Definition of Butter
Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk. It is used as a spread and a condiment, as well as in cooking applications such as baking, sauce making, and frying. Butter consists of butterfat, water and milk proteins.
Most usually made from cows' milk, butter can also be manufactured from that of other mammals, including sheep, goats, buffalo, and yaks. Salt, flavorings and preservatives are sometimes added to butter. Rendering butter produces clarified butter or ghee, which is almost entirely butterfat. Butter remains a solid when refrigerated, but softens to a spreadable consistency at room temperature, and melts to a thin liquid consistency at 32–35 °C (90–95 °F).
The density of butter is 911 kg/m3 (1535.5 lb/yd3). It generally has a pale yellow color, but varies from deep yellow to nearly white. Its color is dependent on the animal's feed and is commonly manipulated with food colorings in the commercial manufacturing process, most commonly annatto or carotene.
The Word Butter
The word butter derives (via Germanic languages) from the Latin butyrum, which is borrowed from the Greek boutyron. This may have been a construction meaning "cow-cheese" (bous "ox, cow" + tyros "cheese"), or the word may have been borrowed from another language, possibly Scythian. The root word persists in the name butyric acid, a compound found in rancid butter and dairy products such as Parmesan cheese.
The word is also commonly used to describe products made from puréed nuts or peanuts, such as peanut butter. It is often applied to fruit products such as apple butter. Other fats solid at room temperature are also known as "butters"; examples include cocoa butter and shea butter. In general use, the term "butter", when unqualified by other descriptors, almost always refers to the dairy product.
Butter in History
Since even accidental agitation can form butter from cream, it is likely that its invention dates from the earliest days of dairying, perhaps in the Mesopotamian area between 9000 and 8000 BCE. The earliest butter would have been from sheep or goat's milk; cattle are not thought to have been domesticated for another thousand years.
Butter was known in the classical Mediterranean civilizations, but it does not seem to have been a common food. In the Mediterranean climate, unclarified butter spoils quickly— unlike cheese it is not a practical method of preserving the nutrients of milk. The ancient Greeks and Romans seemed to have considered butter a food fit more for the northern barbarians.
Historian and linguist Andrew Dalby says that most references to butter in ancient Near Eastern texts should more correctly be translated as ghee. Ghee is mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as a typical trade article around the 1st century CE Arabian Sea, and Roman geographer Strabo describes it as a commodity of Arabia and Sudan. In India, ghee has been a symbol of purity and an offering to the gods—especially Agni, the Hindu god of fire—for more than 3000 years; references to ghee's sacred nature appear numerous times in the Rig Veda, circa 1500–1200 BCE. The tale of the child Krishna stealing butter remains a popular children's story in India today. Since India's prehistory, ghee has been both a staple food and used for ceremonial purposes such as fueling holy lamps and funeral pyres.
Butter in cooking
Butter is used for sautéing and frying, although its milk solids brown and burn above 150 °C (250 °F)—a rather low temperature for most applications. The smoke point of butterfat is around 200 °C (400 °F), so clarified butter or ghee is better suited to frying. Ghee has always been a common frying medium in India, where many avoid other animal fats for cultural or religious reasons.
Butter fills several roles in baking, where it is used in a similar manner as other solid fats like lard, suet, or shortening, but has a flavor that may better complement sweet baked goods. Many cookie doughs and some cake batters are leavened, at least in part, by creaming butter and sugar together, which introduces air bubbles into the butter. The tiny bubbles locked within the butter expand in the heat of baking and aerate the cookie or cake. Some cookies like shortbread may have no other source of moisture but the water in the butter. Pastries like pie dough incorporate pieces of solid fat into the dough, which become flat layers of fat when the dough is rolled out. During baking, the fat melts away, leaving a flaky texture. Butter, because of its flavor, is a common choice for the fat in such a dough, but it can be more difficult to work with than shortening because of its low melting point. Pastry makers often chill all their ingredients and utensils while working with a butter dough.
Butter also has many non-culinary, traditional uses which are specific to certain cultures. For instance, in North America, applying butter to the handle of a door is a common prank on April Fools' Day.
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