30

I was recently doing some experiments with butter which involved melting it gently in the microwave and pouring it into dishes. It seemed to me that after the butter had cooled and re-solidified, it wasn't really the same. The color was yellower, and the texture somewhat grainy.

Obviously if I microwave the butter a lot, the water will boil off. But I microwaved on low power, stirring frequently, hoping to minimize water loss.

Is there some change that happens to butter when it's melted and then cooled? Or am I imagining things?

  • 3
    Just heating won't get you clarified butter. You need to skim off the top, and leave the bottom behind. But the skin that forms on the top when making clarified butter may be the cause of your graininess. – Chris H Apr 28 '16 at 16:27
  • @ChrisH Yeah, I was wondering about that. – Phil Frost Apr 28 '16 at 17:12
  • Is your question specifically if it's theoretically possible to restore melted butter to butter consistency, why melting changes it, or something else? – The Nate Apr 30 '16 at 17:46
31

Butter may look totally amorphous, but there's actually a fair amount of structure in the fat, in particular fat crystals that make it firmer. Melting it disrupts all that structure, and it can't regain it just by resolidifying, so the structure of previously melted butter really is different.

You might notice that this is similar to chocolate: if you take smooth, snappy tempered chocolate, melt it, and let it resolidify, the texture will often be grainy, soft, or even crumbly. That's also thanks to fat crystals, in that case in the cocoa butter.

To back up a bit, let's look at how butter is made. Churning is the most well-known step, but there's more:

  • Aging (heating, cooling, and storing the cream). The cream is heated and cooled, with resting periods at various temperatures, which encourages formation of certain kinds of fat crystals. (The details of this process vary; for example different temperatures can be used depending on the hardness of the milkfat.)

  • Churning. This damages the fat globules, causing them to release fat, which forms much of the mass of the butter and lets it collect into grains.

  • Working/kneading. After draining off the buttermilk, the grains are kneaded together. This evens out small amounts of buttermilk trapped in the grains, and fat crystals can also come together into larger networks.

So the final butter actually has three forms of fat in it: fat crystals, free fat, and fat globules. The fat crystals make it firmer, and the free fat and globules make it softer. This also explains why butter isn't all the same texture. For example, from On Food and Cooking:

Feeds rich in polyunsaturated fats, especially fresh pasturage, produce softer butters; hay and grain harder ones. The butter maker also influences consistency by the rate and degree of cooling to which he subjects the cream during the aging period, and by how extensively he works the new butter. These conditions control the relative proportions of firming crystalline fat and softening globular and free fat.

So when you melt and resolidify butter, it's not just a simple solid to liquid to solid thing. You're disrupting the crystals, and potentially even rupturing a few more fat globules. That means a couple things:

  • There's likely more free fat and less crystals, which explains why previously melted butter can be much softer than the original butter.

  • The crystals that do remain or reform won't have the same structure as the original ones, since you didn't follow the same heating/cooling/storing regimen. That explains the graininess you noticed. It's possible that working/kneading the butter might even that back out to some extent.

The exact texture of your previously melted butter will probably vary, depending on how hot you melted it and how fast you cooled it afterwards.

29

Part of making butter is churning... the churning process introduces a ton of air into the butter. When you melt it, all of the air is released so you should never expect melted butter to return to the same state it was before it was melted.

The air trapped in butter is what causes the lighter color you see... if you take softened butter and whip it (as the first step in baking cookies, for example), the butter will get even lighter in color.

The same thing happens with ice cream when it is melted... churning introduces air and melting releases that air... which is why you can't refreeze ice cream that has melted.

  • 13
    Do you have any reference that supports "the churning process introduces a ton of air into the butter"? It looks more likely to me that the suspension that makes the nontransparent appearence is of water in fat rather than air in fat. This is similar to mayonnaise, and the opposite of milk which is fat globules in aqeuous solution. Moreover, while you can see the bubbles coming out from melting ice cream, that doesn't happen for melting butter. – Tony Apr 29 '16 at 1:34
20

There is indeed a physical change that occurs.

If you think back to grade school science you probably remember learning about solutions and suspensions, and how the former is a mixture that stays mixed when left alone (like saltwater) and the latter is a insoluble particles dispersed in a liquid, which separate if left alone (like water and sand if you shake them up together)

Solid butter is what's called a colloidal suspension, which is basically a cross between the two. It's a suspension in a solidified state where it stays uniformly mixed. When butter is heated to the point of liquefying, the fat and protein components separate because of their different densities. Once they've come apart they're going to remain that way when the butter cools.

Attempting to mix the layers back together during cooling would bring it slightly closer to how it was at first, but it would still be impossible to mix the fat and nonfat as uniformly as it was to begin with.

  • Your conclusions seem correct, but your definitions are a little off: a suspension contains insoluble solids; a colloid contains (insoluble) gases. – luser droog Apr 28 '16 at 23:09
  • 6
    Oxford dictionary defines colloid as "A homogeneous, noncrystalline substance consisting of large molecules or ultramicroscopic particles of one substance dispersed through a second substance. Colloids include gels, sols, and emulsions; the particles do not settle and cannot be separated out by ordinary filtering or centrifuging like those in a suspension." They can contain gases, but many don't. For instance, an emulsion is two liquids that don't mix. I did mess up by saying oil/water is a suspension though. Good catch – Barkode Apr 28 '16 at 23:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.