For a single-ingredient foodstuff, butter is a surprisingly nuanced subject, says Elaine Khosrova, the former editor-in-chief of the magazine, Culture: The Word on Cheese, and the author of the brand-new book, Butter: A Rich History. She laid out a few basics for us.
There’s no one “butter.”
“For most of my life and food-writing career, I took butter for granted. It was always in my fridge. I relied on it, enjoyed it, but I didn’t give it too much regard. Then, I had to taste twelve different butters for a story. I thought, ‘How different could they be?’ I was astonished. They had different textures, colors, and aromas. The flavors went from sweet and milky to a little nutty to tangy. I had no way to account for all these differences, given that butter is made from one ingredient: cream. As I did more research, I began to understand that butter is essentially three things coming together: man, land, and beast. Each affects the final product.
Truly traditional butter—and its byproduct, buttermilk—should taste a little funky.
“Real buttermilk comes from cultured cream. Back in the day, they’d put milk out in the springhouse to let the cream rise to the top. Then they’d skim that off and make the butter. In the process of sitting there for twelve or eighteen hours, the milk and the cream would naturally culture and get some acidity. When they’d churn the cream, the sour liquid that came off was the buttermilk. When butter left the farm and went to the factory, we really lost natural, traditional buttermilk except in places where people still make their own cultured butter. Americans generally like sweet, or unfermented, butter. So what’s left over from that process is just this milky liquid that isn’t useful for baking. What’s at the supermarket isn’t highly processed or fake, but it’s usually skim milk that’s been cultured. It’s not the same thing. I make cultured butter at home, and I’ve found that my buttermilk is thinner and more acidic. It can change your recipes quite a bit. Maybe your grandparents’ buttermilk biscuits tasted different.”
Butter isn’t as unhealthy as previously thought.
“If you step back and look at the big picture, Americans in the early 1900s were eating around eighteen pounds of butter per year per person. That continually dropped through the twentieth century to around five pounds. Meanwhile, rates of heart disease flew upward. I think that’s really compelling from a common-sense point of view. In the twentieth century, we had more processed foods, more trans fats, more smoking, more stress, lots more sugar… We were doing all these things that were bad for us and then we went and blamed butter, which we had practically sidelined. Moderation is important, but I don’t think there’s any reason for a butter prohibition.”
And in the South, lard may soon take back some of butter’s market share.
“When you look at older Southern cookbooks, you don’t see tons of butter. You see a lot more lard. I think lard’s going to have its comeback.”