17 May 2024

Review: Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova book cover

Elaine Khosrova had cooked and baked with butter for years yet she'd never given the dairy staple much thought until she was assigned an editorial project to "taste, describe, and rate about two dozen different brands from creameries around the world." It was then that she did a double take on butter and thank goodness she did.

Early on, she tells us:
"Even for me, a food professional with more than two decades of experience as a pastry chef, test kitchen editor, and food writer, butter had long lived in the culinary shadows." Page 4
That project kicked off the author's interest in butter which took her all over the world and culminated in this offering. Here are a few tasters of the interesting encounters she experienced on the fringes of dairydom:
"I met with a former Buddhist nun to learn about the intricacies of Tibetan butter carving, and with various scientists to understand udders, soil, and fat metabolism. I spent a week in a large fridge with the artist who sculpts the Iowa State Fair butter cow each year, and I met with a New Jersey man to see his vast personal collection of vintage butter making equipment and ephemera. I've toured the Butter Museum in Cork, Ireland, the Maison de Beurre in Brittany, and gazed up at the infamous Butter Tower in Rouen, France. And in bakeries, restaurants, and culinary schools, I've watched chefs work their magic with butter." Page 8
This micro history went on to deliver all of this thankfully devoid of personal tangents and material better contained in a memoir. Butter - A Rich History touches on a range of topics, including: history; sacred ceremonies and modern traditions; economics; manufacturing; politics; trade; nutrition and food preparation.

One of my favourite butter facts was that of bog butter. A naturally cool and airless bog was an ideal storing place to preserve butter in the warmer months and the perfect hiding place for the valuable produce.
"For thousands of years, Irish wetlands (and to a lesser degree, Scottish, Finnish, and Icelandic bogs as well) were used as butter mines, where covered wooden buckets, or firkins, packed with butter and wrapped in moss were sunk into the earth." Page 47
Accidentally discovered years later, scientists are able to analyse and study the contents but I wonder if they're ever tempted to have a taste.
"Because dairying was closely identified with female rites of fertility, birthing, and lactation, strong cultural taboos against men handling milk existed for centuries around the world, and so the business of butter making grew up squarely on the shoulders of hearty pastoral women." Page 66
I always wondered why cheese and milk were deemed women's work. The science of butter making is covered in great detail, sometimes more than I'd like and we're often reminded of the versatility of butter:
"Not just a delectable food on its own, butter could be used for cooking, as medicine, for lamp fuel, as a lubricant, to preserve meats, and even for waterproofing. No wonder that long-held customs exalting butter continue to endure." Page 58
Various methods of butter presentation were utilised, including embossing, wrapping in green leaves, cloth or parchment paper or presentation in a three foot long rod. In later years, you could even buy canned butter popularised by the Alaskan gold rush. Imagine that!

As you would expect, the industrial revolution changed the butter making industry and refrigeration was another change to the process. The design evolution of butter churns across history is covered in quite some detail, as is the difference between milks, creams and butters produced from a variety of animals, including: cows, sheep, goats, yak, buffalo and more.

The introduction of margarine was an eye opener, and it was useful to be reminded that margarine was originally made from beef caul fat and is naturally white. I didn't realise there was so much controversy surrounding the colour of the new product, when in fact thirty US states introduced legislation to prohibit the use of yellow food dye to fool customers into thinking they were buying butter.
"Some legislatures even demanded that margarine be dyed a different color altogether, such as red or black; five states passed laws requiring margarine be dyed pink!" Page 112
Manufacturers weren't deterred by the hefty restrictions, dodging later tax regulations by selling their margarine with little packets of food coloring for customers to mix at home. Can you imagine eating pink, red or black margarine or mixing yellow food colouring at home?

Those seeking a career change may do well to look into becoming a butter grader.
"Bradley is also a trained butter grader and technical judge. He has the where-withal to detect twenty different flavor defects in a sample of butter, as well as nine texture defects, three more for color and appearance, and two salt-related defects." Page 122
Impressive stuff and so much more interesting than wine tasting; I'd love to attend the types of butter tastings Khosrova writes about. The author does well to remind us about the health benefits of butter:
"In every pound of butter (especially organic and grass-fed brands) there's a payload of fat-soluble vitamins and other constituents that support good health. Vitamin A and its precursors, which are critical to many functions in the body (good vision, a defensive immune system, and skin health), are abundant in butter, but it's the concentration of Vitamin D, E, and K2 content that have been most recently lauded." Page 155
I certainly don't need any encouragement to add an extra dollop of butter to my potatoes but it was a good reminder - for me - to continue choosing butter over margarine. The health debate between fat and sugar was outlined but far less interesting.

In the latter part of the book, my stomach really began to grumble when the author included various cooking and food related information:
"In fact, it's hard to think of another ingredient that boasts as much versatility. As a flavor-lifting cooking medium, butter can be put to work in the saute pan and on the griddle as well as in the saucepan. It can be browned, whipped, smoked, clarified, salted, spiced, or herb-seasoned. And then there is butter's stupendous role in baking. Because it can be creamed, rubbed in, cut in, or layered with other ingredients, we get to choose from a vast range of sweets and desserts. Tender cakes, flaky delicate pastries, chewy bars, snappy and soft cookies as well as luxurious buttercreams all owe their invention to butter." Page 192
Doesn't that just make you want to jump up and make something buttery and delicious? The inclusion of iconic butter centric recipes at the end was an appetising treat.

Reading Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova has inspired me to look for artisanal butters at my local market and consider tasting other supermarket products. I'm a loyal consumer of Unsalted Western Star but hoping to expand my palate real soon.

If any of the above has whet your appetite for all things butter or whipped you into a frenzy, then enjoy this micro history because Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova is a tasty morsel. Bon Appétit!

My Rating:

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  1. Very interesting. I grew up with a mother who shopped based on price. We always had the cheapest margarine. We could not convince Mum that her shortbread would be better with butter. Mum was part of a church catering group and one woman, Helen made her own butter from her own farm cream. That is the best butter I have tasted. As an adult I always buy butter. From the supermarket I buy Lurpak but I have also tasted artisanal Pepe Saya butter and that was very nice. Life’s too short to eat margarine.

    1. Wow, how amazing you were able to taste hand churned butter as a kid! I haven't seen or tasted hand churned butter, but would love to have the opportunity. Just today I noted a new menu item (sourdough with cultured butter) that I would have overlooked before but now want to sample. I've tried the Pepe Saya smoked butter but it wasn't for me at all. I think I just don't like the smokey flavour. Haven't tried Lurpak, but if you love it I should try it! Thanks for sharing 🧈


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!