An impressive pandemic project if ever there was one, chef Joshna Maharaj turned 12 litres of whipping cream into butter. In the spring, as Toronto restaurants and culinary schools emptied their pantries in preparation for lockdown, friends enlisted the food activist’s help. After delivering goods to community food centres, she discovered a forgotten case of cream lurking in the back of her car. Naturally, there would be clotted cream, Maharaj decided. And butter. Lots of butter.
If you’ve ever whipped cream for a touch too long, you know how easy it can be to inadvertently make butter. In 15 years of being a chef, Maharaj had occasionally ended up with accidental butter, but this was her first time intentionally transforming cream into the dairy product.
“It connected a block of unknown for me,” says Maharaj. “I was fascinated by the whole process, and of the work required by me to hand-knead and press out air bubbles. I really got into that whole thing and did underwater manipulations to see if there were any air pockets. I was really into it, actually. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it.”
After exhausting her supply of donated dairy, she picked up a couple litres of local, organic cream for the sake of comparison. Too rich and thick for the spout, she had to cut open the carton and scrape out the cream with a spatula. And then there was the colour: “Organic cream has this slight blush that makes my heart race a little bit. It’s so beautiful.”
She started experimenting with add-ins, incorporating honey and thyme, turmeric (which after a night in the fridge became “a really electric version of itself”), and her most successful concoction, a mixture of saffron and cardamom. She also made ghee, smearing the toasted milk solids on chapati: “With a little bit of crunchy salt, that is a lovely thing.”
Each rough log wrapped in wax paper and labelled with the date, Maharaj treated her homemade butter as a precious commodity. Laughing at herself for taking it so seriously, she evaluated the worthiness of each application.
Surely the pinnacle of daughterly love, she delivered afternoon tea to her mom on Mother’s Day — complete with freshly baked scones still warm from the oven. Instead of grating in regular unsalted butter, as she would have usually done, she used her homemade saffron-cardamom version for the scones. “I was like, ‘Mom, I made the butter,’” Maharaj recalls. “And even her eyes were like, ‘You made the butter?!’”
Few people have likely spent as much time and effort procuring butter as Maharaj has during the pandemic, but Canada is undoubtedly in the midst of a boom. In 2020, butter sales grew by 21 per cent, according to Nielsen.
Given that the average growth over the past several years has been three to four per cent, says Vince Vetere, general manager of cheese and table spreads at Lactalis Canada (maker of Lactantia and Beatrice butters), this double-digit increase is significant. Retail sales were so strong in 2020, they offset the drop in foodservice business brought on by pandemic-related restrictions and closures.
Butter demand is typically seasonal, increasing around holidays and other festivities that call for baking, decreasing during the summer. The waves of the pandemic, though, created a new kind of seasonality as butter sales spiked during periods of lockdown, says Vetere. As people sought solace in baking and started cooking the vast majority of their meals at home, they turned to butter in droves.
Made year-round, any excess supply is put into storage during periods of lower demand. “Thankfully we had some inventory — as I’m sure other manufacturers (did) — and were able to meet the initial spikes. Once we saw that there was continued demand through wave one, of course we amplified our efforts to produce as much as we possibly could,” says Vetere.
“But we’re in a regulated market — quota is at a premium and we only have so much availability of cream. Cream can be used in many different ways in dairy. Whether we use it in cheese production or butter production, we have to balance our cream supply the best way we possibly can to meet all the demand that consumers will have.”
Just as butter consumption is dependent on the seasons, so too is butter itself — though we might not draw the same seasonal associations as with strawberries, pumpkins or apples. A reflection of terroir, cow breed and feed, its complex flavour is the result of more than 500 fatty acids and 400 volatile compounds, writes Jennifer McLagan in Fat (Ten Speed Press, 2008).
Butter may be a minimum of 80 per cent fat (the rest is mostly water), but it shouldn’t only taste fatty: good butter is an expression of what the cows eat.
“In spring and early summer, butter is a deeper yellow because the cows eat grass at this time of year, which has a high percentage of orange and yellow carotenes. The pasture is also filled with herbs and flowers, which gives the butter floral and herbal notes,” McLagan writes. “In winter, the cow’s diet is supplemented with silage, so the butter is pale, higher in fat, firmer and milder in taste.”
Up until the 1880s, the seasonal rhythm of butter-making would have been very familiar to Canadian farming families, says food historian Fiona Lucas. Butter was an important part of their income — they would sell it at markets or exchange it for other products at dry goods stores.
As margarine took hold following the Second World War, butter became less of a staple. Margarine was the fat of choice in Lucas’s house growing up in the 1960s, and she has fond memories of the little pouch of food colouring that came with it (a workaround for bans on colouration, which continued until 1995 in Ontario and 2008 in Quebec).
“I loved to work that orange dye into the white margarine,” she says. “So it became a pale yellow colour — it looked a bit more like butter.”
With today’s clean-label trends, people are increasingly choosing butter over processed alternatives, such as margarine, Food Dive reports. The popularity of high-fat diets like keto have also added to its appeal. Butter is associated with cleanliness and purity, Lucas says, which may be part of the reason Canadians are gravitating towards it now. “It just seems better somehow to buy blocks of it rather than tubs of fat,” she says, laughing.
While the fact that we’re baking and cooking more at home explains the mechanics of why Canadians are buying more butter, Maharaj sees it as filling an emotional need. Like a cosy hoodie, butter provides a source of comfort.
“It’s not just about baking. People are buying butter and using butter because we have all given ourselves a green light to go for it,” Maharaj laughs. “All the bras have come off and the button waistbands are a thing of the past.”
Surrendering to butter’s unique charms feels slightly subversive in January, a month typically commandeered by diet culture. But rather than drawing lines, defining it as either dietary friend or foe, it’s more rewarding to think of ways to make it special. Seeking out different varieties, trying your hand at making your own and cooking dishes that bring out the best in butter.
Some of Maharaj’s favourite uses have a tenderness about them: the gentleness of making scones and biscuits, the undivided attention she gives her steak as she bastes it with butter in a cast-iron pan.
“I don’t know that there’s any more dotey, fussy thing to do in the kitchen than to constantly butter-baste your steak on the stove. It’s a real indulgence and a real luxury,” says Maharaj. “I usually have TV or a podcast or something on when I’m in the kitchen, but I noted when I was eating that it was silent. It was just me and this glorious, buttery steak.”
Recipe and image excerpted from Fat by Jennifer McLagan. Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer McLagan. Photography © 2008 by Leigh Beisch. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
2 cups (500 mL) good-quality high-fat whipping cream
1/2 tsp (0.17 oz/5 g) fine sea salt (optional)
Pour the cream into a bowl of a stand mixer and let it warm up to about 60°F (15°C). Using the whisk attachment, whip the cream on medium-low speed. The cream will thicken, become stiff and then start to break down. After 7 to 15 minutes, depending on the cream, it will separate into a milky liquid and globules of fat, and the latter will collect on the whisk. Stop whisking.
Remove the pieces of butter from the whisk and place them in a fine-mesh sieve. Strain the liquid from the bowl through the sieve. This liquid is true buttermilk and you can drink it. Rinse the pieces of butter under cold running water until the water runs clear. This rinses off the remaining whey, which could turn the butter rancid.
Using your hands, squeeze the butter hard to remove the excess water. Place it on a work surface and knead it with your hands and a dough scraper to remove any remaining water.
If you prefer salted butter, work the salt into the soft butter with your hands. Using your hands, shape the butter as you like, wrap it well and refrigerate. The butter will keep for up to a week.
Makes: about 3/4 cup (6 oz/175 g)