The first evidence of the existence of butter dates back 4,500 years.
It was mainly produced in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages. It later spread to the rest of the continent. For a long time it was a rare and expensive product, reserved for noblest of tables.
Butter became part of French cuisine towards the end of the 15th century. It became associated with pasta in Italy during the 17th century. It became increasingly popular in the 18th century and Beurre d’Isigny became famous. With refrigeration and railways in the 19th century favoring its preservation and transport, butter gained a strong presence in cooking, particularly in sauces. In the 20th century, starting in the 1960s, butter production became increasingly industrialized.
The average consumption in France (leading European producer of butter) is approximately 8 kg per person/year, close to that of New Zealand. However, less than 1 kg per person/year is consumed in Brazil, Spain, and Japan.
The addition of salt was the best way of preserving butter when there was no refrigeration.
Fine and fresh smell, pleasant taste (hazelnut flavor), even color, firm texture, no water seepage or graininess when melting.
The commercial name of the butter product is also an indication of its quality.
Found in 125, 250, and 500-g packets, and individually wrapped 10–30 g servings, also in rolls and slabs.
Butter must be stored in cold conditions (4ºC), away from light and air, otherwise it will oxidize and quickly absorb the odors of surrounding products.
Best-before date is always given.
Of butter’s 82% fat content, 63% is saturated fatty acids (harmful to the arteries), 26% monounsaturated fat, and 3.7% polyunsaturated fat. It also contains 250 mg of cholesterol per 100 g.
This has led to the recommendation that it be eaten in moderation, or totally avoided, in cases of high blood cholesterol or heart disease.
Butter has high vitamin A and carotene content, but rates differ depending on the seasons and how the cows that produce the milk are fed. It also contains vitamin D.
Contrary to popular belief, cooked butter is not harmful to health. When it is overheated ("black butter") it forms acrolein, an acrid substance that irritates the stomach lining, which is unpleasant.
The word "butter" is legally protected in the European Union, as is its production process: it must contain 16% water and 82% fat.
Cream, pasteurized or raw, is left to sour with fermentation cultures (otherwise the butter will have no aroma) for a certain time.
Next, it is churned: the fat globules accumulate and form a mass, while the water (buttermilk) is drained off. Churning is done by machine, or more rarely in a traditional churn.
The obtained butter is then washed, blended, sometimes salted, shaped, and packed. It is quite often frozen at -14ºC. This measure, imposed by certain market laws, does not improve its quality.
Butter should not contain any additives or preservatives, except salt.
The different protected status labels given to butter depend on the way it is made – artisanal techniques or industrial production – and the quality of the cream, whether raw or pasteurized.
Raw butter or raw cream butter
Made using artisanal techniques from raw (non-pasteurized) cream, this is the most flavorsome butter, but also the most delicate. Raw dairy butter comes from a dairy (semi-industrial); raw farmhouse butter is made by a small-scale producer. It also bears the name of the region in which it was produced. It comes as a slab or in a 250-g pack.
Manufactured industrially with pasteurized cream, but without freezing, deep freezing, or deacidification.
Made from a combination of pasteurized cream and a maximum proportion of 30% frozen or deep frozen cream. This is the most common industrially produced butter on the market.
Isigny: made according to a traditional (and ancient) process with milk exclusively produced in the geographically delimited areas of Cotentin and Calvados.
Charentes-Poitou: applied to dairy production in the Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres, Vendée, and Vienne regions, the cream is pasteurized and organically fermented for at least 12 hours before churning.
Bresse: made from the milk of cows fed on grass and corn in the Ain, Saône-et-Loire, and Jura regions. The cream must have a long fermentation period.
These butters only represent one tenth of total French production.
Semi-salted and salted butters
Semi-salted butter contains between 0.5 and 3% added salt. Salted butter has a mandatory 3% salt content. Fine or crystal salt is added during blending.
These two types of butter can be raw butter, extra-fine butter or fine butter.
This sign of quality requires the butter to be produced in a traditional churn with an artisanal method.
This butter bears the AB mark and must be made from cows raised according to the rules of organic agriculture. It can be raw, extra-fine, fine, salted, or semi-salted.
Concentrated butter and cooking butter
These are pasteurized butters from which most of the water has been removed. Concentrated butter must have a minimum 99.8% fat content, and cooking butter must be 96% fat
Light and extra-light butters
Extra-light butter is only 41% fat, while light butter is 65% fat. Made from pasteurized cream, they have a high water content and are therefore not suitable for cooking.
These butters have fine herbs, garlic, seaweed, or spices added.
Mechanically treated so that it remains as soft as possible during storage in the refrigerator.
Butter heated until the butterfat separates from the other components (casein, whey), then filtered. It is used for cooking certain foods without burning because it withstands temperatures as high as 180ºC.
It keeps better, hence its frequent use in hot countries: known as ghee in India, manteiga de garrafa (“bottle butter”) in Brazil, “yellow oil” in Iran, and samnah in Arab countries.
Light or low fat dairy spreads
These products contain milkfats (less than 41% and over 20%) and other ingredients, additives, armoas, etc. They look similar to butter but they are not permitted to use the name butter.
Products sold as “butter”
Peanut butter: spreadable paste made from peanuts that is very popular in the United States, and is also used in African cuisine.
Cocoa butter: a fatty substance produced during the process of extracting cocoa powder from cocoa beans. Its color varies between ivory-yellow and brown, and it is used in the making of chocolate.
Shea butter: a substance extracted from the nut of the shea tree of West Africa. It is used in traditional African cuisine, and for making chocolate instead of cocoa butter. It is much used in the cosmetics industry.