A Short History of Making Butter

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Butter churns boosted bottom line on the farm.

| June 2008

Today I was making a sandwich for lunch. Upon opening the butter dish I found a neat, quarter-pound stick of store-bought butter, pure and good-tasting. It wasn't always that easy.

The milk of most mammals contains a mixture of fats, proteins, sugars, vitamins and minerals suspended in water. The water is denser than the fats. If whole milk is allowed to sit for a time, the fat globules, in the form of cream, will rise to the surface where they can be skimmed off. The thin fluid that remains after the cream is removed is called skim milk, and it was once fed to calves and pigs. Today it's fed to diet-conscious humans.

When a quantity of cream or whole milk is agitated, the yellowish fat globules join to form a solid mass of butter. Historians speculate that butter was discovered when some desert nomad threw a goatskin full of camel milk on the back of that same camel and lurched off across the desert. When he arrived at his destination, he was astonished to find a congealed mass of what we now call butter in the skin. Evidence of butter was found in King Tut's tomb and it is mentioned several times in the Old Testament.

Probably from the beginning of dairy husbandry, people who milked cows set aside part of the milk in containers while they waited for the cream to rise to the surface. The process could take 12 to 36 hours and, with no refrigeration, the cream and milk frequently soured by the time it was finished. The resulting cream was not only thin and often sour, but also could pick up objectionable tastes and odors. Meanwhile, the soured skim milk wasn't much good as feed for young stock. Although cream needs to be "ripened," or slightly sour, in order to make good butter, that made from tainted or overly sour cream was inferior in taste and often smelled bad, bringing much lower market prices.

Dairy work consisted of milking, and making cream, butter and cheese. Women traditionally did that work in Europe, and the practice was often followed in the New World as well. Even if women didn't always do the milking on U.S. farms, they were usually responsible for separating cream and churning butter.

Of course, there was more to making butter than churning. It had to be rinsed several times to remove all the buttermilk. Then it was lightly salted and worked (or kneaded) to evenly distribute the salt, remove excess water and make the texture smooth. The butter was then ready to pack into a container.