© 2013 Chris Terrell
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Now, I do keep butter's healthier cousin, olive oil, close by and handy, but I will not hesitate to turn around, walk across the kitchen, open the fridge, and grab some butter. It’s like having a miniature Paula Deen (can we still mention her?) and a miniature Dr. Oz whispering in my my respective ears: “yes;” “do it;” “no;” “evil!”
For me, it was with great pleasure a few years ago when margarine got the bad-boy label in the never-ending Health Food Inquisition. (America’s relationship with good food reminds me of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”) You see, margarine had this funky little ingredient called a “trans fat.” I’m not going to bore you with all the science, especially because I don't understand it anyway, but let’s put it this way: it ain’t natural. So butter has made something of a comeback.
Butter has been around since ancient times and is used in almost every culture on Earth. It is ubiquitous because of its simplicity. It is made from milk or cream in which most of the water and milk solids have been separated, leaving a golden treasure of 80% fat. While butter is mostly made from cow’s milk, in Africa and Asia, it can be made from the milk of the buffalo, camel, goat, ewe, mare, or even the donkey.
In the West, there are two competing schools of thought on butter—the sweet or cream butter of the English or Irish and the lactic butter of the French, particularly Normandy. (Apparently, the Vikings introduced butter making to the Normans, but if you mention this to a Frenchman, you are likely to cause an international incident!) French butter is saltier and tangier than English or Irish butter because the French add more salt and because cultures (i.e., bacteria) are added to the milk or cream to cause the build-up of lactic acid. One way to introduce such cultures—and I’m not kidding—is to stick one’s arm into the vat of milk or cream.
As I mentioned, butter is used around the world. One of the more interesting variations of butter is ghee from India. Ghee is clarified butter and, like many things in Indian culture, has a religious significance. (In fact, ghee is used in some religious ceremonies.) Ghee is mentioned in the Purāna, a collection of legends, religious precepts, and rules for practical living. (What’s more practical than butter?!) In the Purāna, the human body is represented by circles associated with primordial foods: palm sugar, wine, ghee, milk, yogurt, and water. Who can argue when a food product is considered an essential element of the human body?!
Butter is remarkably easy to make at home. Simply take some heavy cream or whipping cream and pour it into a bowl, vigorously apply a whisk or mixer, and proceed to beat the hell out of it. (If you want your butter to resemble Normandy butter, then leave the cream sitting out overnight at room temperature; this causes cultures to form.) Eventually the cream will become whipped cream in no time, which should convince any sane person not to buy another tub of Cool Whip. Keep beating and the water and milk solids will separate, leaving pale golden butter. Save the liquid—that’s butter milk, which is useful for many things and forms the basis for many good eats in the South.
Next take the butter and place it in a colander with cheese cloth, rinse it with very cold water, and squeeze it through the cheese cloth. Do this rinse and squeeze process several times until the water runs clear. Now here’s my special technique: take the butter and spread it onto the sides of a bowl. You will notice beads of water form on the surface. Take a paper towel and gently blot the water. (The goal is to remove as much excess water as possible.) Add salt to taste and mix well. Then form the butter into a square, round, or whatever shape floats your boat and keep in the fridge for about 24 hours before using. The butter will keep for about 10-14 days.
I guarantee that once you have made your own butter, you will develop a new-found respect for it. Without butter, food would be so boring. Thanksgiving Day turkey, chocolate chip cookies, or lobster would taste the same without butter.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie Julie and Julia occurs when the other main character reverently leaves a pound of butter underneath a photograph of Julia Child at her display at the National Museum of American History. Butter deserves such respect. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Besides, in the words of Julia Child, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream."