When Being Yellow Bellied is a Good Thing…
We love the first day of butter making. There’s nothing like churning the first cream of the season into a 1200 pound mountain of smooth, lightly salted, very yellow butter. As we take a ceremonial first taste, we have to ask: why is spring butter so magical?
Milk is a complex mixture of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and other miscellaneous constituents dispersed in water. Yet, the amount of these components vary based on the cow’s diet, the breed of cow, and a cow’s stage of lactation. Being a seasonal, grass-fed dairy is reflected in how our butter tastes and also how it changes over the course of the grazing season.
Spring butter has an unmistakable yellow glow. This color is affected by the increased amount of fresh grass in the cows’ diet during the spring as they start grazing. Fresh forage is bountiful in carotenoids, classes of mainly yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments, which then manifests in our high fat butter. When ingested by a cow, one carotenoid in particular, beta-carotene, is converted to vitamin A. This results in a butter with a higher vitamin A content in the spring. Winter butter is produced primarily when the cows are on stored feed such as hay and hay ferment, so it is paler in comparison.
If you don’t notice a huge change of color in our butter, it’s ok. Many of the cows that produce our butter are mixes of breeds that naturally produce milk with a higher carotene content regardless of the season (i.e. Jerseys and Guernseys). Also, very often the cows at Red Gate Farm are grazing fresh forage well into November, and don’t stop milking until December. So, there is a small window in which we are creating “winter butter” from a mix of fresh forage and stored forage. Because of all of these variables, the color shift over the grazing season is subtle, gradual and not at all linear.
More than just the color, the texture of Meadow Butter changes over the season as well. Spring butter is perfectly spreadable, if not slightly leaky, while winter butter can be firmer, even appear to be somewhat brittle. This change reflects the saturation of milk fat in the butter. The presence of longer-chain saturated fatty acids increases the hardness of butter. Milk with a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acid content tends to create softer, runnier products.
During their outdoor grazing period, our cows’ milk is composed of lower saturated fatty acids and higher unsaturated fatty acid concentrations. During the winter, when the herd is fed stored forage, the reverse is true and our cream contains more saturated fats and less unsaturated fats. Saturated fat molecules are more uniform, and they form crystal structures more readily than unsaturated fats. These fat crystals yield a firmer product with a higher melting point. Many bakers consider the firmness of winter butter better for baking, finding that it makes it easier to work into a dough and bakes into perfect flaky pastries and crusts.
One final variable that affects Meadow Butter is you. Since, our butter can be frozen without compromising its taste or texture, if you choose to squirrel some away for the winter, then you can enjoy spring butter year-round. In fact, at Kriemhild we store our butter reserves in a commercial freezer between packing and farmer’s markets or wholesale shipments. This storability is also why we attempt to reserve enough to bridge the winter off-season, though (as our regular customers know) demand has historically outpaced our rate of butter-bank deposits -- which is another reason why we “run out” each winter.
Although we at Kriemhild Dairy rejoice the arrival of our spring butter, we celebrate the seasonal variation in dairy. With its cycles, subtleties, ebbs, and flows, we embrace all the nuance that seasonal dairy brings -- yes, even the off-season. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder (and hungrier), and experiencing seasonality garners true appreciation for the natural rhythms of our food system.
As the Butter Churns
Author: Ellen Fagan
Farm and Outreach Coordinator