The very short version of butter's origins is that it was first discovered in Africa at around 8,000 BC. Herders would store sheep's milk in sheepskin containers, and at the end of the journey back to the village, discovered that all that bouncing around left some tasty bits at the bottom of the container.
In early days, butter was not made from cow's milk, but from other domesticated animals, such as goats, sheep, and yak. It was also used in different places for different purposes. In some areas, it was a food item; in other areas, it was an offering to the gods, a healing ointment, or used in other, non-food products.
Skip ahead several centuries and butter became more widely used for consumption and the variety of milk-producing animals used to make butter welcomed the dairy cow.
What Exactly is Butter?
In simplest terms, butter is animal fat. More specifically, when cream is agitated sufficiently, the fat globules stick together. The combination of emulsified fat globules, water, and salts congeal into a creamy, spreadable solid butter. Five gallons of liquid milk will produce approximately two pounds of butter.
Considered a high-energy food, butter contains a substantial amount of vitamin A. It's also a source for smaller amounts of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D.
As with so many things in life, what you put into something directly affects what comes out. Whatever the cows are eating is what you eventually be eating. If the cows are eating genetically-modified grain, then the butter will contain trace amounts of that same genetically-modified material. If the cows are grass-fed, then the butter will have higher levels of beta-carotene, which means more vitamin A—an important agent in protecting yourself against certain types of cancer.
Another consideration is the percentages of butterfat and water and salt. Most store brands of American butter contain 80% butterfat and about 16% water. European butters typically contain anywhere from 82%-85% butterfat and less water. Which butter is best to use for baking depends on what you're making.
For cakes, cupcakes, quickbreads, and especially croissants, the higher the butterfat, the better the end result. Too much moisture in the butter can weigh down the batter or dough and produce a denser, heavier crumb.
On the other hand, cookies, and particularly pâte à choux, which is the dough used to make eclairs and profiteroles, benefits from the higher moisture content. The water in the butter converts to steam and provides the lift and crisp exterior that is the hallmark of a well-made eclair.
When it comes to salt content—unsalted versus salted butters, it's a matter of personal preference. Many bakers prefer using unsalted butter because it allows for more control over how much salt to add. For myself, I use a mix of both depending on what product I'm making and depending on what I can get from suppliers. I prefer using salted butter because I've found that adding salt after the fact can be a tricky business. Just a pinch too much can completely ruin a product. Too little, especially in breads, and the flavor can become bland and tasteless.
That said, the majority of the butter used in Mama Donna's products is European Unsalted. European because of the higher butterfat; unsalted because that's all that most suppliers will carry in bulk. The one exception—European Salted for buttercream frostings. The higher butterfat provides a smoother, creamier finish; the salt in the butter is typically just enough to cut the sweetness. It takes a little more effort to obtain it, but it's well worth it to me to get the best result.
A Few Words About Pie Crust
Pie crust tends to generate some very strong opinions, and there will likely be a future post with more details on the finer points of making a light, flaky pie crust. For now, whether you prefer an all butter crust or a butter-shortening combination crust, the truth is that getting the best results relies more heavily on technique than on the type of butter.
A European butter with its higher fat content and lower moisture will give you a more buttery flavor and drier, melt-in-your-mouth texture. An American butter with its higher moisture content can help with ensuring the crust has a flaky crispness. In either case, you can still get tough, dense crusts, but it's not the butter that's the problem, it's the technique.
In terms of nutritional health, butter is not the worst thing you could be eating. Yes, it is a saturated fat; however, recent research shows that the saturated fat in butter can raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. In many cases, products marketed as low-fat replace the fat with other, less desirable components, such as sugar, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and typically have a higher carb ratio as well.
Consumed in moderation and in combination with other heart-healthy fats, butter is a delightfully delicious and versatile product.