I recently read an article about butter and started to look more closely at this staple in most kitchens, both commercial and residential. The amazing varieties of butter and variables associated with them amazed me, but logically I understand why different animals produce butter in different regions of the world, as well as different flavor profiles based on many factors, including what the animal eats. While researching this I realized that I need to first discuss where it comes from, that being milk.
Milk harvesting comes from many animals, usually the most populous in a region. They include milk from a sheep, goat, water buffalo, yak and camel, which is common in the Sahara, and horse which is cheap and popular in Western China and expensive elsewhere. The list also, of course, includes milk from cows.
Yak milk harvesting begins by a calf starting to suckle, which then creates the flow of milk. They then take the calf away and start the milking process and then at the end of the milking for use, the calf is given the rest of the milk from the mother. Then the calf follows the mother around all day and can nurse all day. The yak is an unusual animal in that the mothers will never desert their offspring, so it’s easy to domesticate the yak.
This compares to milk production in places like the United States where the cow is connected to a machine which milks it. The machine starts the flow and after about five minutes the cow will be done producing milk. This, of course, depends on the type of machine being used as well as how much milk the cow is producing. In this type of milking operation the calves are fed manmade food.
The milk comes out of the cow at around 4.5% fat. This depends upon the breed of cow as well as the climate and what the cow is fed. The fat is then separated from the milk and added at varying amounts depending on the type of milk, cream, butter or cheese that is being produced. Whole milk has 3% fat added, while 2% milk or reduced fat milk has 2% added and the same is done for 1% milk. Skim milk or nonfat milk actually contains .2% fat.
Milk has been around for 10,000 years and it is the first food that was analyzed in the modern scientific lab. Due to the length of time it has been analyzed it is the most regulated of all foods. Humans are the only mammal that consumes milk past the weaning period. Many Europeans, Middle Easterners and North Africans genetically lack the ability to produce lactase. Lactase is needed to digest lactose. This is why they cannot digest many dairy products as adults.
Some level of lactose intolerance is found in all mammals, which are defined as “living things that produce milk.” Hard cheeses and yogurt do not contain lactose, which is why they are popular in the cultures that have a higher intolerance. As a general rule, dairy is not a big part of the diet. Over many years this has changed as many Europeans have built up a tolerance, which has taken many generations.
The fat content of milk varies greatly from mammal to mammal. As mentioned earlier milk comes out of the cow at about 4.5% butter fat; it also comes out of humans at that same percentage, which is the ideal percentage for infants. The fat content that comes from whales can reach up to 34.8%, and the highest animal’s milk fat content is the Northern Seal with a staggering content of 53.2%. This is due to the cold climate in which they live in.
After the fat is removed from the milk it is added back in by a process called homogenization. This is done to suspend the fat globules in the watery milk. Everyone knows that fat and water do not mix, so this process is similar to creating an emulsion. The fat globules are pushed through a mesh-like filter that breaks the fat into very tiny particles that can be suspended in the liquid. Happily I am too young to remember times before homogenization when the milk would separate and the fat would rise to the top.
The next step is pasteurization. This is the way to kill bacteria in the milk. Thought to be discovered by Louis Pasteur, this process can be traced back 10,000 years when ancient people used to boil the milk to do the same thing. This is also why many recipes call for scalding milk. This step is not necessary for milk that has been pasteurized. More on milk and milk products in my next segment.