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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Monday, October 25, 2010

How to Use a Butter Crock or "Butter Bell"

All Things Old Are New Again

I love butter. I mean real, honest to goodness, the way the gods intended it to be butter. Not that cheap imitation foisted off on the world by a French chemist, but the real stuff that comes from real milk produced by real cows.

Considering that when I was born, the greasy, pasty white substitute (you had to dye it yellow yourself) was actually illegal in my home state, it's small wonder I have such an affection for the real thing.

All that said, there is one thing about butter that I don't like: fresh from the refrigerator, it's impossible to spread. Or so I thought until I rediscovered a “lost” technology from days gone by – the butter crock.

The butter crock is a device that originated, oddly enough, in the same place that spawned butter's unworthy stand-in. When it debuted in France in the late 19th century, it went by various names, including Beurrier à l'eau", "Beurrier Breton", "Beurrier Normand", and "Cloche de beurre." Some people say that the concept is much older, dating back to the Middle Ages and undergoing periodic “revivals” as new generations rediscovered the old methods. When American potters began producing and marketing the old-timey, new-fangled gadget at craft fairs and such in the 1970s and '80s, they just called it a French Butter Dish or a Butter Crock.

(Today, the contrivance is commonly called a “Butter Bell.” However, it should be noted that “Butter Bell” is a registered trademark of L. Tremain, Inc., a leading manufacturer of butter crocks. The practice of calling the product a “butter bell” is somewhat like calling a facial tissue a “Kleenex” or a sterile adhesive bandage a “Band-Aid.”)

The design is simple. The butter crock consists of two parts: a hollow cylindrical base into which water is poured, and a cup – usually bell-shaped – that contains the butter and also serves as a lid.

So how does it work? The concept is as simple as the design.

Butter has been around for a very long time, right? Refrigeration has not. So how did people keep butter fresh in the days before refrigeration? They employed various incarnations of the butter crock.

You see, temperature is not the real enemy of butter's creamy freshness. Oxygen is. So before there were refrigerators – or even ice boxes – fresh butter was stored in earthenware pots. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured out that if you submerged one of the pots in a larger vessel of water, the pot containing the butter would be perfectly sealed and the butter itself would remain fresh for long periods of time.

So it is with a butter crock. You simply take a stick of butter (or two, depending on capacity) out of the refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly, just enough to be malleable. Then you pack the butter into the cup or lid part of the crock, making sure that the butter is thoroughly packed in with no air pockets or gaps. Then you put just enough cold water in the base part of the crock to ensure an airtight seal when the inverted cup is inserted into the base. You only need an inch or two of water. Any more will just be displaced and slosh out when the seal is formed. No refrigeration is required and the butter will remain fresh and spreadably soft right from the countertop for up to a month.

There are a couple of caveats to keep in mind. Besides not overfilling the base with water, the water itself must be kept fresh and cool. It is recommended that the water be changed every two or three days.

It is also recommended that the butter crock be kept in an environment below 80°F. Above this mark, the butter may soften too much and slip out of the cup.

And, of course, the butter crock should be kept clean. When you run out of butter in the cup, wash both parts of the assembly in warm soapy water before refilling with fresh butter and clean water.

You should know, too, that butter crocks are only to be used with real butter. The cheap pretender has a completely different chemical makeup and will not fare well in a butter crock.

So there you have it. No more reason at all to buy the chemical-compound-in-a-tub just so you can have something to spread on your bread. Butter crocks are reasonably priced, readily available, and will sit decoratively on your table or counter, providing you with easy to measure, easy to spread, real, fresh, wholesome sweet cream butter.

Any cow will tell you; it's a smart moooo-ve.

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