The background science of butter churning

The fat globule

Milk fat is comprised mostly of triglycerides, with small amounts of mono- and diglycerides, phospholipids, glycolipids, and lipo-proteins. The trigylcerides (98% of milkfat) are of diverse composition with respect to their component fatty acids, approximately 40% of which are unsaturated fat firmness varies with chain length, degree of unsaturation, and position of the fatty acids on the glycerol. Fat globules vary from 0.1 - 10 micron in diameter. The fat globule membrane is comprised of surface active materials: phospholipids and lipoproteins.

Fat globules typically aggregate in three ways:

  • flocculation
  • coalescence
  • partial coalescence

Whipping and Churning

Many milk products foam easily. Skim milk foams copiously with the amount of foam being very dependent on the amount of residual fat - fat depresses foaming. The foaming agents are proteins, the amount of proteins in the foam are proportional to their contents in milk. Foaming is decreased in heat treated milk, possibly because denaturated whey proteins produce a more brittle protein layer at the interface. Fats tend to spread over the air-water interface and destabilize the foam; very small amounts of fats (including phospholipids) can destabilize a foam.

During the interaction of fat globules with air bubbles the globule may also be disrupted (this is the only way that fat globules can be disrupted without considerable energy input). Disruption of the fat globule by interaction between the fat globule and air bubbles is rare except in the case of newly formed air bubbles where the air-water interfacial layer is still thin. If part of the fat globule is solid, churning will result, hence the term "flotation churning" -from repeated rupturing of air bubbles and resulting coalescence of the adsorbed fat.

In spite of the above comments on the destabilization of foams by fat, milk fat is essential for the formation of stable whipped products which depend on the interaction between fat globules, air bubbles and plasma components (esp. proteins).

When cream is beaten air cells form more slowly partly because of higher viscosity and partly because the presence of fat causes immediate collapse of most of the larger bubbles. If most of the fat is liquid (high temperature) the fat globule membrane is not readily punctured and churning does not occur -at cold temperature where solid fat is present, churning (clumping) of the fat globule takes place. Clumps of globules begin to associate with air bubbles so that a network of air bubbles and fat clumps and globules form entrapping all the liquid and producing a stable foam. If beating continues the fat clumps increase in size until they become too large and too few to enclose the air cells, hence air bubbles coalesce, the foam begins to "leak" and ultimately butter and butter milk remain.