Butter Churn Technology: What’s the Breakthrough?

Over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo, their technology columnist, takes on the question of butter technology.

My homemade butter was delicious, just about the best butter I’d ever tasted. (I am an expert on the taste of butter; ask my wife or my doctor.) But it was also extremely expensive—I’d spent nearly $10 in high-end cream to make about a pound of butter, which is about $4 more than I’d have spent to buy very nice butter made from the same fancy dairy that had produced my cream. For doing the work myself, I’d paid 67 percent more. And even if I’d bought cheaper cream, I couldn’t have come close to matching the price (not to mention the convenience) of store-bought butter.

via Butter churn technology: How it advanced over time (and why it didn’t advance very fast). – Slate Magazine.

So off he goes on a quest to understand American butter making and why, in spite of all the efforts (and patents) for better butter churns, it took so long to make a better butter churn.

Now I love anyone who’s prepared to admit that there’s more to technology than IT.  I love anyone who embraces new cooking and processing techniques.  And the photographs he has dug up are pretty nice too.

But in the end, his story is Hamlet without the prince.  His denouement is that in the early 1900s, smaller hand cranked churns replaced big, hand plunged churns.  Well, good.  They did speed up churning and thus reduce the very considerable labor.

Glass container for churning butter

3 quart Blow Butter Churn

But not by all that much.  I used to watch my grandmother churning butter in her Blow Butter Churn in the 1950s. It was a long, laborious process.

She did because she liked the quality of the cream from the house cow (a Guernsey that gave small amounts of high fat milk) better than the quality from the dairy cows (Friesians who produced lots of relatively low-fat milk).

What really reduced the labor was the power-driven mechanical churn that substituted fossils fuels for human labor.

The cream is placed in a large, mechanical churn usually made of aluminum. Some of these industrial-sized churns can make 1,500-5,000 pounds (681-2270 kg) of butter at a time. When the churn is activated, it tumbles the cream, much like the motion of a clothes dryer, while a worker watches the process through a small glass window on the churn. After about 45 minutes, small granules of butter begin to form, and the butter and buttermilk are separated. Salt is added, and the mixture is churned further. When this process is completed, a stainless steel mobile device sometimes called a “boat” is placed adjacent to the opening of the mechanical churn. The door of the churn is opened, and the butter begins to spill out into the boat; activating the churn removes the rest.

via How butter and margarine is made.

Power driven industrial churns, not better hand churns, were the breakthrough that makes modern butter affordable.


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6 thoughts on “Butter Churn Technology: What’s the Breakthrough?

  1. evilcyber

    I can’t say I’m tempted to try making my own butter, but the effort serves to remind us of something rather important: how much work has been taken off our hands to eat and enjoy many foods whose presence we today take for granted.

    In the pre-industrial age, butter was a pure luxury. You had to have cows, who are rather expensive to maintain, and whose milk itself was a priced commodity. Then you had to milk them and go through the entire process as described in your article.

    Just getting to eat a simple piece of bread meant quite a bit of labor: sowing seeds, watering them, reaping, threshing, grinding, preparing dough and baking it.

  2. Nick Trachet

    The county of Flanders was iin the Ancien Régime known as Butter Country. The peasants made and sold butter and lived themselves on butter milk. Why? Because the butter was needed by the weavers who greased their weaving threads with it against wear! Enormous amounts of butter were used this way.
    Remember Europe had a shortage of oils and fats before the colonial/petrol era.

    There was an intermediate technology in churning: not far from Brussels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sint-Gertrudis-Pede) is a village with a Water mill that sports a dog wheel driven churn!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Nick, Good to hear from you. The butter example is perfect. And you are so right about intermediate technologies. I must blog about that too.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      These look much more serious than the American ones, Nick. Thanks for sending them. I’ll edit the post to include one.


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