Monday, January 27, 2020

Bitter butter in winter

Without a steady means of refrigeration, butter could be bitter in the winter if (according to 18th and 19th century sources) ... the milk froze then thawed, the cream was not skimmed off the milk in time, uneven turning of the barrel churn... or if the cattle ate ash tree leaves at "Michaelmas time" (Sept. 29).

What caused the butter to taste bitter in the winter.
In many 18th century works the Ash tree shoots and leaves eaten “at Michaelmas time makes the Butter bitter when eaten by the Cattel.” [1708, 1777]

The barrel churn must be turned “gentle, slow, and steady, for this soft motion on the spindle is equal to a very sharp beating in the downright way. … the butter comes quick, and very fine. It is hard, sweet tasted, and will keep; whereas the single article of too violent turning, will make the same cream yield a soft, bitter butter, that will not keep.” [1758]

“Setting Milk hard makes the Butter bitter. Setting hard is, letting the Milk stand too long without Skimming, whereby the Cream gets a very thick Head.” [1744]

“It is the alternate freezing and thawing which makes cream and butter bitter.” [1862]

In cold weather cream turns bitter, but not from leaves.… At the fall of the leaf and in cold weather cream will turn from sweet to bitter, and the reason is generally said to be, because the cattle eat the leaves of trees; but my friend will not allow that, because ‘twill be so in low grounds where there are no trees, as well as uplands where there are… The best way to prevent this bitterness, he says, is by setting the milk a less time and churning oftner; but this will produce but a small quantity, and ‘tis best to sell and spend it new, and not to pack it in firkins, for it will not sell in London, but the traders are forc’d to ship it off; where, by its illness, it disparages our country, and does our trade great damage." [1727]

A $5 prize was given in 1880 for the true cause. “First. Healthy cows that have calved not to exceed two months. Second. Plenty of sweet, fine hay, corn meal, stalks, roots, and good water, with regular times for feeding and watering. Third. Clean and comfortable stables.  Last and not least. Utmost cleanliness in milking, and in the care of all dishes, utensils, churns and rooms in which milk, cream or butter is placed.” [1880]

Suggestions.  Several ideas were given in 1870. 

Make it sour before it can get bitter.  In our region [Lancaster, PA], the milk is sometimes kept in a cupboard, in the living room, or perhaps upon a table, nicely covered with a white cloth, or on the mantelpiece. This will make much better butter for you than your bitter milk.  I have sold butter, in a city, at 65 cents, the milk for which stood in the broad kitchen window…

Have standing a vessel of sour milk, or buttermilk, not bitter sour milk.  When you strain your milk, add to each pot or pan, intended for butter, a little of this sour milk - a skimmer full, perhaps.  Your milk will be sour, and see what beautiful cream will rise.  I have seen milk managed in this way kept in the winter in a spring-house with unglazed windows.

I have further heard of setting milk pots upon the stove, and bringing the milk to a scald before setting it away.  This extra heat may cause the milk to sour, and prevent that awful bitterness, of which I speak feelingly.  But make your milk sour before it is bitter, unless indeed you can make all the cream rise before it is either sour or bitter. 

The evening before churning, if you have a coal stove, bring up your cream pot, or pots, and set them near the stove.  Do not try to churn cold cream unless your time hangs heavily on your hands, or your name is Job.  If you have a thermometer, you can vary your cream to 60 degrees, or perhaps 65, by stiring in warm water.

When the milk is brought in and strained, set the pans, one at a time, ever a kettle half full of boiling water, and let them remain until the milk is thoroughly scalded; this is to be repeated the next day, and the milk then set aside in the pantry adjoining the sitting-room or kitchen, and kept comfortably warm until fit to skim; the cream is to be kept in a loosely covered jar, in the same temperature, and well stirred every time fresh cream is added, and churned at least once a week; the butter will be as sweet, and almost as rich as in June or October.”  [1870] 


1708  Mortimer, John. The Whole Art of Husbandry.  London: 1708
1727 Houghton, John.  Husbandry and Trade Improv'd.  Rev… by Richard Bradley. London: 1727
1744  Ellis, William.  The Modern Husbandman.  v3  London: 1744
1758  Hale, Thomas.  A Compleat Body of Husbandry.  London: 1758
1777  The Complete Farmer: Or, A General Dictionary of Husbandry.   London: 1777
1862  The Country Gentleman. Albany, NJ: Jan 30, 1862
1870  American Agriculturist for the Farm, Garden, and Household. NY:  Feb & Mar 1870
1880  Annual Report of the Wisconsin Dairymen's Association. WI: 1880

©2020 Patricia Bixler Reber
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