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The Kashrus of Butter – Much More than Meets the Eye

by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

Originaly published by Daf Hakashrus, Issue 18. Reprinted with permission of the Author.

Butter is one of the most deceptively complicated dairy products for the kosher consumer. Due to its simplicity (butter is basically cream, with salt occasionally added), there is a misconception that kosher certification is not needed.

Let’s take a look at butter manufacture and its resultant kashrus concerns. (Although we would normally present the ingredients first, we’ll save the excitement for last.)

Production

Cream, which is liquid dairy fat, is aged, during which it is held at cool temperatures in a tank for 12-15 hours in order for its fat to crystallize properly, so as to prepare it for churning.

Next, the cream is pasteurized and is then churned. The churning process, which ideally occurs at 55-65 F degrees, agitates the cream and causes its fat solids to cluster together into butter grains. The leftover liquid from this process, which has lower concentrations of fat (but is nonetheless pretty fatty), is called buttermilk. (It should be noted that retail buttermilk is actually not derived from butter production and has nothing to do with actual buttermilk; rather, retail buttermilk is milk that contains buttermilk flavors and cultures.)

The butter grains are worked together to create consistency, after which they may be salted. They are then molded into shape and packaged.

Some butter is made from cream that has been cultured. This involves ripening the cream prior to churning, by dosing it with bacteria that convert the cream’s lactose (dairy sugar) into lactic acid, thereby endowing it with a pungent taste. This type of butter is called cultured butter, and is especially popular and common in Europe. Some American butter manufacturers also produce cultured butter.

The ingredient panel on butter often includes “butter flavor“ or “natural flavor”. Both of these designations refer to starter distillate, which is the steam distillate of cultured skim milk. This distillate has a very potent buttery taste and is often added to grade AA butter, which is rather bland tasting without the inclusion of salt or added flavor.

Ingredients

This is where the fun begins, so to say.

Although people typically identify the word “cream” as referring to the fatty component of milk - such cream is industrially termed sweet cream – there is a second type of cream that can be used in butter manufacture. This second type of cream, called whey cream, is the fatty component of whey, derived from cheese production. Although sweet cream is kosher, as it is a natural part of milk, whey cream is often not kosher, as it comes from whey, which is highly kosher-sensitive. (Please see the 5776/2016 Consumer Daf HaKashrus for more information about the kashrus of whey, at https://oukosher.org/content/uploads/2016/11/2016-issue-10-shavuos.pdf.)

Some companies manufacture butter from whey cream; this butter is called whey cream butter or whey butter. And some companies manufacture butter from a blend of sweet cream and whey cream.

Before approaching actual kashrus concerns, we must speak about butter grading. Butter is graded not on its actual quality, but rather on its purity of taste and texture. In technical terms, butter is graded organoleptically. The higher the grade, the more pure (bland and smooth) the butter. Here are the basic butter grades of the USDA (from Butter Grades and Standards - https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/butter-grades-and-standards):

U.S. Grade AA butter conforms to the following: Possesses a fine and highly pleasing butter flavor. May possess a slight feed and a definite cooked flavor. It is made from sweet cream of low natural acid to which a culture (starter) may or may not have been added.

U.S. Grade A butter conforms to the following: Possesses a pleasing and desirable butter flavor. May possess any of the following flavors to a slight degree: Acid, aged, bitter, coarse, flat, smothered, and storage. May possess feed flavor to a definite degree.

U.S. Grade B butter conforms to the following: Possesses a fairly pleasing butter flavor. May possess any of the following flavors to a slight degree: Malty, musty, neutralizer, scorched, utensil, weed, and whey. May possess any of the following flavors to a definite degree: Acid, aged, bitter, smothered, storage, and old cream; feed flavor to a pronounced degree.

Typically, Grade AA butter is made from sweet cream, as whey cream, which is tangy and less smooth due to its cheese origins, would result is a lower grade product. Grade A and Grade B butter are normally made from whey cream, although they may also contain some sweet cream.

Kashrus Concerns

Based on the above, one would think that Grade AA butter is inherently kosher. In fact, the above-cited USDA document states that Grade AA butter comes from sweet cream.

Nonetheless, the OU has been told by industry experts that even Grade AA butter could include whey cream, so long as the butter meets the organoleptic threshold for a Grade AA product. This is one reason that a person should not purchase butter without reliable kosher certification.

Furthermore, whey cream is not always identified as an ingredient in butter that contains it. Such butter – which is commonly sold on the retail level as Grade A (not Grade AA) product – commonly lists mere “cream” in its ingredient panel.

Even if AA Grade butter would be manufactured exclusively from sweet cream, such butter very often contains added flavor (starter distillate), which is highly kosher-sensitive and requires tight hashgocho. Similarly, the cultures used in cultured butter are highly kosher-sensitive and necessitate careful supervision.

Butter facilities at times handle various types of cream. Some butter facilities produce sweet cream and whey cream butter, and these products are manufactured on shared equipment. Other butter facilities also process fluids other than cream; these facilities are all-purpose dairy plants, which may process juices (including grape juice) and totally unexpected other bulk fluids. (I am quite familiar with one butter manufacturer that spray dries non-kosher chicken broth and liquefied non-kosher cheese into powder.) One can never know what else goes on in a butter facility. For this and the above reasons, the OU does not accept butter without fully reliable kosher supervision, including the mashgiach verifying the kosher status of every load of cream that is received for use.

Rav Belsky zt”l explained that even though there is a widespread custom for many people who only consume cholov Yisroel products to use cholov stam butter (v. Shulchan Aruch - Yoreh Deah 115:3), the presence of starter distillate in butter negates this heter, as starter distillate, which is a separate cholov stam ingredient added to butter, is not exempted from cholov Yisroel requirements according to the position that would otherwise permit cholov stam butter.

Other Related Products

Butter has a few “cousins”; they are worth meeting, while we are on the topic.

Clarified butter is butter of a higher fat concentration. It is manufactured by melting butter, which causes fat solids to rise to the surface; these fat solids are then skimmed off and are formed into clarified butter.

This separation of fact solids from butter can also be achieved by centrifugation; the resultant product is called butter oil.

Anhydrous milkfat (AMF) is butter oil, but with a higher milkfat concentration. (Butter oil is 99.3% milkfat, whereas AMF is 99.8% milkfat.)

Ghee, which is the sibling of clarified butter, is produced by simmering butter and gathering together the fat that precipitates out.

Needless to say, butter’s “cousins” share its needs for reliable hashgocho. In fact, there are numerous additional ingredient and equipment concerns that arise with these products, and reliable kosher certification is hence an absolute must.

Kosher certification of butter entails much detailed work. It can be rough, but it is doable and is done quite well. The result for the consumer is butter with an AA kashrus grade, whose smooth texture and flavor are matched only by the smooth and thorough kosher systems set in place by the OU.

 


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