All the secrets of butter: history, composition and how to make it at home

Butter is an ancient food, among mankind’s most valued foods. An ingredient that has spanned millennia of history and cultures, influencing culinary traditions around the world. Its origin is rooted in the mists of time, yet today, in our modern world, it continues to be an undisputed star on the tables of millions.

In this article we will take a journey through the history of butter and look at its spread in different cultures and cuisines. But this will only be the beginning. We will also delve into the scientific side of how milk turns into butter, revealing the chemical secrets of this culinary process.

Finally, I will guide you step by step in creating homemade butter: yes, you read that right! We can experience the magic of turning cream into a lump of fresh butter right in our own kitchen!

Welcome to the world of butter, where history, science, and cuisine come together in a delightful experience.

il burro: benefici, origine e ingredienti


Origins and spread of butter

When was butter born?

Many prehistoric peoples were unable to digest lactose, the sugar contained in milk. It seems incredible, in light of this, that in different parts of the world dairy products then became essential to human nutrition. While it is true that milk and dairy products have never played major roles in the diet of the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Americas, in fact, the same cannot be said of Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. In these places throughout history, these foods have held great importance.

At some point in history, however, the ability to digest lactose even as adults developed in farming communities. This was probably due to a genetic mutation that was then spread through the generations because it was advantageous. I talked about milk and its importance in human history in this article, which I encourage you to catch up on because it is also full of cheese trivia and, spoiler alert, a tutorial on how to make cheese at home!

But back to us. Men who began raising livestock about 10,000 years ago soon discovered that a fatty layer formed on the surface of the milk left to settle for a day: it was cream. They also realized, then, that if this was separated from the milk and stirred, stirred vigorously, for some time … it became butter.

The earliest written evidence of the process for making butter was found on a limestone tablet dating back some 4,500 years. We are in ancient Mesopotamia, land of the Sumerians, present-day Iraq. Inside a small temple dedicated to the fertility goddess Ninkhursag is found what would later be called a “milk frieze.” The tablet depicts cows, sheep, milk and its derivatives, including cream and… butter!

butter origins: mesopotamia 4500 years ago

A large jar that appears to be rolled appears in the image and has been interpreted as a primitive butter churn.

As with cheese, bread and many other foods, its history is likely much older. Indeed, if its processing was so important as to merit a place in a depiction, it was probably a well-established food in Sumerian culture.

It is likely that the butter produced by the Sumerians, as with Indian ghee, was clarified so that it would keep longer. For those who do not know, clarified butter is butter from which water and protein are removed by cooking, often in a water bath. In fact, there is about 20 percent water in butter, and by eliminating it, it becomes more difficult for bacteria to cause the rancidity that would make it unpalatable and hazardous to health.

In ancient times, butter was not just a food. It was used in cosmetics and medicine as a healing ointment, for example, in ancient Rome. Indeed, a curious fact is the Romans’ consideration of butter as a food, which was … bad. In fact, Pliny distinguished the patrician caste from the plebeian caste by their use of butter, a barbaric and indecent food compared to the prized and lofty olive oil.

And indeed, in Northern European tribes, butter was essential. In Ireland, butter dating back 5,000 years has been found preserved in peat bogs. The use of the churn, a traditional butter-making tool, existed in Scotland since the 6th century AD and became widespread by the 13th century. The preparation of butter was delegated to women, usually the wife of the dairyman or farmer, or a milkmaid paid by the owner.

It was in the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, that butter became a popular food free from prejudice. Except on lean days, when it had to be avoided.

The butter production process

Earlier we mentioned that on the surface of milk, if left to stand, a thicker layer spontaneously emerges: this is cream.

butter production process

From the cream…

According to the EC Regulation No. 1308/2013, cream or cream is the product obtained from milk that has a minimum fat content of 10%. Classic cooking cream should contain at least 20 percent, while whipping cream should contain at least 30 percent. Butter is made from cooking cream, so if you want to try making it at home buy that. Cream can also be obtained by processing whey, not just whole milk.

Milk cream can be defined as an emulsion of fat in water. This means that there are small droplets of fat suspended in a water-based solution.

Cream today is obtained not only by surfacing, but also by centrifugation. This method is the norm almost everywhere. It speeds up and makes the process more efficient. Benefits include limiting bacterial growth as much as possible, which would shorten the expiration date.

Allowing the cream to separate by surfacing gives the bacteria time to spring into action, creating certain aromatic molecules that we still associate with the flavor of butter, giving it its typical aroma. Bacteria also convert lactose to lactic acid resulting in the acidification of cream, which must be limited and controlled. If the starting milk is of high quality, at any rate, there is nothing to fear about centrifugation: you will still get excellent butter.


After the cream is separated from the milk, it is pasteurized. Pasteurization is used to eliminate the content of microorganisms and deactivate enzymes that degrade the components of the cream and would make it go rancid. It is very rare to find butter made from unpasteurized cream, although it is possible to produce it. In northern Europe, where butter consumption is more common, it is easier to find this type of butter, which has a more intense flavor, even at the expense of higher production costs. It will have a short-term expiration date, but it is worth tasting.

