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Butter fabrication in Fügen, Austria
Butter fabrication in Fügen, Austria

Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh cream. It consists of an emulsion of water and milk proteins in a matrix of fat, with over 80% being fat. It can be used as a condiment as well as for cooking as an alternative to vegetable oils or lard.



At room temperature, butter is a solid, although when left out, the solid butter can easily melt. Its color is generally a pale yellow, but can vary from deep yellow to nearly white. The color of the butter depends on whether the dairy cattle are fed on stored hay rather than fresh grass in the winter. In countries where cows are fed on pasture year-round (grass fed beef) butter does not change color.

Butter that is sold in United States markets is typically salted. Flavorings, colorings, and preservatives may also be added. New Zealand produces a butter with cold-spreadability properties that make it suitable for a spread on soft foods such as bread.

Butter is sometimes rendered to produce clarified butter or ghee.

The term "butter" is used in the names of products made from pureed nuts or peanuts, such as peanut butter, or from fruits, such as apple butter. However, the term "butter" alone, without any additional qualifying word, always refers to the dairy product.

Fabrication process

For more detailed information on the fabrication process of butter see churning.


Ancient butter-making techniques were still practiced in the early 20th century.
Ancient butter-making techniques were still practiced in the early 20th century.

Butter has been used as a food, a cosmetic, and a medicine. In antiquity, the process was simply to let a pan of milk sit until the cream floated to the top; the cream could then be skimmed off. The cream was allowed to sour, meaning that the lactose was converted to lactic acid by means of natural bacteria and "set" (thicken) into a form called "clabber cream". Various techniques were then used to shake up this clabber cream in order to separate the cream from the emulsifier lecithin, ordinarily preventing it from solidifying. The liquid (buttermilk) and the solid unemulsified fat (butter) can then be separated. Butter made in this fashion is now sold as "cultured butter", as distinguished from the more common "sweet butter" or "sweet cream butter" which is made from unfermented milk.

An ancient traditional method of butter making is shown in the photo at right, taken in Palestine in the early 1910s. A goat skin is half filled with milk, then inflated with air and sealed. It is hung with ropes on a tripod of sticks and rocked to and fro until the butter is formed.

Little is known of the part which butter played as an article of commerce in ancient times. In the first centuries butter was shipped from India to ports of the Red Sea. In the 12th century, Scandinavian butter was an article of overseas commerce. The Germans sent ships to Bergen, in Norway, and exchanged their cargoes of wine for butter and dried fish. It is interesting to note that the Scandinavian king considered this practice injurious to his people, and in 1186 compelled the Germans to withdraw their trade. Toward the end of the 13th century, among the enumerated wares of commerce imported from thirty-four countries into Belgium, Norway was the only one which included butter. In the 14th century, butter formed an article of export from Sweden. It may be fairly inferred that butter making in north and middle Europe, if not indeed in all Europe, was introduced from Scandinavia.

In 1817 and later, butter was discovered buried, and packed in firkins (small, wooden vessel or cask) usually holding 112 pounds (50 kg).
In 1817 and later, butter was discovered buried, and packed in firkins (small, wooden vessel or cask) usually holding 112 pounds (50 kg).

Some of the commonest archaeological finds in Ireland are barrels of ancient butter, buried in the bogs. The Norsemen, the Finns, the Icelanders, and the Scots had done the same: they flavored butter heavily with garlic, knuckled it into a wooden firkin, and buried it for years in the bogs‑for so long that people were known to plant trees to mark the butter's burial site. The longer it was left, the more delicious it became. A further advantage was doubtless the safety of supplies from robbers, or enemies in wartime. Most of the Irish archaeological specimens date from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Although some of our sources imply that bog butter turned red, the firkins in the Irish National Museum contain "a grayish cheese‑like substance, partially hardened, not much like butter, and quite free from putrefaction" because of the cool, antiseptic, anaerobic, and acidic properties of peat bogs.

John Houghton, an Englishman, writing on dairying in 1695, speaks of the Irish as rotting their butter by burying it in bogs. This burying of butter in the peat bogs of Ireland may have been for the purpose of storing against a time of need, to hid it from invaders, or to ripen it for the purpose of developing flavor in a manner similar to cheese ripening.

Archeologists found a deposit of butter buried in peat bogs found wrapped in a skin in County Leitrim, and another packed in a tub with perforated wooden handles in County Tyrone, Ireland. It is believed possible that the practice of burying butter in Ireland ceased about the end of the 18th century and that many of the specimens which have been found are of far greater antiquity (11th to 14th century). The large number of specimens found, some of which weighed over 100 pounds (45 kg), suggests that the burying of butter must have been a widespread practice in Ireland. Similar deposits of buried butter were also discovered in Finland.

Various other methods of packaging butter have been found mentioned in a variety of sources. A news item in the December 4, 1907 issue of the New York Produce Review and American Creamery tells of a traveler in Central Africa in 1872 being offered butter wrapped in leaves and then covered with a layer of cow dung which upon drying kept air from the butter. Repeated references are found in the literature of instances where pats of butter are cited as being "wrapped in cool cabbage leaves or freshly cut grass" -- a practice, which appeared to be rather common in various parts of Europe. As a matter of fact, it was a common practice in the earlier days of the South Water Street market in Chicago, for farmers to refrigerate their shipments of butter transported in open wagons by covering the same with grass freshly cut while still wet with dew.


The German expression alles ist in Butter ("Everything is in butter") means everything is in order. In the Middle ages, fragile articles were transported using butter as we use styrofoam today. They were inserted into warm liquid butter which solidified as it cooled down and so protected the fragile goods. At the destination, the butter was again liquefied and poured off.

The English word "butterfly" has its origins in the medieval superstition that witches transform into butterflies in order to steal farmers' cream or butter.

See also

Wikibooks Cookbook has more about this subject:

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