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Butter: The Good Fat With a Long Global Heritage

Butter’s history, its troubled path to the present – plus a recipe for buttery shortbread.

September 5, 2021

A stick of butter

What do asparagus, artichokes, new potatoes, peas and croissants have in common?

Butter. While it is perfectly possible to eat steamed vegetables by themselves, doesn’t a generous basting of melted butter elevate them to much greater heights?

At the first mouthful of a croissant, you can tell if it has been baked with a voluptuous quantity of good butter. And also if it hasn’t.

Fussing about fats

In today’s world, we make such a fuss about fats. Being visible and commonplace makes butter an easy target for fear.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I remember one year when the United States went to war with butter. Its fat content, we were warned, was menacing our hearts, stiffening our arteries, and threatening our cholesterol levels.

Eat margarine! came the Food & Drug Administration directive.

Shouldering responsibility for the health of the nation, Unilever sprang generously into the vanguard of “spreadables,” filling the airwaves with ads for “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” a cheap butter substitute invented by Filbert’s of Baltimore.

My family shortened that to “Snot.” (Try repeating the product’s name several times.)

Inventing something worse

Of course, scarcely had four seasons passed before we were instructed urgently to return to butter. Not only was margarine another repository of saturated fats, but worse!

In order to solidify the vegetable oils it contains into a block, by applying a process called hydrogenation, food scientists had altered their chemical structure.

They had managed to increase margarine’s saturated fat content while producing unhealthy trans fats on the side.

Back to butter and its vitamins

So back we obediently shuffled from laboratory spread to straight-from-the-cow butter and its delivery of unctuousness. And don’t forget side helpings of vitamins A and E, as well as of riboflavin, niacin, calcium and phosphorous.

Still, butter is a fat. So like everything else, don’t have too much of it, and aim for the best brand. Good butter is worth paying more money for.

Butter has an old heritage

After all, it is a heritage product, what with residues of milk fats discovered on pottery found in northwest Turkey dating back to around 6500 B.C.

It’s unlikely raw milk was drunk back then, because at this period adults were uniformly lactose intolerant. But it is believed they ate butter, cheese, and yogurt.

The people being nomadic, it is thought they attached animal hide sacks containing milk to their pack animals and their movement churned the cream to butter.

From the Sumerian temple of Ninhursag.

Milking in Mesopotamia in 2500 BC

The first confirmation of any kind of human dairy production dates back to a Sumerian tablet from ancient Mesopotamia of 2500 BC, showing people milking cows.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, the consumption of butter was considered by the upper classes a peasant activity. Eating it was prohibited during Lent.

Special dispensations to be able to eat butter

During the 15th century, when church officials decided while renovating Rouen Cathedral to add a new tower, it became known as the Butter Tower.

It was financed by donations from people seeking a dispensation allowing them to eat butter in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Until it was made industrially, butter came from cream from the milk of different milking’s collected over several days, with the result that when it was churned, it was slightly fermented by natural bacteria that convert milk sugars into lactic acid.

“European-style” butter

This is the classic unpasteurized cream butter so beloved of the French and sold in the United States as “European-style butter.”

While raw cream European butter has a shelf life of around 10 days, U.S. and U.K. factory-made butter can last weeks.

Big-brand U.S. and U.K. butter lacks the natural tang of French butter. In a process begun with the 19th century development of refrigeration and the mechanical cream separator, it’s made from cream that has been pasteurized to kill off pathogenic bacteria.

Fermentation is deliberately produced by the introduction of good bacterial cultures and lactic acid.

The cream is churned, then the buttermilk removed – with color often added – to create “cultured” butter. In the States, this is sold as “sweet cream butter.”

The amount of butterfat in butter has a considerable impact on flavor and on cooking performance. U.S. and U.K. butter contains around 80% butterfat, the legal minimum. European butters must contain at least 82-85%.

The distinction may seem slight, but it has a noticeable impact on taste and “in-the-mouth” feel.

Bake only with good butter

In baking, good butter makes all the difference. It’s what turns traditionally made croissants (fast becoming a rarity in France) flaky, and buttery in flavor.

