One of the most versatile dairy products is butter. Butter is easy to make, stores well, and can improve just about any bland dish. Likely when you decided to purchase your dairy cow, fresh butter was high on your list of anticipated dairy products.
But like so many aspects of farming and cooking, butter is a deceptively simple product. If you have consumed commercial butter from supermarkets for your whole life, it may surprise you to discover how different batches of butter can taste significantly dissimilar. The differences will be random to some degree, but as you milk over the year you should see seasonal variation in your butter that you may not have anticipated. Why is butter made in the winter so different than that made in the early spring and summer? How can you anticipate the different qualities of seasonal butter, and how will it affect your baking? This article describes the differences you can expect in your winter butter, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your baked goods.
Some Butter Science
Milk is a notoriously variable product, even under very controlled circumstances. Cream can vary significantly in color, texture, boiling point and flavor. Breed variation can be significant as well, with Guernseys and Jerseys valued for their rich yellow butterfat (naturally high carotene content, regardless of season).
Since butterfat is so changeable, butter manufacturers have developed many ways to ensure that the end result is always similar. While this is probably a good thing (who wants to purchase a product that is never the same?), some wonderful and unique flavors are lost in this quest for consistency. Most homesteaders recognize and appreciate the unique flavor of their cow’s cream, but less frequently addressed is the seasonal variation that is entirely missed in our modern supermarket system.
Why Is Winter Butter Different?
Although colloquially called “winter butter” and “summer butter,” the type of butter a cow produces does not depend upon the season but upon her diet. In the spring and summer, cows predominantly eat fresh grass, while during winter in most climates, cows eat predominantly hay. Thus in climates that allow for year-round grazing, such as New Zealand, Australia and parts of the pacific maritime United States, all butter will essentially be “summer butter” and butter batches will be more consistent. Alternatively, cows fed hay or total mixed rations confined in barns will produce “winter butter” most of the year.
Winter Butter, Summer Butter—How Are They Different?
If your cow freshened in the spring, you will already be familiar with the qualities of “summer butter.” Summer butter is a lovely bright yellow color, and has a rather soft texture. Sometimes, summer butter can even be “leaky” at room temperature and will need to be stored in the refrigerator. During the summer, most homesteaders have access to more cream than they know what to do with, and fresh cream butter is a delicious spread on homemade bread and fresh summer vegetables.
Winter butter is a much different product, and if you are unprepared for the changes, it can be a rather disappointing development. Because the cows are not consuming fresh vegetation, winter butter is pale, sometimes completely white due to the lack of carotene and chlorophyll in the cow’s diet. Winter butter is also drier than summer butter, and can be brittle and difficult to spread. Since this pale, dry butter does not always look appetizing, and since cream becomes much scarcer during the cold months, I have known many homesteaders who cease making butter over the winter, relying on stockpiles of frozen summer butter instead.
So what makes the difference? During the winter, cream will contain more saturated fats, so the resulting butter has a higher melting point than butter made from summer cream. This is because saturated fat molecules are more uniform and form crystals more readily than unsaturated fats. The high number of fat crystals will yield a harder product with a higher melting point.
Although initially uninviting, these marvelous qualities of winter butter yield some of the best baked goods and pastries of the entire year. If you enjoy baking during the cold months, then you will want to use your winter butter wisely!
Baking With Winter Butter
If you have any old-fashioned family recipes in your recipe box, or if you have a cookbook for high-quality pastries, then you may have recipes which call specifically for winter butter. If you do not, however, there are still several types of doughs and pastries which can be improved by using winter butter.
- Shortbreads and Biscuits: Buttery shortbreads and biscuits (especially old-fashioned buttermilk biscuits) are delicious with winter butter. Most of these recipes specify that the butter be cold or “cool room temperature,” but as you work the dough your hands inevitably warm the butter. It is much easier to work the dough with winter butter, and the texture will be perfect even if you are prone to over-handling quick bread dough.
- Spritz Cookies: My German grandmothers and great-grandmothers all made delicious spritz cookies every Christmas season. Although my memories are dim, those cookies stand out strongly in my mind as one of the essential flavors of the season. When I tried to recreate their deliciousness years later, however, my cookies were always gravely disappointing. Their recipe was always far too sticky for the cookie press, and no matter how much I practiced they always looked abysmal. When my family started making butter over the winter, all of that changed! The secret was, of course, winter butter. The firmness of winter butter makes the dough workable without extra flour, allowing for perfectly buttery results.
- Cookie Dough Which Requires Refrigeration: We all have that recipe that makes delicious cookies, but which requires an extra half hour to an hour to chill and “firm up” in the fridge. If you use winter butter, you may be able to skip this refrigeration step entirely, or at least decrease the required time. The firmness of winter butter will allow the dough to be workable at higher temperatures.
- Pastries and Pie Crusts: Perhaps the best use of winter butter is in fussy pastries and pie crusts. The higher melting point of winter butter allows the dough more time to set up in the oven, resulting in flakier pastry. Although I am not much of a pastry chef myself, I have noticed such a difference in the quality of my pastries that I refuse to attempt them any other season. If you have a good recipe, it is very difficult to ruin your dessert with winter butter, while my out-of-season attempts are pretty hit-and-miss.
Of course, the uses for winter butter are practically limitless, and experimenting in your own kitchen can be very rewarding. The best place to start is to find old family recipes that would have been made exclusively during the winter months, and see if using winter butter impacts the flavor or texture for the better. For even richer flavors, use cultured winter butter, and enjoy unique tastes that are not available to those without their own dairy animal. Enjoy your winter butter to its fullest, and all your hard work over the long winter months will seem that much more worthwhile!