My approach to anything food related is all about understanding the little components that make up the bigger picture. By this I mean, understanding your ingredients and really getting an in depth look into how each ingredient is made and how it works. I love to dig deeper into finding the origins of ingredients. This helps inform my knowledge when it comes to working with that particular ingredient such as baking, cake decorating and recipe development.
Legend has it that long ago around 8000 BC, a weary traveller made an accidental discovery that ended up changing the face of gastronomic history. Deep in ancient Africa’s rolling hills, a herdsman had been travelling with animals. The days were hot, and his journey was long and arduous. As he reached for his sheepskin bag filled with milk to quench his thirst, he was disappointed to find that the milk had curdled. The bumpy terrain had jostled the liquid enough to churn it into what we now know as butter. ¹
Butter is a really integral ingredient in many aspects of culinary arts and has been used in foods and cooking for thousands of years. It’s a dairy product made from churning milk or cream until the fat separates from the liquid. Most often it is the preferred fat to use in many recipes from savoury dishes to sauces to baking or just as a creamy spread. When it comes to baking, butter is an integral ingredient. This is especially true when it comes to making buttercream.
There are many factors at play when it comes to making butter. Commercially, we are made to believe that yellow butter is of a higher quality than paler butter. But what causes that signature yellow colour? And, in contrast, if premium butter is yellow, why then are we so obsessed with stark white buttercream? Let’s take a closer look at butter and all of its components.
How Butter is Made
Butter can be made from churning either milk or cream. In the churning process, the cream or milk is agitated until the fat molecules begin to clump together and separate from the liquid. The shaking leaves behind a lump of semi-solid fat that is the butter. The liquid that’s left behind is known as buttermilk although not the same kind of buttermilk you would find in supermarkets. This buttermilk is a skim milk versus the cultured buttermilk sold in stores.
Regular milk contains only about 3% fat. In order to separate enough fat to make butter, you would need at least 5 litres (10 US pints) of milk to make 225 grams (0.5lbs) of butter.
Commercial butter that you buy in the supermarkets are usually made up of 80-82% milk fat, 16-17% water, and 1-2% milk solids other than fats.
Spreadable butter contains even less milk fat. Instead, it substitutes a certain percent of the milk fat with oil to make it softer and easier to spread while still preserving the taste of butter.
Why Are Some Butter More Yellow Than Others?
Have you ever wondered why butter is yellow, but milk and cream is white? It’s really interesting once you dig into the science behind it and part of it has to do with the particular diet of the cows that the butter comes from.
Butter gets that yellow colour from a pigment called beta carotene. You may already be familiar with beta carotene from carrots. It’s what gives carrots and other orange or yellow fruits and vegetables their signature colour. In the human body, beta carotene is converted into Vitamin A which helps promote eye and skin health and strengthens the immune system. However, cows that graze on grass or flowers rich in beta carotene store the pigment in their fat instead of converting it. When they produce milk, the pigments then get carried over into the fat of their milk.
Now you may be asking, why isn’t milk yellow if it contains beta carotene? The main reason is because milk is 97% water. Even whole milk only contains about 3-4% milk fat and cream has at most 40% milk fat. They are predominantly liquid. Also, the fat globules containing beta carotene in milk are covered in a membrane that obscures their natural colour, making milk and cream appear white. It’s not until the churning process in which the agitation causes the membrane to burst, releasing the fat globules, and allowing the colour of the beta carotene to show in the butter that’s formed.
So essentially, butter is yellow because of cows that graze in pastures with foliage rich in beta carotene. The amount of beta carotene that cows raised on pastures consume is dependent on the time of year. During the late spring and summer when plants are in full bloom, cows will eat higher concentrations of beta carotene which will cause butter made from their milk to be richer shades of yellow.
In contrast, cows that are fed grains have considerably less or even no beta carotene stored in their fat, making their butter paler or even white.
What About Butter Made From Goats?
If you buy butter made from animals other than cows like goats, sheep, or water buffalo, you’ll notice that their butter is also white. This is because these animals – like humans – convert beta carotene into Vitamin A which is colourless. They don’t store the natural pigment which results in their butter being white.
At one point, I was under the impression that the more yellow the butter, the more premium it would be. However, this is not true. Not only can colour vary all year round but some companies even add yellow colouring to their butter to play into this belief. Therefore, colour alone is not a reliable indicator of a butter’s quality.
What Can Affect the Taste of Butter?
Just like colouring, there are several factors that can affect the taste of butter. Some of it is pretty straightforward: salted, salt reduced, or unsalted; cultured or not cultured. Cultured butter has live bacteria added to it, giving it a tangier flavour than regular butter. However, other factors go deeper than just additives such as what cows eat and what time of year it is.
Cows that are allowed to graze in pastures will produce butter that tastes different to those fed solely with grains. Butter from pasture-fed cows will taste more floral due to the grass and flowers that make up their diet. This can also change with the seasons. Not only will butter produced in the late spring and summer months be richer in beta carotene (hence a richer yellow colour) it will also have a floral taste.
This is not something that we would necessarily notice if we’re used to buying commercially produced butter. However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to use local farmers’ products you will be able to taste the difference throughout the seasons.
The way you store butter will also have an impact on its flavour. Butter will oxidise when not wrapped and stored properly. So, if you have a partially unwrapped stick of butter left in your fridge, it may start to taste funky as it absorbs the moisture and odours from its environment.