After pasteurization, the fermentation process takes place. The flavor of butter as we know it is also due to the changes that microorganisms make to the molecules in the cream; therefore, Lactococci are introduced that acidify the cream and produce the molecules responsible for the flavors.

Now we lower the temperature. The ideal for making butter is to keep it between 7 and 13°. This is because cream, as we said, is an emulsion of oil in water. This means that fats are contained within bubbles whose walls are made up of proteins, triglycerides, cholesterol and several molecules with a curious nature: phospholipids. We know that fats do not mix with water, but phospholipids have a dual nature: they consist of a part that is soluble in water, and another part that is soluble in a lipid environment. It thus manages to form a bubble that protects fats from water!

Low temperature is ideal because it allows fat crystals to form. But what do we need them for?
To make butter these bubbles must break, releasing the fats they contain, and it is much easier to break the membranes of these globules if they are stiffened by the cold!

Now there is only one thing left to do: shake. The traditional tool that was used to shake and stir the cream is called a churn, and is still found in certain mountain lodges or rural activities. You can even buy them online! The design may also change a great deal, but the meaning is always the same: a room with an object inside whose shape allows at the same time:

  • shake the cream quickly
  • allow liquids and air to pass

churn for butter production

Wooden churn for butter making

Today the processes are mostly automated and industrial, but what they do is this anyway. They agitate, breaking up the formation of fat globules.

What happens next?

Fats, as we know well, do not like contact with aqueous substances. Thus they tend to re-aggregate with each other, forming large accumulations that try to push water away…

And here’s the butter!

In contrast, the liquid part, consisting of water, lactose and water-soluble substances, is the so-called buttermilk. We talk about an inverted emulsion, because we went from an emulsion of oil in water to one of water in oil.

Once the two components are separated, the butter is processed to give it the desired shape and texture and is ready to be packaged.

The composition of butter according to the law…

According to the Law no. 202 of May 13, 1983 in defense of the genuineness of butter, the designation “butter” shall be reserved for the product obtained from the cream obtained from cow’s milk and the product obtained from the whey of cow’s milk, as well as the mixture of the two products indicated, which meets specific chemical, physical and organoleptic requirements. Where butter is produced from the milk of animals other than cows, the designation “butter” must be followed by an indication of the species of animal from which the milk comes.

By law, butter can only be defined as such if it contains:

  • minimum 80% fat
  • maximum 16% water
  • maximum 2% “lean dry residue,” consisting of lactose (under 1%), protein and mineral salts

Fun fact: for the same amount, there is less fat in butter than in olive oil, which, on the other hand, consists of 100% fat!

Depending on the method by which the cream was obtained, the butter can be called “creamery” or “centrifuge” butter.

…and according to chemistry

The fat part of butter is composed almost entirely of triglycerides, plus a remaining part of diglycerides and monoglycerides.

chemical composition of butter

The chemical composition of triglycerides is easier to imagine if we break down their names:

  • a “head” of glycerol
  • three fatty acid chains

Therefore, in a diglyceride the glycerol head will have only two fatty acid chains, monoglycerides only one.

Depending on the structure of these chains, the name of the fat, or lipid, in question is then defined. There are about 500 different kinds of fats in butter, for example, and they have names that usually begin with “acid….” There are also different types of fats in oil, the most prevalent of which is called oleic acid.

In butter there is a predominance of saturated and polyunsaturated type fats, and few monounsaturated fats, which, by contrast, are predominant in olive oil. The oleic acid named just now belongs to this category.

Finally, butter contains about 250mg of cholesterol per 100 grams of product, and small amounts of vitamin A, vitamin E and mineral salts.

We will not go into detail about the composition of butter because it depends on several factors. Depending on the season we are in, the cow’s habits, and especially her diet, it will have different declinations of composition and flavor! The color may also change, becoming a little more intense, on the yellow or toward orange if the animal’s diet contains a lot of carotenoids!

How to make butter at home?

Making butter at home is an easy and affordable task. Let’s see the process together.


  • cooking cream
  • Hard plastic bottle with cap, empty
  • one or two glass marbles

Butter how to make it at home, ingredients and process

Procedure and tips:

TIP: This experiment comes well at low temperatures, best not to exceed 13°C, so the advice is to keep the cream in the refrigerator until just before you start making butter. Keep some very cold water aside. You can put it in the freezer for a while or pour it into a large bowl in which you will then put ice cubes

  1. Pour the cooking cream inside the small bottle along with the previously washed marbles
  2. Close the cap tightly and go: shake the bottle vigorously
  3. After a few minutes, we will notice that butter is forming!
  4. Now continue stirring for another minute, so the solid part will thicken up nicely separating from the liquid part, the buttermilk. We open the small bottle and pour the liquid into a container
  5. Now we extract the butter, if needed we can cut the plastic bottle. Let’s take it in our hands and dip it in ice water. We can now handle it and “rinse” it a little more. Not too much though, otherwise it will lose flavor
  6. At this temperature we can now shape it with our hands to give it the shape we prefer… et voila: ready to be spread on bread!

homemade butter


Latest articles




You might also be interested in.