Better Believe It’s Butter

Butter is beautiful: solid golden bars add the perfect flakiness to pastry, give cake a delightfully tender springiness, and melt mouth-wateringly onto toast. But unlike its cousin, cheese—another concentrated, solidified form of milk—we don't tend to think of butter as something that's available in hundreds of varieties, each with a different flavor, color, and texture. Nor do we necessarily consider a dairymaid costume to be a uniform of women's empowerment. But we should. This episode, we explore the science behind butter's subtle variations, as well as its long history as a vehicle for both ritual worship and female entrepreneurship around the world.

Food writer and former pastry chef Elaine Khosrova could not believe there was no book on a subject as rich in culture as butter—so she wrote it. In Butter: A Rich History, she takes us on a voyage across continents, from the mountains of Bhutan, where she helps herders make traditional yak butter for tea, to Marie Antoinette's pleasure dairy at Versailles, to the margarine wars of twentieth-century America.

From butter barbarians to bog butter, butter has been central to cultures and cuisines around the world for millennia. After more than half a century of vilification by nutrition scientists, however, many of us in the West have deprived ourselves of its charms. Fortunately for butter lovers, more recent research has helped repair the delicious fat's reputation by demonstrating the lack of connection between its consumption and heart disease. Today, butter is undergoing an artisanal renaissance akin to chocolate or coffee, with handmade sheep's butter or hard-to-find whey butter joining the standard stick of sweet cream at the table. Join us this episode to learn why butter is yellow, why margarine was briefly dyed pink or black, and why we don't eat bison butter (but perhaps we could).

Episode Notes

Butter by Elaine Khosrova

Writer Elaine Khosrova is the author of Butter: A Rich History: check it out.

Science News

This episode of Gastropod was made possible in part with grant funding from Science News, your source for surprising and important science reporting. This week, learn how a dolphin eats an octopus (without dying) and how Hawk moths turn the sugars in nectar into antioxidants that protect their hardworking muscles.