Until the 19th century, the vast majority of butter was made by hand, on farms. The first butter factories appeared in the United States in the early 1860s, after the successful introduction of cheese factories a decade earlier. In the late 1870s, the centrifugal cream separator was introduced, marketed most successfully by Swedish engineer Carl Gustaf Patrik de Laval. This dramatically sped the butter-making process by eliminating the slow step of letting cream naturally rise to the top of milk. Initially, whole milk was shipped to the butter factories, and the cream separation took place there. Soon, though, cream-separation technology became small and inexpensive enough to introduce an additional efficiency: the separation was accomplished on the farm, and the cream alone shipped to the factory. By 1900, more than half the butter produced in the United States was factory made; Europe followed suit shortly after.
Unhomogenized milk and cream contain butterfat in microscopic globules. These globules are surrounded by membranes which prevent the fat in milk from pooling together into a single mass. Butter is produced by agitating cream, which damages these membranes and allows the milk fats to conjoin, separating from the other parts of the cream. Variations in the production method will create butters with different consistencies, mostly due to the butterfat composition in the finished product. Butter contains fat in three separate forms: free butterfat, butterfat crystals, and undamaged fat globules. In the finished product, different proportions of these forms result in different consistencies within the butter; butters with many crystals are harder than butters dominated by free fats.
Churning produces small butter grains floating in the water-based portion of the cream. This watery liquid is called buttermilk—although the buttermilk most common today is instead a directly fermented skimmed milk. The buttermilk is drained off; sometimes more buttermilk is removed by rinsing the grains with water. Then the grains are worked: pressed and kneaded together. When prepared manually, this is done using wooden boards called “Scotch hands”. This consolidates the butter into a solid mass and breaks up embedded pockets of buttermilk or water into tiny droplets.
Commercial butter is about 80% butterfat and 15% water; traditionally-made butter may have as little as 65% fat and 30% water. Butter becomes rancid when the fatty acid chains break down into smaller components, like butyric acid and diacetyl.
Before modern factory butter making, cream was usually collected from several milkings and was therefore several days old and somewhat fermented by the time it was made into butter. Butter made from a fermented cream is known as cultured butter. During fermentation, the cream naturally sours as bacteria convert milk sugars into lactic acid. The fermentation process produces additional aroma compounds, including diacetyl, which makes for a fuller-flavored and more “buttery” tasting product. Today, cultured butter is usually made from pasteurized cream whose fermentation is produced by the introduction of Lactococcus and Leuconostoc bacteria.
Another method for producing cultured butter, developed in the early 1970s, is to produce butter from fresh cream and then incorporate bacterial cultures and lactic acid. Using this method, the cultured butter flavor grows as the butter is aged in cold storage. For manufacturers, this method is more efficient since aging the cream used to make butter takes significantly more space than simply storing the finished butter product. A method to make an artificial simulation of cultured butter is to add lactic acid and flavor compounds directly to the fresh-cream butter; while this more efficient process is claimed to simulate the taste of cultured butter, the product produced is not cultured but is instead flavored.
Sweet cream butter
Today, dairy products are often pasteurized during production to kill pathogenic bacteria and other microbes. Butter made from pasteurized fresh cream is called sweet cream butter. Production of sweet cream butter first became common in the 19th century, with the development of refrigeration and the mechanical cream separator. Butter made from fresh or cultured unpasteurized cream is called raw cream butter. Raw cream butter has a “cleaner” cream flavor, without the cooked-milk notes that pasteurization introduces.
Throughout Continental Europe, cultured butter is preferred, while sweet cream butter dominates in the United States and the United Kingdom. Therefore, cultured butter is sometimes labeled European-style butter in the United States. Commercial raw cream butter is virtually unheard-of in the United States. Raw cream butter is generally only found made at home by consumers who have purchased raw whole milk directly from dairy farmers, skimmed the cream themselves, and made butter with it. It’s rare in Europe as well.
Another important aspect of production is the amount of butterfat in the finished product. In the United States, all products sold as “butter” must contain a minimum of 80% butterfat by weight; most American butters contain only slightly more than that, averaging around 81%. European-style butters generally have a higher ratio of up to 85% butterfat.