All kidding aside, butter truly is a world-wide staple with the exception of dairy-less cultures such as parts of Asia and Japan. But visit a land where domestic animals produce milk for human consumption—from cow to reindeer, yes, I said reindeer—and you'll find a kitchen with its own unique butter.
What is butter?
We all know what butter is, right? It's full-fat cream that has been agitated or churned until it thickens, the fat binding to the milk solids. Have you ever taken your whipped cream a little too far, only to watch it suddenly split, separating the solids from a thin liquid (that liquid is buttermilk), and become butter? Well, this is how it's always been done.
Four thousand years ago, cream was poured into an animal skin or bladder and rocked until it turned to butter. In those days, that cream would have been from goat, sheep, camel, or water buffalo - cows were domesticated much later. These days, we're seeing goat's milk butter again, which is great for folks who have trouble digesting cow's milk. Butter can be made from any high-fat mammal's milk. And long before some clever scientist invented margarine in a lab, butter was all we northern folk had.
Butters around the world
Of course in olive- and palm-growing countries, vegetable oils were always on the table—along with butter—but in much of Europe and North America, butter was the fat of choice for spreading, baking, frying, cooking, preserving, you name it. In warmer regions, it was almost always clarified (removing the milk solids) to delay spoiling, while in cooler climates it could be left whole.
Page 1 of 3 - Read page three to learn about butters of Ireland, India and Ethiopia!
Butter in Ireland
The Irish would pack small barrels, or firkins, with butter, then bury them in peat bogs and leave them there for several years to make an aged butter speciality. I can only imagine that it would have tasted very cheesy and rich. This practice ended in the 1800s, but perhaps the closest thing we have to it is cultured butter. This is butter made from either raw, fermented cream or pasteurised cream that has had an enzyme added to re-start the fermentation process. Cultured butter has a slightly cheesy flavour that is wonderful with savoury foods, but a bit of an acquired taste for the North American palate. Look in your favourite gourmet shop or online for butters from Normandy or Brittany if you want to give it a try.
Butter in India
India is a country of millions of vegetarians, so dairy figures prominently in their cuisine. Here, butter is clarified, meaning it is warmed and allowed to separate. Milk solids fall to the bottom and the pure fat rises to the top. It's the pure fat that is kept and cooled, called ghee. Ghee can be used for frying at higher temperatures because the milk solids are gone, so it doesn't burn as easily. Lactose intolerant eaters can still enjoy ghee or, as we call it in this country, drawn butter (or clarified butter). It's the same thing, different name. Canadians are most likely to encounter clarified butter in a ramekin hovering over a tea light when we dig in to a whole lobster or crab.
Butter in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, butter is warmed in a tall clay vessel. Spices and aromatics are added to the pot—onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, turmeric—and allowed to gently infuse for several hours. It's called niter kibbeh, and many households and restaurants keep this pot over a low flame or pilot light all the time, ready at a moment's notice to whip up something fantastically flavourful. I'm fortunate enough to live near an Ethiopian grocer who sells ready-made tubs of kibbeh. It keeps in the fridge forever. I use it to sauté kale or rapini, and it's fantastic!
Everything old is new again, isn't it? In many urban centres, the latest restaurant trend is house-churned butter. This might leave our great-grandmothers shaking their grey heads in disbelief—didn't they positively jump for joy when store-bought came about?—but it's all part of the local food movement taking place in the cities. And I have to say, homemade does taste better. At Cowbell Restaurant in Toronto, Chef Mark Cutrara churns his own, and I encourage everyone to taste the difference. It's creamy, fresh, sweet and outrageously good, melting over one of Mark's well-aged steaks or smeared thickly over warm baguette.
Page 2 of 3 - Read page three to find out why movie theatre butter is so bad.
Best restaurant butters
Whipped butter: Restaurant kitchens have a history of playing with butter, and I think it's a bit of a love-hate relationship. Chefs love butter for the flavour and the way it adds gloss and silkiness to a sauce; restaurant owners hate that butter weighs heavy on the bottom line. It must have been an owner who came up with the idea of serving whipped butter with pancakes—less butter, more air—good for the bank account, bad for the pancakes!
Compound butter: But it's in restaurants where you are most likely to encounter one of the loveliest butters around; compound butter. Simply, it's butter, sweet or salted, mixed with whatever you're heart desires. Perhaps a simple butter of lemon zest and pepper to top a piece of fish, or butter blended with berries and honey, dressing up plain waffles. It's easy to make and a terrific way to elevate any meal. In fact, Chicken Kiev is just a breast of chicken wrapped around a large chunk of chilled herb compound butter, sometimes up to a 1/4-cup of butter per breast!
Buerre noisette: And it was the French kitchen that gave us beurre noisette or brown butter. Butter is slowly heated over low heat, until it develops a nut-brown colour and nutty flavour, perfect with eggs, vegetables, or fish.
Not quite butter
Now I don't mean to be alarmist, but I must tell you about movie theatre "butter". Unless there are big signs shouting proudly "We use real butter!", it isn't butter. It isn't anything near to being butter. Mostly it's a not so healthy concoction of soy bean or coconut oils, chemical flavourings, artificial colourings, and sodium—copious amounts of sodium—saturated and trans-fats. It's a real shame that it's almost impossible to find a cinema that offers the real thing on their popcorn. And if you haven't tasted the difference in a long time, try it again, and then look for a small, independent movie house that melts true butter.
You're talking butter!
I'd like to leave you with a few expressions that remind us just how important butter is to our culture:
• "She's a real butterfingers!"
• "That girl sure landed with her bum in the butter."
• "He knows what side his bread is buttered on."
• "I'll have to butter him up if I want that necklace."
• and from Canadian comic, Mike Myers, "It's like buttah, a Land o' Lakes moment."
Can you think of any I've missed? Make a comment and let us know!
Some fun butter videos on YouTube:
• Lehman's Butter Churn Demo: Lehman's Butter Churn is demonstrated in Lehman's Buggy Barn at the store in Kidron Ohio
• Churning Milk in Fayoum: A woman in Fayoum churning gamoosa milk in a goat skin
• How It's Made - Butter: How butter is made in a factory
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