Leading up to the twentieth century, our butter making ancestors developed a number of techniques for storing butter during the warm summer months when milk and cream were in abundance in the era before refrigeration was invented. In Ireland the Celtic people would bury their butter in peat bogs in order to preserve it. These so-called bog butters were preserved by the naturally acidic environment of the peat, and could be dug up during the winter months and given a rinse before being consumed. As discussed in Part III of my blog series on butter, other societies took to heavily salting their butter and storing it in large tubs. One other solution for long-term butter storage that was employed in the nineteenth century in particular was pickling butter. This technique consisted of whipping up a brine bath to be poured over rolls of butter stored in a barrel. One cookbook from 1887 describes the process as follows:
“First work your butter into small rolls, wrapping each one in a clean muslin cloth, tying them up with a string. Make a brine, say three gallons, having it strong enough of salt to bear up an egg; add half a teacupful of pure, white sugar and one tablespoon of saltpetre; boil the brine and when cold strain it carefully. Pour it over the rolls to more than cover them, as this excludes air. Place a weight over all to keep the rolls under the surface.”
When one was in need of butter during the winter, if you had gone through the process of pickling during the summer then all you had to do was remove a chunk of butter from the barrel, submerge it in a cool bowl of water, and let it soak for several hours to allow for the salt and brine to diffuse out of the butter. But burying butter, salting it, and pickling it were solutions for long-term storage of butter. What was a dairymaid to do if she had an excess of cream and not enough time to make butter?
For those fortunate enough to have a stream running through their property, the solution to a lack of a refrigerator was the construction of a spring house in order to keep cream and other dairy products cool. Having a place cool enough to keep the cream below seventy degrees Fahrenheit was particularly important during the summer because cream cannot easily be churned into butter above this temperature. Spring houses were often constructed from stone since wood would quickly rot, and stone had the added benefit of keeping the place particularly cool. Spring houses were built over a spring of water, and a shallow trough was dug into the floor through which the water could run. In this trough the dairymaid could place buckets of milk, cream, etc. and the running water would keep the buckets consistently cooled.
Khosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016.