2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Food and agriculture

Butter is commonly sold in sticks (pictured) or small blocks, and frequently served with the use of a butter knife.
Butter is commonly sold in sticks (pictured) or small blocks, and frequently served with the use of a butter knife.

Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk. Butter is used as a spread and a condiment, as well as in cooking applications such as baking, sauce making, and frying. As a result, butter is consumed daily in many parts of the world. Butter consists of butterfat surrounding minuscule droplets consisting mostly of water and milk proteins. The most common form of butter is made from cows' milk, but can also be made from the milk of other mammals, including sheep, goats, buffalo, and yaks. Salt, flavorings, or preservatives are sometimes added to butter. Rendering butter produces clarified butter or ghee, which is almost entirely butterfat.

When refrigerated, butter remains a solid, but softens to a spreadable consistency at room temperature, and melts to a thin liquid consistency at 32–35 °C (90–95 °F). Butter generally has a pale yellow color, but varies from deep yellow to nearly white. The colour of the butter depends on the animal's feed and is sometimes manipulated with food colorings, most commonly annatto or carotene.

The term "butter" is used in the names of products made from puréed nuts or peanuts, such as peanut butter. It is also used in the names of fruit products, such as apple butter. Other fats solid at room temperature are also known as "butters"; examples include cocoa butter and shea butter. In general use, the term "butter", unqualified, almost always refers to the dairy product. The word butter, in the English language, derives (via Germanic languages) from the Latin butyrum, borrowed from the Greek boutyron. This may have been a construction meaning "cow-cheese" (bous "ox, cow" + tyros "cheese"), or the word may have been borrowed from another language, possibly Scythian. The root word persists in the butyric acid found in rancid butter and other rancid dairy products.

Butter production

Today, commercial butter-making is a carefully-controlled operation.
Today, commercial butter-making is a carefully-controlled operation.

Unhomogenized milk and cream contain butterfat in the form of microscopic globules. These globules are surrounded by membranes made of phospholipids (fatty acid emulsifiers) and proteins, which prevent the fat in milk from pooling together into a single mass. Butter is produced by agitating cream, which damages these membranes and allows the milk fats to conjoin, separating from the other parts of the cream. Variations in the production method will create butters with different consistencies, mostly due to the butterfat composition in the finished product. Butter contains fat in three separate forms: free butterfat, butterfat crystals, and undamaged fat globules. In the finished product, different proportions of these forms result in different consistencies within the butter; butters with many crystals are harder than butters dominated by free fats.

Almost all commercially-made butter today begins with pasteurized cream, which is commonly heated to a relatively high temperature above 80 °C (180 °F). Before it is churned, the cream is cooled to about 5 °C (40 °F) and allowed to remain at that temperature for at least eight hours; under these conditions about half the butterfat in the cream crystallizes. The jagged crystals of fat inflict damage upon the fat globule membranes during churning, speeding the butter-making process.

Churning produces small butter grains floating in the water-based portion of the cream. This watery liquid is called buttermilk—although the buttermilk most common today is instead a directly fermented skimmed milk. The buttermilk is drained off; sometimes more buttermilk is removed by rinsing the grains with water. Then the grains are "worked": pressed and kneaded together. When prepared manually, this is done using wooden boards called scotch hands. This consolidates the butter into a solid mass and breaks up embedded pockets of buttermilk or water into tiny droplets.

Commercial butter is about 80% butterfat and 15% water; traditionally-made butter may have as little as 65% fat and 30% water. Butterfat consists of many moderate-sized, saturated hydrocarbon chain fatty acids. It is a triglyceride, an ester derived from glycerol and three fatty acid groups. Butter becomes rancid when these chains break down into smaller components, like butyric acid and diacetyl. The density of butter is 911 kg/cubic meter.

Types of butter

Before modern factory butter making, cream was usually collected from several milkings and was therefore several days old and somewhat fermented by the time it was made into butter. Butter made from a fermented cream is known as cultured butter. During fermentation, the cream naturally sours as bacteria convert milk sugars into lactic acid. The fermentation process produces additional aroma compounds, including diacetyl, which makes for a fuller-flavored and more "buttery" tasting product. Today, cultured butter is usually made from pasteurized cream whose fermentation is produced by the introduction of Lactococcus and Leuconostoc bacteria.

Another method for producing cultured butter, developed in the 1970s, is to produce butter from fresh cream and then incorporate bacterial cultures and lactic acid. Using this method, the cultured butter flavor grows as the butter is aged in cold storage. For manufacturers, this method is more efficient since aging the cream used to make butter takes significantly more space than simply storing the finished butter product. A similar and even more efficient method is to add lactic acid and flavor compounds directly to the fresh-cream butter; while this more efficient process simulates the taste of cultured butter, the product produced is not considered real cultured butter.

