left and allow to brown. This browning carmelizes the milk solids and creates a nutty flavor. This method creates a higher smoke point and a longer shelf life. Ghee is practical for sautéing and frying.

Clarified Butter is butter in which the cook boils off all of the water and spoons off the milk solids to create a clear amber-colored liquid.   Clarified butter has a higher smoking point than regular butter, making it useful for high-heat cooking such as sautéing and frying.

Drawn Butter, depending on whom you ask, could be the same as Clarified Butter. Those that consider them to be different define Drawn Butter as melted butter with the water evaporated but the milk solids remaining. Drawn butter is usually used as a rich sauce for dipping lobster chunks or artichoke leaves.

Whipped Butter is regular butter with nitrogen gas whipped into it. This process creates a higher-volume, lighter butter that is easier to spread at colder temperatures. Producers prefer nitrogen as the additive over air. Air can encourage oxidation and rancidity. Whipped butter is seldom recommended for cooking or baking because it has a lower density relative to regular butter, not enough fat solid.

Spreadable Butter is a blend of regular butter and vegetable oil (often canola). This combination is easy to spread when cold and has a buttery flavor. Like whipped butter, spreadable butter is not recommended for cooking and baking.

Light Butter is traditional butter with added water, air and sometimes other fillers. As it’s name suggests, light butter is lower in calories because it contains about 25 percent less butterfat. Once again, light butter is not recommended for cooking or baking.

Organic Butter comes from cows whose feed (and therefore milk) contains no antibiotics or growth hormones. To qualify for this USDA designation, the dairy cows also must eat 100 percent organic feed grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Whey Butter is made from the liquid whey drained from cheese curds. Whey butter has a stronger, cheesier flavor and often contains salt.

Raw Cream Butter is hard to find in the U.S. or Europe. Dairies use fresh or cultured unpasteurized cream to make this butter. You may never find this butter unless you own a cow or purchase raw whole cream and make the butter yourself.

Compound Butter (or flavored butter) is traditional butter mixed with ingredients. Cooks include almost any ingredient, but some of the more common selections are herbs, garlic, spices, and honey.

Types of Salt

Salt (sodium chloride) is a crystalline mineral that enhances the flavor and aroma of foods. Producers mine it from thick underground deposits or evaporate seawater and extract the crystals. Cooks most often use table salt, sea salt, and kosher salt. With a little research you’ll find many other interesting salt varieties to choose from, as well. Try some of the different types and experience the unique flavors and textures.

Table Salt
Table salt is the most common type of salt found in the average home kitchen and in restaurant salt shakers. The majority of today’s table salt comes from deep salt mines or from large dried-up salt lakes. Manufacturers add anticaking agents to their fine-grained refined table salt to create a free-flowing product. They offer both iodized and plain, non-iodized types. American health authorities introduced iodized salt in the 1920s to help prevent hypothyroidism. Many agree that table salt has a noticeably bitter taste compared to unprocessed salts. For this reason, chefs and cooks often prefer kosher or other salts.

Sea Salt
Sea salt comes from evaporated seawater. At 3 percent salt by weight, the oceans hold a limitless supply of NaCl. There are two varieties of sea salt: ground (fine or coarse) and flaked. Most artisanal salts are sea salt. More costly than mined salt, sea salt is typically more flavorful and less refined. Search for a brand that is additive free.

Kosher Salt
Many assume that Kosher salt is certified kosher, but that’s not the case for all brands. The name for these large irregularly shaped crystals derives from their utility: They are ideal for curing kosher meat.  Cleaner, less pungently flavored certified kosher salt lacks additives and is an excellent alternative to table salt.  Because of its larger grain size, a given volume of kosher salt can weigh less than table salt so you might need to add more while following a recipe.  Kosher salt is versatile and an all-purpose seasoning that many chefs find appropriate for all kinds of cooking.

Flake Salt
Flake salt comes in two varieties: paper-thin flakes or pyramid-shaped crystals. Both result from evaporating seawater and then bringing the brine to a slow boil until the snowflake-like crystals form. Being both fast dissolving and pleasantly crunchy, flake salt makes an excellent finish for vegetables, meats, or most any foods. Add flake salt to butter to turn ordinary butter into a special treat.

Fleur de Sel
Fleur de Sel, French for “flower of salt,” is often called the king of salts. Fleur de Sel requires labor-intensive hand harvesting. Workers gently rake the salt from the surface of the salt evaporation pans. They gather the delicate young crystals once per year in the summer. With its delicate earthy flavor and moist texture, Fleur de Sel is a chef staple. Though expensive, Fleur de Sel is the best all around finishing salt for salads, vegetables, and meats. If you can afford it, choose it for all types of cooking.

Sel Gris
Sel Gris, French for grey salt, is hand-harvested in the same salt pans as Fleur de Sel. As the salt crystals enlarge, they sink to the bottom of the separating pan and workers gently rake out and gather the largest ones. The salt gets its light grey color by absorbing tiny quantities of clay at the bottom of the pans. Sel Gris is coarser than Fleur de Sel but is similarly moist.  Denser than either table or kosher salt, Sel Gris is an ideal all around cooking and finishing salt.

Himalayan Salt
Himalayan salt is one of the purest salts available. Hand-mined in Pakistan, Himalayan rock salt ranges from white to light pink to red. Because the salt can hold heat for a specific time, cooks use blocks of it while preparing or serving food (hot or cold). Ground Himalayan salt is also a good seasoning for meats or for finishing salads, soups, or stews.

Hawaiian Salt
Hawaiian salt, sometime called Alaea salt, is unrefined sea salt mixed with red alaea volcanic clay.  Rich in trace minerals, Hawaiian salt is expensive and difficult to find. Many manufacturers sell Hawaiian salt under this name even though it’s manufactured in California.  Hawaiian salt adds unique flavor and a pop of ruddy color to food.

Black Salt
The two most common types of black salt are Kala Namak and Black Hawaiian.  Kala Namak is a pungent smelling rock salt commonly used in South Asian cooking. Black Hawaiian salt comes from black lava rock and activated charcoal infused with sea salt.

Smoked Sea Salt
Smoked sea salt and smoke-flavored salts differ. The latter contains liquid smoke or similar added smoke flavor. Smoked salt is made in a real wood smoker. Producers usually smoke the salt for five to 10 days to achieve the unique aromatic flavor so tasty on meats and vegetables.


Seasoned, Flavored or Infused Salts 
Seasoned, flavored, or infused salts are salts blended with herbs, spices, garlic, onion, celery, or other ingredients.