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The Science of Homemade Butter

The Science of Homemade Butter

What is butter? Is butter good for you? The answer comes from science, that also demonstrates how to prepare some excellent homemade butter.

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What could be more self­indulgent than butter? Think about it. Any sweet or savoury dish becomes more delicious and refined with the addition of butter: a simple sponge cake with a butter cream filling, a buttery short crust pastry, a Rossini fillet cooked in butter, simple toast spread with butter or a butter­fried breaded escalope. The sensation is always the same – delicate and velvety – that of a food ready to pamper our taste buds. But what is butter? Is butter good for you? Some have tried to spoil the fun by insisting that butter is bad for us, but recent studies point the opposite way: Lydia Bazanno, lead researcher at the Tulane University School of Public Health, has proved it by studying two groups of people. The first group ate saturated fats, the second did without. And the outcome? Those in the first group showed increased levels of good LDL cholesterol while in the second group this level remained stable. This is just one of the researches showing that there is no correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease.

So, does that mean we can all feast on kilos of butter? As always, the golden rule is that of a varied diet but at least we can finally stop ostracizing the use of butter in cooking. Especially if we make our own, as our grandparents used to do. Does that sound difficult? Do you think it requires special equipment? Not at all, as we shall soon see. But first of all, let’s try to understand what butter really is. As everyone knows from a very early age, oil and water do not mix. In actual fact, when these two liquids are shaken thoroughly, we obtain a dense solution. At first sight, this solution appears to be homogenous but if we observe it through a microscope (and sometimes even with the unaided eye), we notice that it is an emulsion: very tiny drops of oil, called “dispersed phase”, are immersed in the water, called continuous phase. Butter is closely related to this curious mixture: in fact, it is an emulsion. In this case, however, minute drops of water are dispersed in fat. How is this possible? It is based on the fact that fat globules make up about 20% of cream. The globules are tiny little “balloons”, with a membrane that encapsulates the fat. If we shake the cream energetically, the globule membranes break and release the little drops of fat. And if we go on shaking, it magically turns into a solid which we know as butter, and a liquid called buttermilk. And the butter, in its turn, as we explained above, is made up of small molecules of water dispersed in an abundant amount of tasty fat. So much for the theory, let’s see how it works in practice.

To make some excellent home­made butter, you will need a large bowl with a hermetic lid and some high- fat fresh cream. As fatty as possible and at room temperature. Pour the cream into the bowl and make sure it is properly closed before starting to shake it as hard as you can. No kidding: the intensity of this shaking movement is all­important. And so is your resistance: according to the type of cream being used, it could take from ten to twenty minutes. As it is being shaken, the butter will gradually separate. At the end of the process, you will just need to filter it with a fine sieve or a muslin cloth, shape it into the classical brick form and put it in the fridge. In just two hours’ time, the butter will be ready to taste. Here’s a tip: try it on a plain slice of bread, on its own. You will immediately taste the difference, compared with industrially produced butter. Ah yes, I almost forgot: this is unsalted butter. Accustom your palate to its taste: you can add salt at any time, whenever you wish.

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