#45 | Butter
A Rich History
By Elaine Khosrova
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Elaine Khosrova: My name is Elaine Khosrova and my book is called, Butter: A Rich History.
Suzy Chase: Butter is mankind's invention. It wouldn't exist without our desire for it. I love when authors take deep dives into a single subject. How did the book Butter come about?
Elaine Khosrova: Well it was really the science of butter that intrigued me before the history. I started to see on the market a lot more selections certainly than when I grew up. There's cultured butters and whey butters and goat butters and sheep butters and high fat butter. There's really quite a selection out there. I was intrigued knowing that butter is essentially one ingredient, right. It's cream, sometimes people use whole milk but generally it's cream. Yet there were all these nuances and not just a type but the colors of butters change, the texture changes. That was really what started me on this butter journey. Almost naturally the science just led to the history. It was at that point that I realized there really is a book here. This is worthy of a book. I was honestly very surprised there wasn't one out there already.
Suzy Chase: I know, I kind of was too. Speaking of colors, what kinds of colors have you seen in butter? I just think of butter as that pretty light yellow.
Elaine Khosrova: Yeah, I think that's pretty standard and that's certainly the color of most supermarket butters. I think with the artisanal movement we're seeing, and the return to more grass fed dairy we're seeing butters that can be a deep golden yellow, I mean almost as rich as a daffodil color. Also, there are butters from other animals that are naturally white like a goat butter and sheep butter, water buffalo butter. I've had all these different kinds. They're naturally white. It's not a reflection of the fact of what the cows are eating because if they're eating grass, these three kinds of animals, if they're eating grass they still will not make a bright yellow butter because their body chemistry turns the beta carotene to vitamin a which is colorless. A lot of people might look at a white butter and think it's not from grass fed animals, which is only true if it's a cow butter or yak butter.
Suzy Chase: That's so interesting. Historically, how far back does butter go?
Elaine Khosrova: Well we're never know precisely because it was well before recorded history, at least 9,000 years ago when people were domesticating animals. If you look at the Tibetan plateau area, they were domesticating yaks probably 15,000 years ago. It could easily be that old we just don't know precisely when they started processing the milk. Certainly they were milking the animals but at what point were they processing it and making butter and cheese. Still, it's a very ancient product. We know that for sure.
Suzy Chase: Just last summer a man in Ireland was chopping peat and he came across a 22 pound chunk of buried butter. Describe bog butter.
Elaine Khosrova: The practice of burying butter in the bog is a very ancient practice, more than a thousand years ago that people that lived in Ireland were doing this. Partly, we can assume it was to preserve the butter. Peat is very acidic and it's anaerobic. It's a really good medium for preserving things. What's interesting now, they found at least 400 of these bog butters buried in the peat. Archeologists have mapped out where they're found. They see a pattern that leads them to believe that these bog butters were actually a pagan offering to the elementals, to the fairies. The ancient Irish were very superstitious about many things including their butter luck and their luck in general. To offer a gift to the elementals was definitely part of their practice. Finding these bog butters doesn't mean that they were necessarily forgotten, left behind. That might have happened if there was some kind of battle and people died. In general, we think now that they were pagan offerings.
Suzy Chase: Have you ever tasted bog butter?
Elaine Khosrova: No but I do have a butter maker friend who's in England, he's actually a Swedish guy, one of the most interesting butter makers I met in all of my research. He's a Swedish guy who's moved to England and he loved experimenting with the whole dairy realm, particularly butter and butter fat. He made a butter and has it buried in the bog now. I think it's probably been there about four years. He's going to take it out after seven years. He promised to let me know when so maybe I can be there.
Suzy Chase: Can you talk a little bit about the range of flavors of butter?
Elaine Khosrova: They can range honestly from a mild, almost bland butter and it has that fatty texture but not a lot of flavor to ones that are deeply buttery, ones that have a little bit more herbal notes going on and other cultured butters that range from mildly acidic to ones that are almost cheesy tasting if you've got a good palette, you certainly would see that range. It's not much different than comparing a bunch of Pinot Noirs. There can be quite a lot of variety. If you had a flight of butters, as they say a flight of wine, a flight of butters you'd taste quite a lot of variation these days in particular. Again a generation ago it wasn't true. We just didn't have access to different kinds. That's why this topic intrigued me so much because the butter market is so much more interesting now.
Suzy Chase: Now with the different range of flavors, is there different consistency with the flavor?
Elaine Khosrova: Well texture is kind of a whole other realm. It's a whole other thing in butter making. With the industrial butters that we get, the supermarket butters I should say it sounds better, they're made on a massive scale. In their production they take the cream and they put it through this fine calibration of temperature adjustment just like warm, cold, warm or cold, warm, cold. It depends on the season. The goal of that is to get the perfect ratio of solid and liquid fat in the cream, which translates to a super smooth butter when you churn it. That's something the commercial guys have really perfected. It's hard to do at home. I'd say it's impossible to do at home.
You just have to trust to luck that maybe you have a good ratio of liquid and solid fats. That ratio changes throughout the season. In the summer you have more liquid fats in your cream, in winter you have harder fats in the cream. More liquid fats means a slightly greasier butter whereas harder fats can make your butter a little more brittle. This is why the commercial guys have perfected this, what they call physical ripening of the cream. I was fascinated to learn about that. I wasn't aware of it until I really started to dig into the research. Now that we have higher fat butters, ones that have not just the standard 80% fat, they have 82, 84 even 86%, you get a much different texture because you have that much less water in the butter and more fat, which is also why those can be more expensive, those butters. It stands to reason that if you're not paying for water, you're paying for more good butter fat. They're going to be a bit more expensive.
Suzy Chase: For the last 400 years Tibetan monks have created large, intricate butter sculptures. Tell us about the fascinating art of butter sculpting.
Elaine Khosrova: This goes back to at least 600 CE, common era. I was amazed first of all to discover that many ancient cultures, the Sumerians, the Druids, others, many others had these sacred rituals that involved using butter. Butter was this medium for a lot of their worship, one of the tools they used. Tibetan butter sculpting is the one that really remains. It has continued. It's even become even more intricate and beautiful. Essentially what happens is before any prayer festival, Tibetan monks, those who are called to do this kind of work, the artistic ones and the ones who want to do it, monks before the prayer festival they will design these elaborate sculptures. They're colored with pigmented paint. They used to be colored naturally but usually now they use paint. They are, they vary depending on the deity who will be honored or the intention of the prayer festival. There's just hundreds of possibilities as far as design, it's not just one particular thing. Year to year the sculptures become more elaborate, more intricate, more colorful. There's a film called Torma, which is the name of these sculptures. They're called tormas. You can see it online, the work that they do and how painstaking it is and how beautiful it is.
Suzy Chase: I noticed that they have to keep butter at a certain temperature. Lots of times their fingers freeze.
Elaine Khosrova: Yes, that was particularly true and I believe it is still true in Tibet where they have to work in very cold rooms and dip their hands in cold water to keep the butter from melting and to be able to craft this elaborate detailed sculpture. What's happened as many of the Tibetan monks are in exile in India that they have had to replace a lot of the butter with gradually with margarine and sometimes some wax because the heat in India is so extreme. Many of them are in southern India so they just can't work with butter the same way they did in Tibet where they could maintain these cool temperatures. It's not a question of these things lasting for eternity or even a year because the Buddhists actually want them to melt away. It's part of their philosophy that life is transient and we don't create these to last. They're meant to disappear eventually.
Suzy Chase: There's something romantic and uber feminine about the idea of a dairy maid but their job was so tough and labor intensive. How did they get to be so romanticized?
Elaine Khosrova: Good question because really they were such laborers between milking in the fields and carrying the milk from the fields to the dairy. They had to process this milk every day because of course there was no refrigeration. I think it's partly because the dairy itself represented a very feminine domain. Essentially it was taboo for men to have anything to do with milking, butter making, cheese making up until the 1800s. For a thousand years or more, definitely more, we've been making butter longer than that but women were in charge of all of that. They had a monopoly on it. The dairy itself was this very feminine domain. It also was so closely connected to fertility and lactation and birthing. There's something very somewhat erotic about that and this combination, the dairy had to be this pure, clean place and yet it was so much about birth and fertility. The innuendo there is kind of sensual.