Longer churned and higher fat butter also contains less water, if any. Melt a lump of regular U.S. or U.K. supermarket butter in a hot pan and see how long it takes to sizzle out the water. U.S. and U.K. butter contains at least 15% more than French.

In recent years, foodies have begun to recognize the impact of good butter. Restaurant chefs make their own small batches in house or source good butter from independent dairies which produce limited amounts to release to specialist stores.

Some butters of choice

See the difference for yourself with one of these not too hard to find butters:

Échiré is so beloved of the French they only export 15% of it. If you’re going to attempt your own croissants, use this brand. It’s been made since 1894 with the milk from 66 farms, within a 50km (31 mile) circumference, whose cows all eat the same grass in the same climate.

Le Beurre Bordier: It takes the farm three days to make. Over a year, both of these butters will taste different and be of a different color, depending on the grass of the season in which they are cultivated.

Beurre d’Isigny is a sweet, rich butter with real character, no padding with water and a fat content 2.5% higher than comparable big-brand U.S. or U.K. butters.

Président is a mass-made French dairy brand owned by the Lactalis company, created in 1933 by André Besnier.

Kerrygold is an Irish butter that is the second most sold butter in the United States after the Land O’Lakes brand.

Plugra is an American butter made in “European style” with 82% butterfat.

Danish Lurpak, popular in the U.K. and made in Denmark, contains 82% butterfat.

Other fats include US whipped butter – butter aerated by nitrogen gas.

Ghee is a clarified butter used across the Asia subcontinent. It’s created in the same way as clarified butter but cooked for longer so that the milk solids that sink to the bottom of the pan turn dark bronze, adding a nuttier flavor to the finished ghee, as well as darkening it before it’s sieved and stored.

The reason to clarify butter is to prevent its proteins and solids from burning into bits of blackened sand that stick to food.

Clarified butter, with the proteins, solids and water cooked out, has a higher smoking point than regular butter, so it will heat quickly. It’s good for sauteing food. If they haven’t burned, the protein solids are pretty tasty spread on toast.

Lastly, that curious lip on the end of a butter-knife handle? It’s to stop your greasy fingers sliding down into the butter.

A Recipe for Buttery Shortbread

To showcase good butter, make shortbread – to nibble with a glass of whisky. Try it. You’ll understand. (It also means you can drink whisky at tea time.)

250g/8oz good butter 250g/8oz plain flour 175g/4oz rice flour 175g/4oz caster (fine) sugar

Preheat oven 160C/320F.

Cream the sugar with the butter. (I have been know to add an unorthodox 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract at this point.) sieve of the rice flour and stir in, followed by the plain flour. On a cool surface, knead the paste with the palms of your hand very lightly until you have a smooth consistency.

Lightly spread the mixture with your hands across a 20cm/8ins x 30cm/12ins x 4cm/1 1/2 ins baking sheet. Smooth out wrinkles with a palette knife. Refrigerate at least 30 mins and up to 2 days.

Stab the shortbread all over with a fork to let the moisture escape and lightly score the paste lengthways in two then across into equal slices with the point of a knife to make shortbread fingers.

Bake till pale gold, 15 to 20-25 mins.

Cool on a rack then pour a wee dram of whisky.

More on this topic


Being visible and commonplace makes butter an easy target for fear of fats.

Butter’s global history: Residues of milk fats have been discovered on pottery found in northwest Turkey dating back to around 6500 BC.

The first confirmation of human dairy production dates to a Sumerian tablet from Mesopotamia of 2500 BC.

In the early days, it’s unlikely raw milk was drunk because adults were uniformly lactose intolerant back then. But it is believed they ate butter, cheese and yogurt.

Nomads are thought to have attached animal hide sacks containing milk to their pack animals. Their movement churned the cream to butter.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, the consumption of butter was considered a peasant activity. Eating it was prohibited during Lent.

That curious lip on the end of a butter-knife handle? It's to stop your greasy fingers sliding down into the butter.