Navigation Menu+

butter tester

An instrument used to remove a core sample from a vat of butter, for the sake of testing.

“Good butter never goes begging and can always be sold. – R.D. Kedzie, Dairymen’s Association, 1890”

In Farmer Boy, the butter-buyer pushes his butter tester into the tub of butter and he removes a long sample of the good butter made by Mrs. Wilder (see Chapter 19, “Early Harvest”).

Did you ever wonder what a butter-tester looked like? That’s a drawing of one from the “Little House” years; they’re still in use today and something to add to your LH collection (when not hanging on your Christmas tree, you can use it to core apples). Butter testers were about a foot long and uniformly tapered from about 3/4 of an inch at the handle to half an inch at the rounded, sharp, digging end. Also called a butter trier, butter tryer, butter plug, or butter searcher, there were also early testers made with ring-shaped handles, or those made of two slotted tubes, one of which fitted inside the other so that the whole apparatus could be taken apart for cleaning. Perhaps this is the kind that was used on Mother Wilder’s butter. Although the butter-buyer in Farmer Boy used a steel tester, they were also made of nickel, and there were even silver plated ones!

But why test the butter, anyway? Laura Ingalls Wilder implies that it was simply to see if it was solidly packed and “all the same golden, firm, sweet butter” (Chapter 19), something that could be determined by sight only. Properly made butter had a firm body and a waxy feel. Body and texture were controlled by the churning temperature and the conditions of churning, washing, salting, and working the butter. The butter buyer was trying to avoid weak-bodied butter, which would soften quickly. He also didn’t want greasy body, a sign of over-working, or salty, crumbly, mealy, gritty, or leaky butter. If you’ve ever opened a stick of butter and there was obvious moisture, that’s leaky butter.

Color was due to the feed eaten. The type of feed a cow ate could cause high-colored (more orange) or low-colored (more white — get out the carrots and leaky pie tin) butter. Improper working could cause dull, mottled, or wavy butter.

There’s more to butter than its appearance, though, and it turns out that the butter industry was highly regulated even in Almanzo’s day, and there were even right and wrong ways to test the butter.

The best butter testers were also – or had at one time been – butter makers, so they knew what they were doing. Even so, the first step in butter testing was: Wash your hands with soap and water. The trier should also be clean and dry. The trier was pushed into the butter in five locations in the tub (some of them at an angle). There was even a right way to replace the plug in the sample and how to smooth over the butter so there would be no visible signs of disturbance.

A good butter tester was said to be “born, not made.” He also had to have an excellent sense of both taste and smell. He was also to be a “man of character” who would be conscientious, careful and able to make decisions, and to stand by his convictions.

Everyone who has eaten both good butter and bad butter knows the difference between the two. And there were also several tests probably done that Wilder didn’t share with us but could have been performed to determine how much fat the butter contained, to determine its saltiness, and to determine its moisture content. But here are some of the common defects a butter tester was looking for as he took a taste:

(1) Flat flavor – due to excessive washing. In Little House in the Big Woods, we see Caroline Ingalls washing her butter, and Angeline Wilder washed the buttermilk out of her butter in Farmer Boy. Too much cold water, though, could absorb the volatile oils of the butter, leaving it tasteless, or flat.

(2) Stale butter – the off-flavor usually due to butter made from cream from cows at the end of their lactation period. Milk from cows about to go dry could be mixed with milk from fresh cows to avoid this. There was nothing to do if you had one cow and it was late in the season. Maybe the butter Mrs. Boast brought to the “Christmas in May” dinner in The Long Winter was “stripper butter.”

(3) Sour, curdy, or cheesy flavored butter – Caused by high-acid cream, usually from cream shipped a distance prior to being churned.

(4) Unclean tasting butter – Suggested the use of dirty milkpans (remember the scalding and cleaning of the cellar in Farmer Boy?), dirty hands, and dirty water used to wash the butter. Was there a well on the Wilder farm, or did they get their washing water from the same river they washed the sheep in?

(5) Cowy and Barny flavor – From milking cows whose udders and flanks are plastered with manure. Ick.

(6) Musty flavor – Caused by not cooling the cream or letting the “heat of the animal” escape from milk cans before sealing. Could also be caused by cows eating moldy hay, silage, and grain.

(7) Garlicy butter, or butter that tastes like turnips – Obvious causes!

(8) Oily flavor – Resulted from churning sour cream.

(9) through (XXX) Okay, there were all sorts of other “defects,” including fishy taste, metallic taste, obvious mold, rancid butter, woody flavor, scorched taste, and even a category for “off” or “coarse” flavor, which mean two completely different things.

Studying what the butter tester was looking for is enough to scare a person into never eating butter again, especially if you spend too much time looking at pictures of bad butter and forget that you’re living in the twenty-first century, not 1866. Enough already. Why not throw caution to the wind and make your own butter tomorrow? Don’t worry if it’s too leaky or too mottled. Don’t worry about what the cows were eating the day they were milked, or if they were about to go dry. Just get some good, rich cream and get to shaking that jar, unless you’d like to hear how cream was tested and what the cream tester was looking for?


butter tester (FB 19), see also butter