To quote a familiar adage, things are not always what they seem to be. We know that Avraham Avinu fed חמאה to the מלאכים but was it really “butter”? Rashi (Bereishis 18:8) explains חמאה to be שומן החלב שקולטין מעל פניו, which implies that is cream and not butter. The Targum seems to concur by translating as ושמן. Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l feels that the pasuk is referring to “cottage cheese” – he leaves it to the Septuagint to translate חמאה as conventional butter (The Living Torah שם). Interestingly, some editions of Rashi state “חמאה – בור“א בלע“ז” “buerre” being the French word for butter! Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, zt”l argues that חמאה originally referred to a fermented milk product (leben?), derived from the word “חמא” – להחמיץ. Clearly, things are not always as they seem.
The term חמאה used in poskim clearly refers to butter as we normally use the word. Butter in halacha even enjoys special consideration in that many shitos do not consider butter to be subject to the restrictions of chalav akum (see Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 115:7 and Shach ad loc.).
However, what is available today may indeed not have the same halacha as discussed in the poskim. Modern food processing technology seems to have foiled this erstwhile pristine heritage.
Butter is classically made by churning fresh dairy cream so that the butterfat flocculates (clumps together) and forms butter, leaving buttermilk behind (more on buttermilk later). Butter contains about 80-85% butterfat, the balance being water and other milk components. [A new process for the production of butter involves the separation of butterfat from cream using high speed centrifuges, after which the butterfat is cooled in a votator, similar to the production of margarine.] While fresh dairy cream poses no kashrus issues (again, see more about cream later in this article) other than concerns of chalav Yisroel, other sources of cream are available. Whey, the byproduct of cheese making contains a significant amount of butterfat, which is collected and sold as whey cream. Mozzarella cheese is cooked in a hot water bath, and the fat that leeches from the cheese into this water is also recovered and sold as whey cream (although this terminology is not wholly accurate). Cream from both of these sources can be used to make butter, and each has its own halachic issues.
While there are a number of shitos concerning the halachic status of whey from gevinat akum (see Daf HaKashrus Daf HaShana Vol. 1 pg. 20), the OU’s position on such whey is that it must come from cheese productions which use kosher rennet and where the whey is not heated above 120ºF together with the curd. Cream that is recovered from the cook water of non-kosher Mozzarella cheese-where the cheese is cooked to temperatures well in excess of yad soledes bo-is not acceptable. Since both of these types of cream are used to make butter, appropriate safeguards must be put into place to ensure that butter which is approved for kosher use is not subject to these concerns.
The USDA has established a grading system for butter. Grade AA is considered the highest quality, followed by Grade A, Grade B, and lower qualities. The basis for this grading is “organoleptic”-one of taste-the milder the taste, the higher the grade, regardless of the type of cream used. (Ironically, the butter with the more “buttery” flavor is graded lower than its blander cousin.) While it is true that fresh dairy cream has the freshest taste and is best suited for the manufacture of Grade AA butter, it is also the most expensive. Whey cream suffers from degradation during the cheese process and typically has a stronger flavor, but it is also less expensive. Butter makers are adept in blending various grades of whey cream to be able to obtain a Grade A-or even a Grade AA-butter from less than pure fresh dairy cream. Research has confirmed that we can no longer rely on the assumption that Grade AA butter is free of questionable cream. As such, butter is no longer considered a Group 1 ingredient and must be verified as a kosher product.
Changes in the group status of an ingredient occur from time to time, even in a foodstuff as basic and ancient as butter. RC’s will soon be requesting mashgichim to help canvass companies which use butter and butter oil to establish the sources for these materials. This information will then be analyzed to determine which sources are acceptable. We must work together to ensure that this new requirement is addressed in a timely and efficient manner, and that both the RC and the mashgiach work to explain this change to the companies and ensure its implementation.
Please also note that “butter oil” and “anhydrous milk fat” are made from butter which is heated to remove the milk curd and moisture, leaving pure milk fat. Kosher concerns for this type of product are complicated by the fact that the typical butter used for this purpose is lower grade material, the type most often made from whey cream.
Other issues relating to “pure” butter involve the use of various ingredients added to the product. Lactic acid, cultures, diacetyl, and starter distillate (in addition to salt) are often added to butter to improve its flavor. These ingredients, while generally kosher, may pose issues regarding chalav Yisroel.
As extra food for thought we should note that “cream” may not be pure cream and “buttermilk” may have nothing to do with butter. “Whipping” cream often contains emulsifiers, gelatin, and other ingredients-clearly not the fresh cream your (grand)parents may remember skimming from the top of milk bottles. Unless one can verify that a cream is pure, assume that it requires a reliable hashgacha.
There are also “two dinim” in buttermilk. True buttermilk is the fluid left over after churning cream into butter. This is generally the “powdered buttermilk” used in industrial applications such as ice cream and baked goods. Such buttermilk is subject to the same kashrus consideration as butter discussed above. The “buttermilk” sold in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, however, usually is completely unrelated to butter manufacture. It is actually called “cultured buttermilk”, and is made by adding a culture to skim milk, along with emulsifiers and stabilizers which may include non-kosher glycerin and gelatin. Clearly, such a product requires a reliable hashgacha.
Food chemists are quite resourceful, in the dairy industry as in all areas of the food supply. “Pure and wholesome” staples are not necessarily as simple as they may seem, and the kashrus professional must be ever vigilant in ascertaining their kashrus.