Wednesday, May 10, 2017


"Smooth-textured butter is the result of manipulating the structure and ratio of fat molecules in cream, which are either hard and crystalline or soft and fluid. By warming and cooling the cream -- a process known as physical ripening or tempering -- the consistency of its fats can be remodeled to create a more spreadable butter." (from Butter: A Rich History, p. 127-128)
This is the beginning of one of many discussions of the processes of butter-making in the book Butter: A Rich History, published 2016. The author, Elaine Khosrova, a food writer and former pastry chef, has written a most interesting discourse on butter. History, chemistry, physics, anatomy (of cows), culture (of many butter-making peoples), agriculture, technology (both primitive and industrial), and cuisine are all combined in a very readable way.

While I already knew quite a bit about the uses of butter in world cuisine, I learned a lot about the other topics. One of the new things: I was intrigued by the discussion of tempering cream to be made into butter, which continues:
"Naturally hard milk fat, which is typical from cows on winter feed, has a lot of crystalline saturated fat and short-chain fatty acids; it will yield a rock-solid, stiff butter if not tempered. On the other hand, cream high in soft, unsaturated fat will result in loose, greasy butter. This is often the case with milk fat in summertime if cows are feeding on fresh grass. ... Overall, the aim is to have 40 to 45 percent of the milk fat crystallize so there's some rigidity in the butter, but not so much that it's a brittle product." (p. 128)
This description made me curious about the process of tempering and the word temper, both as a verb and a noun. I'm familiar with tempering as a process in manufacturing steel, glass, chocolate, and now butter and looked for more information. Here's an explanation from Epicurious of why and how to temper chocolate:
"Tempered chocolate has a shiny, flawless appearance. It feels firm and breaks off with a snap when you bite into it and it melts smoothly in your mouth, allowing you to fully enjoy the flavor. Slowly heating and cooling melted chocolate while stirring puts it into temper. If chocolate is not tempered properly, the cocoa butter crystallization is uncontrolled and uneven, which results in an unattractive chocolate that is dull or has white streaks running through it." (link; see also this recipe from Jacques Torres)
The word temper comes from a Latin word meaning time, which came to indicate something in balance. If you lost your temper, or got out of temper, you lost this balance. Similarly, the chocolate texture can become "uncontrolled and uneven" if it's not put "into temper." If you are bad-tempered, of if the chocolate is "not tempered properly" that balance is lost. Temper is related to words and expressions like temperature, tempus fugit (time flies), temperament, well-tempered (a musical term), and temporal. The noun also means "the degree of hardness and elasticity in steel or other metal." Example sentence: "The blade rapidly heats up and the metal loses its temper."

"The noun originally denoted a proportionate mixture of elements or qualities, also the combination of the four bodily humours, believed in medieval times to be the basis of temperament, hence temper." Historically, the verb to temper came to mean "to make (steel) hard and elastic" by the late 14th century. The sense of "tune the pitch of a musical instrument" dates from around 1300. In contrast, tempering butter seems to be a process invented for modern industrial production, and tempering chocolate -- if I recall my previous reading -- was developed around 150 to 200 years ago when chocolate began to be made into candy rather than just used as a beverage. (Sources: Oxford Dictionary and Online Etymology Dictionary.)

 Some Old Butter Photos 

Thanksgiving-themed butter sculpture, 2013.
Miriam and Alice made their costumes --  butter boxes -- for Halloween in 2010.

If this were wordless Wednesday, I'd just post the old photos. But this is wordy Wednesday, so I talked about the word "tempering." I posted about Butter: A Rich History yesterday, and next week I will have more to say about this enjoyable book, which is the selection for my culinary reading group.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Haven't heard of that book -- sounds like my kind of thing. Really enjoyed your tempered discussion, too. And that last photo is so much fun! Great costumes. :-)

Tina said...

Cute costumes! That's very original.
You also have me interested in that book. I like learning the histories of foods.

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

Don't you love the English language!!!!

What great costumes!

Beth F said...

Butter is on my list -- I really should get around to reading it already.

Katherine P said...

Love the costumes! I'd heard of tempering chocolate but had no idea that butter was tempered as well. This sounds like a really interesting read!

Claudia said...

I enjoyed your well tempered digression :) Growing cacao, but still not able to properly temper it when broken down into chocolate.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

I love when I learn so much from reading a blog post.

Stacie said...

Interesting book. I love learning from these kinds of books as well.

Abbe Odenwalder said...

Books like this are quite fascinating. Thanks for calling my attention to it! Love the history and science behind food!