Suzy Chase: Just yesterday I saw a commercial for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. The tagline was I can't believe it's made with real simple ingredients. What are the ingredients in margarine and when was it's heyday, the 70s?
Elaine Khosrova: It's interesting to note the very first margarine that was invented in the 1880s was created by a French chemist. It was made with beef fat and milk and a little food coloring and salt. It was actually quite a hit back then because there was in fact a lot of bad butter on the market, a lot of rancid butter, dirty butter, poorly made butter. That was essentially what the poor were given. If you lived in an urban center and you were poor, you certainly didn't have great butter. If you were poor and lived on a farm you had great butter because you made it yourself. Margarine represented a much better product for people with very little income.
They could afford it more and it kept longer. It was a big hit. It was certainly, that's kind of when it's heyday started and into the 1900s you see butter consumption dropping throughout the century. In the beginning of the 1900s we ate about 17 pounds of butter per person per year. By the end of the 1900s it was down to about four and half pounds of butter per person per year. Part of that was the whole anti fat campaign that happened in the late 70s through the 80s, even the 60s to some degree. Part of it was that butter had gained a lot of popularity. It was less expensive again. You'd keep it out, it didn't spoil. It was a real challenge for butter makers as my book documents this long legal battle, that 90 year long battle that was created around the margarine butter wars.
To answer your question about what it's made of, these days it's made of different vegetable oils and it depends on the consistency of the margarine. If they want it to be tub style, which is softer versus stick margarine they'll use different kinds of vegetable oils. There is a process of hydrogenating the oils, which is what turns the oil from a liquid into a solid. Of course, we know that that causes the formation of trans fats, which now have apparently been eliminated from that process. They still hydrogenate the oil to make it firm but what they say now, I mean I have to believe that there's no trans fats in them because that was required by the government essentially to get rid of the trans fats in margarine. Certainly for more than 50 years we were eating margarine, if you were eating margarine, I wasn't but if you were eating margarine you had plenty of trans fats in your diet.
Suzy Chase: You quote Anthony Bourdain from Kitchen Confidential. He wrote, "believe me, there's a big crock of softened butter on almost every cook's station, in a professional kitchen it's almost always the first and last thing in the pan." My mom used to always leave the butter out on the counter. Should we refrigerate our butter or leave it out?
Elaine Khosrova: It depends on how quickly you go through it. I have a butter keeper, if anybody doesn't know what that is, it's a little ceramic holder. It's designed to keep your butter at room temperature. You put your butter into the butter keeper cup, ceramic cup and then you turn it upside down into another ceramic cup that has a little bit of water on the bottom. That water creates a seal so the butter doesn't ferment so quickly. It's fermentation and development of bacteria is what will cause the butter to become rancid eventually. It's not bad for you. There are people in the Himalayas that eat rancid butter all the time. They've acquired a taste for it. Our palettes don't like the sourness, that off taste of rancid butter. Again, there's no harm in keeping your butter out. If you go through a stick in a week then I would certainly keep it out. If you only use butter now and then, infrequently then yeah I would keep it in the refrigerator.
Suzy Chase: In the back of the book there's a collection of recipes or butter's greatest hits. I made my family your recipe for bechamel and drizzled it over asparagus last weekend. Is it me or are the French mother sauces typically bland?
Elaine Khosrova: They are the mother sauces definitely are, yeah they're more like a clean canvas in a way for a cook. You can do a lot with them and that's the whole point of the hundreds of derivations that come from those mother sauces. That was the idea to create this basic bechamel or beurre blanc or hollandaise. We can riff on that. That really is the whole of French cooking primarily, the best part of French cooking is these great sauce inventions.
Suzy Chase: For everyday use what's your favorite butter?
Elaine Khosrova: I personally buy grass fed whenever I can. It's better for the animals. It's more nutritious so that's typically my go to butter. There's a couple that I can get in my supermarket that are from grass fed milk.
Suzy Chase: This book is a terrific holiday present. Thank you for giving us the fascinating history of butter. Thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Elaine Khosrova: You're welcome.