Today, dairy products are often pasteurized during production to kill pathogenic bacteria and other microbes. Butter made from pasteurized fresh cream is called sweet cream butter. Production of sweet cream butter first became common in the 19th century, with the development of refrigeration and the mechanical cream separator. Butter made from fresh or cultured unpasteurized cream is called raw cream butter. Raw cream butter has a "cleaner" cream flavor, without the cooked-milk notes that pasteurization introduces.

Throughout Continental Europe, cultured butter is preferred, while sweet cream butter dominates in the United States and the United Kingdom. Therefore, cultured butter is sometimes labeled European-style butter in the United States. Raw cream butter is virtually unheard-of in the United States, and is rare in Europe as well.

Several spreadable butters have been developed; these remain softer at colder temperatures and are therefore easier to use directly out of refrigeration. Some modify the makeup of the butter's fat through chemical manipulation of the finished product, some through manipulation of the cattle's feed, and some by incorporating vegetable oils into the butter. Whipped butter, another product designed to be more spreadable, is aerated via the incorporation of nitrogen gas— normal air is not used, because doing so would encourage oxidation and rancidity.

All categories of butter are sold in both salted and unsalted forms. Salted butters have either fine, granular salt or a strong brine added to them during the working. Nations that favor sweet cream butter tend to favour salted butter as well, possibly reflecting the blander taste of uncultured butter. In addition to flavoring the butter, the addition of salt also acts as a preservative.

Another important aspect of production is the amount of butterfat in the finished product. In the United States, all products sold as "butter" must contain a minimum of 80% butterfat by weight; most American butters contain only slightly more than that, averaging around 81%. European-style butters generally have a higher ratio of up to 85% butterfat. Clarified butter is butter with almost all of its water and milk solids removed, leaving almost-pure butterfat. Clarified butter is made by heating butter to its melting point and then allowing it to cool off; after settling, the remaining components separate by density. At the top, whey proteins form a skin which is removed, and the resulting butterfat is then poured off from the mixture of water and casein proteins that settle to the bottom. Ghee is clarified butter which is brought to higher temperatures (120 °C/250 °F) once the water has cooked off, allowing the milk solids to brown. This process flavours the ghee, and also produces antioxidants which help protect it longer from rancidity. Because of this, ghee can keep for six to eight months under normal conditions.


Ancient butter-making techniques were still practiced in the early 20th century. Picture taken from March 1914 National Geographic.
Ancient butter-making techniques were still practiced in the early 20th century. Picture taken from March 1914 National Geographic.

Since even accidental agitation can turn cream into butter, it is likely that the invention of butter goes back to the earliest days of dairying, perhaps in the Mesopotamian area between 9000 and 8000  BCE. The earliest butter would have been from sheep or goat's milk; cattle are not thought to have been domesticated for another thousand years or so. An ancient method of butter making, still used today in some parts of Africa and the Near East, is shown in the photo at right, taken in Palestine. A goat skin is half filled with milk, then inflated with air and sealed. It is then hung with ropes on a tripod of sticks and rocked to and fro until the butter is formed.

Butter was certainly known in the classical Mediterranean civilizations, but it does not seem to have been a common food, especially in Ancient Greece or Rome. In the warm Mediterranean climate, unclarified butter would spoil very quickly— unlike cheese, it was not a practical method of preserving the benefits of milk. The people of ancient Greece and Rome seemed to consider butter a food fit more for the northern barbarians. A play by the Greek comic poet Anaxandrides refers to Thracians as boutyrophagoi, "butter-eaters". Pliny's Natural History calls butter "the most delicate of food among barbarous nations", and goes on to describe its medicinal properties.

Historian and linguist Andrew Dalby says that most references to butter in ancient Near Eastern texts should actually be translated instead as ghee. Ghee is mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as a typical trade article around the 1st century CE Arabian Sea, and Roman geographer Strabo describes it as a commodity of Arabia and Sudan. In India, ghee has been a symbol of purity and an offering to the gods—especially Agni, the Hindu god of fire—for more than 3000 years; references to ghee's sacred nature appear numerous times in the Rig Veda, circa 1500–1200 BCE. The tale of the child Krishna stealing butter remains a popular children's story in India today. Since India's prehistory, ghee has been both a staple food and used for ceremonial purposes such as fueling holy lamps and funeral pyres.

Butter-making woman, Compost et Kalendrier des Bergères, Paris, 1499.
Butter-making woman, Compost et Kalendrier des Bergères, Paris, 1499.