Best Tips for Using Butter in Cake Making
Now that you understand how butter is made and what can affect the taste and appearance of butter, you know that not all butter is created equal. A lot more thought should be given when you’re following a recipe that calls for ‘butter’. Here are some tips to think about the next time you use butter in cake making:
Use butter blocks that contain at least 80% milk fat.
This means using regular, pure butter for cake making. As mentioned before, spreadable butter has some of its fat content replaced with oil to give it a spreadable consistency. Spreadable butter and margarine which has its fat content entirely replaced with oil are softer and less stable. Neither are suitable for making buttercream. When in doubt, check the ingredients on the packaging and it will tell you what percentage of milk fat it has. This will inform you whether the butter is suitable for baking or not.
Consider the taste profile of the butter you choose.
The taste profile of the butter you choose will affect the overall taste of the product you make. Some students have commented that DTC buttercream tastes buttery. It’s possible that could be because they’re used to American buttercream which has more sugar in it but it could also be because of the type of butter that they used. I love Lurpak butter because it has a more delicate flavour profile than other brands like Devondale or Western Star. When you’re assessing the product that you’ve made, think about the taste profile of the butter you used.
Don’t cheap out on butter.
This applies to any ingredient that you use but butter in particular tastes far superior than its fat-substitute counterparts like margarine or shortening. Saving a few dollars on quality ingredients can result in a much inferior taste. My mantra is always ‘Don’t cheap out on ingredients. Cheap out on time instead.’
If possible, buy in bulk.
Butter can be frozen for up to 12 months if it’s salted and 6 months if it’s unsalted. If your favourite brand of butter is on sale at the supermarket you can freely stock up and know that you’ll be able to properly store your butter for future use. This is particularly helpful if you don’t have access to wholesale supplies as it will help lower your costs.
Store it airtight.
Properly storing your butter will prevent your stock from gaining exposure to oxygen or absorbing fridge odours that will taint the flavour of your butter. Tightly wrap your butter or put it in an airtight container to store it.
What’s Our Obsession with White Buttercream?
We’ve established that the commercial world thinks that yellow butter is superior. Why then are cake makers so obsessed with achieving stark white buttercream?
I believe the reason has a lot to do with fondant cakes. Traditionally, custom cakes were covered with fondant, marzipan, whipped cream, or American buttercream all of which are white. However, in recent years, we’ve seen a rise in tasty buttercream such as Italian, Swiss, French, and DTC buttercream which are meringue based. These buttercream typically use egg whites or whole eggs and real butter. This naturally produces ivory instead of stark white buttercream.
When the modern buttercream scene was becoming established about 5 years ago, us modern buttercream cake makers felt we had something to prove to the traditional baking scene. We felt that whatever you can do with fondant, we could do with buttercream. Sharp edges with fondant? No worries, here are sharp edges with buttercream. Stark white fondant? …Yup, we can do that too. It’s like we have a point to prove.
Social media also plays a significant role in our obsession with white buttercream. We tend to forget that social media is edited. Brightness is increased, filters are sometimes used. It’s important to remember that social media is not real life. It can set unrealistic expectations for what our cakes should look like because if one baker can do it, then we should be able to do it as well, right?
Don't Compromise The Quality of Your Product
My personal stance on white buttercream is that the obsession is unhealthy. You choose real, natural ingredients for your product because they taste good and produce high quality cakes. Don’t compromise the quality of your cakes just to achieve unrealistic colours that don’t really matter in the end. I’m talking about adding copious amounts of whitening that ends up changing the consistency and taste of the buttercream.
Sure there are a number of tricks that can help you lighten the colour of your buttercream without adding copious amounts of white food colouring. We teach these tricks in Buttercream Cake Mastery.. However, beyond this, let go of the unrealistic expectations that buttercream can be naturally stark white.
Moreover, a stark white cake can appear ivory under dim lighting (which is a common scenario for night time events) and an ivory cake can appear white in bright, broad daylight.
Obsessing over a difference of one shade (white vs light ivory) isn’t going to do you any good. Focus your energy where it matters most, the quality of your cakes. Enjoy the cake making process and invest in upskilling and honing your skills. Take pride in the premium ingredients that you choose and how they taste. Don’t lose sleep over one single shade of white.
Educate Your Clients
At the end of the day, it comes down to educating your clients. You know that butter is naturally yellow and by using real, pure butter, your buttercream cake will taste delicious. It will also be a nice, light ivory rather than stark white. If someone comes to you with a picture of a stark white cake, you may explain that it could be one of the below scenarios:
- The cake is made with fondant which has the ability to be stark white.
- The cake most likely had copious amounts of whitening added to it which won’t taste good
- OR the picture has undergone some minor editing.
If meringue based buttercream cakes is your specialty, explain so with pride. Inform the client that your buttercream is made with eggs and butter which results in a nice, light ivory colour and a far superior taste. I’ve never had a customer argue with me over a shade difference after I’ve properly set the right expectations.
Always be upfront and educate your customers instead of compromising the taste to make something look unnaturally white. Ultimately, taste is what the customer will remember. It won’t matter if the cake was perfectly white when it tasted weird. They’ll only remember that your cake didn’t taste good and won’t come back to you for their next event.