You’d think that a book about butter would be filled with recipes, but that is exactly what Elaine Khosrova’s book Butter: A Rich History is not filled with. Instead it is brimming with ritual, history, politics and science. (Truthfully, there are a few recipes.) Elaine writes about food and is the former editor of Culture, a magazine all about cheese. She has traveled the world researching her butter book. Contributor Melissa Clark talked with her about his discoveries.

Melissa Clark: One of the surprises for me in reading your book was to learn about the connection between butter and religion. Can you tell us about that?

Elaine Khosrova: That subject was interesting and surprising for me, too. I wasn't expecting to find that ancient cultures around the world used butter as a sacred tool for their spiritual practices. This is going back to the Sumerians 2,500 B.C., and the Vedic Aryans, the Druids, the Hindus, the Buddhists. All of these cultures used butter in their worship practices. Most of these rituals are gone, but the Tibetan Buddhists still do these elaborate butter carvings called tormas that are central to their spiritual practice.

MC: What do you think gives butter that kind of aura that makes it seem religious or spiritual?

EK: For most of butter’s history, the process of making butter was mysterious. It was an enigma. How is it that you can take milk, and through a process of simply rocking or beating it, this invisible fat that's in the milk suddenly blooms into beautiful pieces of butter? Until the late 1800s, butter was little understood but highly valued. It was deemed much like pearls and oysters, or rainbows, some of these wonderful mysteries in the world. That was at that root of why butter became so useful in a sacred way, for what it symbolized.

MC: Which is magic.

EK: Magic, exactly.

Elaine Khorsova (Photo: Wendy Noyes)
Elaine Khosrova (Photo: Wendy Noyes)

MC: Historically, women have always played a big role in butter making. Would you talk a little bit about that?

EK: It's not overstating it to say that women founded the butter industry, because it was taboo for men to have anything to do with the dairy arts for most of history, or since we've been milking animals. I found this across the world, this taboo against men milking, making butter, doing cheese making, and that survived up until the 1800s. Milk is about birth, lactation, and fertility. It’s very much a sort of feminine domain. And because they had a monopoly on butter making they gained a certain status from it, because butter was valuable.

MC: You got to see some of this firsthand. I know you traveled to India and you got to see some traditional butter making.

EK: I went specifically to see the butter that's made from water buffalo milk. That would be the traditional milk in India, and it was for centuries. That was the animal most suited to the climate in India, and so water buffalo butter is their traditional butter. It's not disappearing. Cow butter has become more prevalent, but the water buffalo butter is the cultured product that I was particularly interested in seeing how they make it.

I was able to go to a small village in the north of India, in Punjab, and meet with two elderly women. They showed me how they take the water buffalo milk and culture it overnight. They make this super-delicious, rich yogurt called dahi and that is put into a churn. A generation ago, it would have been a beautiful metal churn. This particular day that I was visiting they put it into a plastic bucket. But they still used their unique system of churning, which involves a pole, a center pole that has a cross-piece on the bottom, that goes into the milk. They alternately pull on the ends of a rope. Imagine this center pole is being spun around by the women pulling on the ropes on either side, back and forth. That system of churning doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. I wanted to document that because it is disappearing. Even in this particular remote village, the women tell me that they now use a blender to make their butter. I was glad to document and see it. In a generation, it probably won't exist anymore.

MC: You mentioned that it was cultured butter. I know that I can buy cultured butter in the supermarket. I can also buy a lot of different butters: high-fat European butter, sheep butter, goat butter. Can you walk us through the differences?

EK: We'll start with the simplest first: that would be sweet cream butter. That is butter that's simply cream put into a churn until butter happens, and if it's an industrial churn it happens in three seconds. It's just cream made into butter. If you have cultured butter, it means that the cream has been mixed with a lactic bacteria and allowed to ferment at least 12 hours, usually longer. The point of that is to develop complexity of flavor in the cream. Butter has 120 different flavor compounds, and by culturing it you can intensify some of the really good ones like diacetyl, the compound that gives us that quintessential butter flavor. Culturing is synonymous with a little bit of acidity. If you can balance the sweet, acid, and butteriness, that’s a world-class butter. Then there’s the “European" style. That means a high-fat butter, higher fat because the standard in the United States is for 80 percent fat in a stick of butter. The European-style higher fat butters can have 82-86 percent fat, which may not sound like a lot of difference, but when you're a baker, it makes a whole lot of difference.

MC: Would you say to bake with the European butter and if you going to spread some butter on bread and eat it, use the cultured butter for the extra flavor.

EK: That's what I prefer. As far as baking, the higher fat butter is particularly good for pastry. If I'm making a cake, I don't feel like the extra butter fat makes much of a difference. The only exception would be a pound cake where I want that super rich density.

MC: Talk to us about how butter gains its different flavors. You wrote in the book that the flavor of butter comes from three different things: the type and species of animal, the animal's diet, and human artistry.

EK: Three very dynamic things affect the character of a butter: the person, the plant, and the animal. The plant aspect, in particular, has a huge effect the butter. Animals can be fed grain or grass, and there's quite a variation in the butters that you get from that. Not only the flavor, but nutritionally. A grass-fed butter definitely has more micronutrients in it than a butter that's from cows that are fed grain.

MC: And that changes seasonally?

EK: Certainly in places where there's winter. But even then they're having a lot of silage and haylage. They're having fermented grass in addition to a little bit of grain. We do have a really good system in place for keeping cows on grass year-round. I tell people butter is such a staple and if you're going to have a little bit every day on your toast or your potato, I think it's really worth seeking out a good grass-fed butter.

Elaine shared her recipe for butter laced German pancake. You can find it at this link.

Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer and author. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. She is the author of Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite and 32 other cookbooks.