Cooler climates in northern Europe allowed butter to be kept longer before spoiling. Scandinavia has the longest history in Europe of a butter export trade, dating at least to the 12th century. Across most of Europe after the fall of Rome and through much of the Middle Ages, butter was a common food, but one with a low reputation; it was consumed principally by peasants. It slowly became more accepted by the upper class, especially when, in the early 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church permitted its consumption during Lent. Bread and butter became common fare among the new middle class, and the English, in particular, gained a reputation for their liberal use of melted butter as a sauce for meats and vegetables.

Across far-northern Europe—Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Scandinavia—butter was sometimes treated in a manner unheard-of today: it was packed into barrels ( firkins) and buried in peat bogs, perhaps for years. Such "bog butter" would develop a strong flavor as it aged, but remain edible, in large part because of the unique cool, airless, antiseptic and acidic environment of a peat bog. Firkins of such buried butter are a common archaeological find in Ireland; the Irish National Museum has some containing "a grayish cheese-like substance, partially hardened, not much like butter, and quite free from putrefaction." The practice was most common in Ireland in the 11th–14th centuries; it ended entirely before the 19th century.

France, like Ireland, became well-known for its butter, particularly in the Normandy and Brittany regions. By the 1860s, butter had become so in demand in France that Emperor Napoleon III offered prize money for an inexpensive substitute to supplement France's inadequate butter supplies. In 1869, a French chemist claimed the prize with the invention of margarine. The first margarine was beef tallow flavored with milk and worked like butter; vegetable margarines followed after the development of hydrogenated oils around 1900.

Until the 19th century, the vast majority of butter was made by hand, on farms. The first butter factories appeared in the United States in the early 1860s, after the successful introduction of cheese factories a decade earlier. In the late 1870s, the centrifugal cream separator was introduced, marketed most successfully by Swedish engineer Carl Gustaf Patrik de Laval. This dramatically sped the butter-making process by eliminating the slow step of letting cream naturally rise to the top of milk. Initially, whole milk was shipped to the butter factories, and the cream separation took place there. Soon, though, cream-separation technology became small and inexpensive enough to introduce an additional efficiency: the separation was accomplished on the farm, and the cream alone shipped to the factory. By 1900, more than half the butter produced in the United States was factory made; Europe followed suit shortly after.

Per capita butter consumption declined in most western nations during the 20th century, in large part because of the rising popularity of margarine, which is less expensive and, until recent years, was perceived as being healthier. In the United States, margarine consumption overtook butter during the 1950s and it is still the case today that more margarine than butter is eaten in the U.S. and most other nations that track such data.

Shape of Butter Sticks

In the United States, butter sticks are usually produced and sold in eight-tablespoon (approximately 74 ml) sticks, wrapped in wax paper and sold four to a carton. This practice is believed to have originated in 1907 when Swift and Company began packaging butter in this manner for mass distribution. Due to historical variances in butter printers, these sticks are commonly produced in two differing shapes. The dominant shape east of the Rocky Mountains is the Elgin, or Eastern-pack shape. This shape was originally developed by the Elgin Butter Tub Company, founded in 1882 in Elgin, Illinois and Rock Falls, Illinois. The sticks are 4.75" long and 1.25" wide, and are usually sold in flat, rectangular boxes packed side-by-side. Among the early butter printers to use this shape was the Elgin Butter Cutter.

West of the Rocky Mountains, butter printers standardized on a different shape that is now referred to as the Western-Pack shape.. These butter sticks are 3.125" long and 1.5" wide and are typically sold stacked 2x2 in a taller, boxy container.

Both sticks contain the same amount of butter, although most butter dishes are designed for Elgin-style butter sticks.


A tub of butter
A tub of butter

India produces and consumes more butter than any other nation, dedicating almost half of its annual milk production to making butter or ghee. In 1997, India produced 1,470,000  metric tons of butter, consuming almost all of it. Second in production was the United States (522,000 tons), then France (466,000), Germany (442,000), and New Zealand (307,000). In terms of consumption, Germany was second after India, using 578,000 tons of butter in 1997, followed by France (528,000), Russia (514,000), and the United States (505,000). Most nations produce and consume the bulk of their butter domestically. New Zealand, Australia, and the Ukraine are among the few nations that export a significant percentage of the butter they produce.

Different varieties of butter are found around the world. Smen is a spiced Moroccan clarified butter, buried in the ground and aged for months or years. Yak butter is important in Tibet; tsampa, barley flour mixed with yak butter, is a staple food. Butter tea is consumed in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India. It consists of tea served with intensely flavored — or "rancid"—yak butter and salt. In African and Asian developing nations, butter is traditionally made from sour milk rather than cream. It can take several hours of churning to produce workable butter grains from fermented milk.

