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Butter and Margarine

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Which do you prefer? Margarine is said to be better for you, but butter is so delicious! So it's a difficult choice to make: do we think about our health and pocketbook and eat margarine, or do we enjoy the guilty flavour of real butter?


Butter is the fat that is churned from cream made by a dairy animal. Cows produce the best, sweetest butter, but many other animals have been used as dairy producers, including goats, sheep, camels, llamas, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, zebus, and horses. The yellow colour of butter comes from carotene, the colouring in green fodder. If the butter is dark yellow, the dairy cattle grazed in open pasture; white butter means that the cattle were fed on hay and grain.

Butter first began to be used around 2000 BC; the oldest books of the Bible and ancient Sanskrit writings speak of the use of butter. In those days, it was used as an ointment, cosmetic, medicine, and lamp oil, as well as a food product. Now we use it as a spread for food, a cooking fat, and an ingredient in other foods, mostly baked goods. Butter is eaten mainly in countries which raise dairy cattle, like North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. India and Central Asia use a form of butter called ghee, which is a clarified butter that contains no water. Salt, herbs and sour milk are sometimes added to this.

Making Butter the Old-Fashioned Way

Butter was originally made in skin bags or in hollow logs that could be swung from trees. The skin bags could also be slung across a trotting horse, or shaken by hand. Eventually churns were made out of jars with wooden dashers. The original ancient way of making butter was to allow the fresh milk to cool in pans, which made the cream separate and rise to the top. Then the cream was skimmed, and ripened or soured. The butter would not separate from the buttermilk if it hadn't soured. Churning the cream to butter by hand could take half an hour or more. After the butter had separated, it was skimmed from the buttermilk and placed in a bowl. The butter was then washed with cold water to remove the buttermilk. All the buttermilk had to be removed, or the butter would go rancid. A small amount of salt was added for flavour.

Making Butter the Modern Way

In these technological times, butter can be churned mechanically and there's no need to let the cream sour. The cream is separated from the milk, cooled and sent to a creamery, where it is graded and pasteurised. The cream is churned in large vats, and the buttermilk removed. The butter is then kneaded to improve consistency, and colouring and salt are added as needed. Then the butter is 'printed', meaning that it is cut and wrapped, and then it is sent to the distributors to be sold.

Kinds Of Butter

Butter comes in three classes of quality:

  • Commercial butter is made from sweet cream, and is flavourful.

  • Renovated butter, also known as process butter, is made from rancid butter that has been melted, refined, and then re-churned.

  • Whey butter is made from cream separated from whey, and is usually oily and inferior.

Making Butter at Home

There are several different ways to make your own butter. If you're a traditionalist, get out the churn and roll up your sleeves. If you'd like to spare yourself the work and utilise a labour-saving device, butter can be made quite easily.

You'll need four cups of fresh cream and a blender. Make sure the cream is at room temperature (about 68°F or 20°C). Set the blender on its lowest setting, and run it for 8-10 minutes. After 3-4 minutes, you should see yellowish flecks on the surface of the cream.

After 8-10 minutes, the butter will have separated. Drain off the buttermilk and save it for cooking. Put the equivalent amount of water to replace the buttermilk, cover the blender, and blend on low for 10 seconds. Drain the water and repeat until the water removed is very clear.

After the butter is washed to your satisfaction, remove it from the blender and press the water out with the back of a spoon. Add salt to taste. If you're planning to freeze the butter, don't add salt as it will increase in saltiness when it freezes. Homemade butter can be frozen for about 3 months.

How to Make your Margarine Taste Like Butter

You'll need one pound of extremely cheap margarine, one can of evaporated milk, and four ounces of cream cheese. Let the margarine and cream cheese soften to room temperature. When these are soft, add the can of evaporated milk and mix until the moisture is worked out. Cream cheese can be replaced with a pinch of salt. This can be frozen or kept in the refrigerator.


In 1813 Michael Chevreul isolated a fatty acid compound which he called margaric acid after the Greek word margarites, meaning 'pearl'. In 1870 Mége-Mouriez was asked by the Emperor of France, Louis Napoleon III, to create a butter substitute. He used margaric acid as the base, churning ox fat with cream. Coining the phrase 'oleomargarine', he went on to attempt to expand his French margarine factory to the United States. In 1873 a US Patent was granted. Although demand was promising, his operations failed and he died in obscurity.

Despite the unpromising beginnings of the invention, margarine production continued to expand, and soon dairy farmers were protesting at the competition. In the United States, the popularity of margarine fluctuated, largely due to the efforts of the government to protect the dairy farmers. Taxes were imposed upon margarine sales. Soon margarine was no longer allowed to be coloured, and some producers began to include food colour packets for the consumer to mix with their margarine1. Many states required expensive licenses to be able to produce margarine, while other states prohibited its sale altogether. This ban on margarine continued until after World War II.

A 1941 National Health Conference helped to raise awareness of margarine's alleged health benefits and make the American public aware of the government's suppression campaign. Soon after, several states began to repeal the imposed taxes, and post-war shortages of butter helped to drive the demand of margarine up. It wasn't until 1951 that margarine makers were allowed to colour their margarine again. There were some states that held on to their margarine ban. Wisconsin, a state that depends heavily upon dairy products for its revenue, was the last to repeal its law in 1967.

What is in Margarine?

Margarine's contents are restricted by law. It must contain at least 80% oil, 15,000 IUs2 of Vitamin A, and a liquid solution based on milk products and water. Salt and vitamins can be added, as well as flavour enhancers, texture smoothers, and preservatives. The currently popular 'spreads' are less than 80% oil. They're lower in calories and fat, but because of their added water content, are difficult to cook with.

Today almost all margarines have been made with vegetable oil, which is high in Vitamin E, but a few American margarines are made with beef fat.

Should We Eat margarine?

Margarine contains no cholesterol and very little saturated fat. It tends to be lower in calories than butter. It's a good source of Vitamin A and E, as well as essential fatty acids. Americans who have grown up eating margarine all their lives often prefer it over butter: it has a lighter, less greasy taste.

Recently dieticians have discovered the dangers of hydrogenated fats, especially those found in margarine. To keep margarine from melting, it's treated by adding hydrogen atoms to the fat molecules to make them more saturated, which raises the melting point. The reason why? Hydrogenated margarine doesn't spoil or become rancid, and rodents and insects won't eat it. Unfortunately, the process of hydrogenation creates trans-fats, which your body can't digest properly, and the hydrogenated fats stimulate your body to create cholesterol. Margarine also has trace elements of the toxic metals used in the process.

So which one do you use on your muffin - butter or margarine? If you're trying to be health-conscious, experts say the best idea is to stay away from butter and margarine, as both have their problems. But if you've got to have the flavour of butter, use real butter. It's by far the tastier choice.

1Some makers of margarine simply sold the unappetising white blocks of margarine as is; it was left to the consumer to colour the margarine with whatever they had on hand. The easiest method was to coarsely grind carrots, soak them in water, and then use the resulting pulp to colour the margarine.2International Units for measuring vitamin concentration.

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