Ah butter, the most delicious of all fats. We eat a lot of butter; spread onto fresh crumpets and toast, worked into paper-thin layers for puff pastry or sautéed with garlic, butter finds it’s way into a huge amount of our meals. Very often when someone asks how we make a dish taste so good the answer is butter, and lots of it.
It is now pretty much unanimously agreed that saturated fat is not the devil it was made out to be and in fact butter replacements like margarine are potentially much worse for you than the real deal. So in this post we explore this controversial fat.
The earliest hard evidence of humans milking animals was found in Northern Europe around 5,000 BC. The discovery that humans could live from the milk of another animal was a major breakthrough for early civilisations. Dairying is the most efficient means of obtaining nourishment from uncultivated land. It can produce the equivalent to a slaughtered animal each year for several years and in manageable daily amounts. Hence dairying spread throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, using goats, sheep, cows, buffalo, yaks and camel milk. The one area of Asia that didn’t embrace dairy until around 1300AD was China. The Americas also had no history of dairying until Christopher Columbus introduced sheep, goats and the cattle that would spread throughout Mexico and Texas.
The development of butter is an easy step from milk, as it only takes leaving the milk to stand until the cream separates, then stirring the cream fats. Butter became immensely popular from Scandinavia to India, where 50% of all milk is turned to butter. For most of history, dairy was food for peasants who could not afford the luxury of meat and it was not until the 16th Century that it began to be introduced to cooking to create the rich dishes and pastries we enjoy today.
Traditional pre industrial butter was made from raw cream that had been left to sour slightly overnight. Raw butter is virtually impossible to find and has a very short shelf life of around 10 days. These days the vast majority of butter made in the UK and the US is called sweet cream butter and is made from pasteurised fresh cream with at least 80% fat. In Europe the standard butter is called cultured cream butter, it is still made from pasteurised cream but a lactic acid culture is added to the cream which gives the butter a richer flavour.
The consistency of butter is determined not only by the way the milk is handled but also by what the cows have eaten. Pasture fed cows produce a soft butter, that is good for spreading and sauces, while hay and grain fed cows produce a firm butter which is good for pastries. ‘Spreadable’ butter is made by whipping the butter while injecting it with nitrogen gas. The nitrogen breaks down the fat molecules making the butter softer.
Humans have been eating butter for around 6,000 years and then at the start of the 1980s the food industry and nutritionists decided that it was incredibly bad for you. For the last 30 years health authorities have continuously vilified butter as the cause of many health problems such as obesity and heart disease. The food industry has played a key role in supporting this stance, allowing them to sell their highly processed, low fat alternatives. However in recent years it has become clear that the entire campaign against saturated fats and butter was based on bad science.
We now know that saturated fats are not linked to heart related diseases and have actually many qualities that will improve overall health. The ‘bad’ fats are not saturated fats but highly processed trans-fats such as margarine and low fat dairy products, which will increase the risk of heart diseases. However after telling the public to avoid saturated fats for so long, it is proving very hard for health authorities to eat their own words and admit that butter is not the monster they made it out to be.
Butter contains various fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, E and K2. Vitamin K2 is one of the least known vitamins and is found only in animal products. It is essential for healthy skin, forming strong bones and a recent study by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) revealed that increased intake of vitamin K2 may reduce the risk of prostate cancer by as much as 35 percent. K2 also prevents calcium getting into the arteries and blocking them up. So not only is there no evidence that butter is bad for your heart but this evidence shows that butter is actually good for your heart and reduces the risk of heart related diseases.
Furthermore 3 to 4 % of butter consists of a short chain fatty acid called Butyric acid. This acid is used by the colon to prevent inflammation. It lines the wall of the colon and is a primary source of energy for the colonic cells. It also has a unique property where it has been shown to not only reduce cancer cells in the colon but also return cancerous cells to their normal state. It has also been shown in tests to actually reduce inflammation and obesity.
One of the downside of butter is that it burns at a relatively low temperature, so it’s not ideal for frying, unless you clarify it. Clarified butter (Ghee) is made by heating the butter up to 90ºC so that the water evaporates. It is then simmered so the milk solids separate, leaving pure butter fat. Clarified butter will lasts for up to 6 weeks before going rancid and has an incredibly high smoke point of 250ºC making it one of the best fats for frying. For traditional Indian ghee, the temperature is increased to 120ºC to brown the milk solids, which flavours the ghee and generates anti oxidant compounds. In India, ghee is the one of the most revered foods, not just for cooking but also as an emblem of purity and an essential part of the Ayurvedic diet.
When it comes to butter, what the cows eat determines the health properties of your butter. Green vegetables and grass are high in omega 3 fatty acids, which it is universally agreed we need more of in the western diet to balance the high quantities of omega 6 fatty acids. Animals fed on grass will have a higher proportion of omega 3s than animals fed on grains like corn and soya. However there is the problem of bioaccumulation. Basically all the horrible chemicals in the ground and on the grass that the cows eat are stored in the fat of the animal. Dairy items highest in fat, including cheese, ice cream, cream and butter are the most likely to contain concentrations of those chemical pollutants, and whenever we eat these, the toxins go right into us. So eating grass fed butter gives you extra omega 3s but also extra chemicals from pesticides. Furthermore, just because a butter is certified organic does not mean the cows are grass fed, it just means the feed has only been sprayed with organic certified pesticides. So it’s quite possible that the organic butter is coming from corn and soya fed cows, which will have very little or none of those all important macro nutrients like omega 3 and K2. So you must always look for dairy products that are both organic and grass fed.
There is a lot of controversy around dairy farming and without a doubt there are some serious ethical and environmental issues currently surrounding the industry. In our personal experience there are extremes of dairy farms from large scale to small scale. As a consumer it can be very difficult to distinguish where your butter is really coming from and what conditions the cows are living in. By buying organic you can be certain that the cows have access to a field, have plenty of space to move around, are fed on a diet as natural as possible, free from GMOs and are not given hormones or antibiotics. However some practices used in organic farms may resemble practices used in large-scale industrial farming. The only way you can be certain of the conditions of the animals and the quality of your butter is to go and visit the farm, talk to the farmer and really get to understand how the animals are cared for. It may cost you more, but by buying a high quality organic grass fed butter, you are supporting the welfare of the animals, the environment and your health.
Here is a short video of us making our own butter for the first time. It’s really so easy and is a great way to use up any cream that might be about to turn. You also get the added bonus of fresh buttermilk which is perfect for baking.