Storage and cooking

Normal butter softens to a spreadable consistency around 15 °C (60 °F), well above refrigerator temperatures. The "butter compartment" found in many refrigerators may be one of the warmer sections inside, but it still leaves butter quite hard. Until recently, many refrigerators sold in New Zealand featured a "butter conditioner", a compartment kept warmer than the rest of the refrigerator—but still cooler than room temperature—with a small heater. Keeping butter tightly wrapped delays rancidity, which is hastened by exposure to light or air, and also helps prevent it from picking up other odours. Wrapped butter has a shelf life of several months at refrigerator temperatures.

"French butter dishes" or " Acadian butter dishes" involve a lid with a long interior lip, which sits in a container holding a small amount of water. Usually the dish holds just enough water to submerge the interior lip when the dish is closed. Butter is packed into the lid. The water acts as a seal to keep the butter fresh, and also keeps the butter from overheating in hot temperatures. This allows butter to be safely stored on the countertop for several days without spoilage.

Once butter is softened, spices, herbs, or other flavoring agents can be mixed into it, producing what is called a composed butter or composite butter. Composed butters can be used as spreads, or cooled, sliced, and placed onto hot food to melt into a sauce. Sweetened composed butters can be served with desserts; such hard sauces are often flavored with spirits.

Hollandaise sauce served over white asparagus and potatoes.
Hollandaise sauce served over white asparagus and potatoes.

Melted butter plays an important role in the preparation of sauces, most obviously in French cuisine. Beurre noisette (hazel butter) and Beurre noir (black butter) are sauces of melted butter cooked until the milk solids and sugars have turned golden or dark brown; they are often finished with an addition of vinegar or lemon juice. Hollandaise and béarnaise sauces are emulsions of egg yolk and melted butter; they are in essence mayonnaises made with butter instead of oil. Hollandaise and béarnaise sauces are stabilized with the powerful emulsifiers in the egg yolks, but butter itself contains enough emulsifiers—mostly remnants of the fat globule membranes—to form a stable emulsion on its own. Beurre blanc (white butter) is made by whisking butter into reduced vinegar or wine, forming an emulsion with the texture of thick cream. Beurre monté (prepared butter) is an unflavored beurre blanc made from water instead of vinegar or wine; it lends its name to the practice of "mounting" a sauce with butter: whisking cold butter into any water-based sauce at the end of cooking, giving the sauce a thicker body and a glossy shine—as well as a buttery taste.

Butter is used for sautéing and frying, although its milk solids brown and burn above 150 °C (250 °F)—a rather low temperature for most applications. The actual smoke point of butterfat is around 200 °C (400 °F), so clarified butter or ghee is better suited to frying. Ghee has always been a common frying medium in India, where many avoid other animal fats for cultural or religious reasons.

Butter fills several roles in baking, where it is used in a similar manner as other solid fats like lard, suet, or shortening, but has a flavor that may better complement sweet baked goods. Many cookie doughs and some cake batters are leavened, at least in part, by creaming butter and sugar together, which introduces air bubbles into the butter. The tiny bubbles locked within the butter expand in the heat of baking and aerate the cookie or cake. Some cookies like shortbread may have no other source of moisture but the water in the butter. Pastries like pie dough incorporate pieces of solid fat into the dough, which become flat layers of fat when the dough is rolled out. During baking, the fat melts away, leaving a flaky texture. Butter, because of its flavor, is a common choice for the fat in such a dough, but it can be more difficult to work with than shortening because of its low melting point. Pastry makers often chill all their ingredients and utensils while working with a butter dough.

Health and nutrition

Butter, unsalted
Nutritional value per 100 g
Energy 720 kcal   3000 kJ
Carbohydrates     0 g
Fat 81 g
- saturated  51 g
- monounsaturated  21 g  
- polyunsaturated  3 g  
Protein 1 g
Vitamin A  684 μg 76%
Cholesterol 215 mg
Fat percentage can vary.
See also Types of butter.
Percentages are relative to US
recommendations for adults.
Source: USDA Nutrient database

According to USDA figures, one tablespoon of butter (14  grams) contains 100  calories, all from fat, 11 grams of fat, of which 7 grams are saturated fat, and 30  milligrams of cholesterol. In other words, butter consists mostly of saturated fat and is a significant source of dietary cholesterol. For these reasons, butter has been generally considered to be a contributor to health problems, especially heart disease. For many years, vegetable margarine was recommended as a substitute, since it is an unsaturated fat and contains little or no cholesterol. In recent decades, though, it has become accepted that the trans fats contained in partially hydrogenated oils used in typical margarines significantly raise "bad" LDL cholesterol levels as well. Trans-fat free margarines have since been developed.

Small amounts of butter contain only traces of lactose, so moderate consumption of butter is not generally a problem for those with lactose intolerance. People with milk allergies do need to avoid butter, which does contain enough of the allergy-causing proteins to cause reactions.

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