A Brief History of Castoreum, the Beaver Butt Secretion Used as Flavoring

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In September 2013, popular blogger “The Food Babe” released a video proclaiming that beavers “flavor a ton of foods at the grocery store with their little butthole!" Since then, the internet has been crowded with alarmist posts saying that beaver’s butts are used to flavor everything from soft drinks to vanilla ice cream. The culprit behind this scare is a flavorant called castoreum—but what exactly is it, and is it worth all the fuss?

WHAT IS CASTOREUM?

Castoreum is a substance secreted by male and female Alaskan, Canadian, and Siberian beavers from pouchlike sacs located near the base of their tails (castor is the word for beaver in Latin). Beavers can’t see or hear very well, but they have a great sense of smell—and as a result of their castoreum glands, they also smell great. They use their castoreum in part to mark their territory, secreting it on top of mounds of dirt they construct on the edges of their home turf. (The castoreum squirting out is apparently so loud, you can hear it if you’re standing nearby.) Beavers also use the fatty, waxy secretion to waterproof their fur.

An odorous combination of vanilla and raspberry with floral hints, castoreum carries information about a beaver’s health and helps to make distinctions between family members and outsiders. Beavers are so interested in the smell that historically, fur trappers would bait traps with castoreum.

HOW WAS IT USED?

Dried castoreum on display in a German museum
Dried castoreum on display in a museum.

When castoreum is fresh, it’s a fluid that ranges in color from yellow and milky to grey and sticky, depending on the type of beaver and its gender. In a live animal, this fluid is milked and dried to a solid for perfume making. In a dead animal, the entire castoreum gland is removed and, traditionally, preserved by smoking it over a wood fire.

For much of its history, castoreum was used as a medicine. Roman women inhaled the fumes of castoreum burned in lamps because they believed it would induce abortions (it didn’t). Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, mystic, and scholar, wrote that powdered beaver “testicles” drunk in wine would reduce a fever; the castoreum gland, when dried, is easily mistaken for testes. Castoreum has also been used to treat headaches, which makes sense given that it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin.

The colonization of America led into an increase in the availability of beaver pelts, which were used to make fine hats all over Europe, and to a resurgence of interest in castoreum as medicine. Sold in drugstores and pharmacies, it was recommended for earaches, toothaches, colic, gout, inducing sleep, preventing sleep, and general strengthening of the brain. It was also in the 19th century that the substance began to be used in the perfume industry as a fixative—an ingredient that makes other scents smell better and last longer.

By the end of the 19th century, the demand for pelts and castoreum was so great that North American beavers were on the edges of extinction. In 1894, a representative of the Hudson Bay Company, a major beaver pelt and castoreum trading firm, said: "The beaver’s days are numbered. He cannot coexist with civilization.”

IS IT STILL BEING USED TODAY?

According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, castoreum was first used as a food additive in the early 20th century, but is now rarely, if ever, used in the mass-produced flavor industry. Nevertheless, the FDA considers it a “natural flavor,” since it is derived from a natural source, and can be used to add fruity strawberry or raspberry notes, or as substitute for vanilla (the compounds come from the beaver's diet of bark and leaves). One of the few places it's reliably found is the Swedish schnapps BVR HJT.

Beavers are generally no longer hunted for their pelts or castoreum, so to acquire the sticky stuff, beavers must be anesthetized and the castoreum gland milked by a human. The process was described as “pretty gross” by Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University who is no stranger to beaver butts; she noted that the goo has a consistency somewhat like molasses. Due to the inconvenience and expense of harvesting castoreum from live beavers, the substance is now seldom used. According to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, the annual industry consumption is very low—around 300 pounds—whereas the consumption of natural vanillin is over 2.6 million pounds annually. When castoreum is used, it's far more likely to be in the profitable fragrance industry rather than in the foods we eat.

"In the flavor industry, you need tons and tons of material to work with," flavor chemist Gary Reineccius told NPR's The Salt. "It's not like you can grow fields of beavers to harvest. There aren't very many of them. So it ends up being a very expensive product—and not very popular with food companies."

So while it's hard to know what foods or fragrances contain castoreum, there is very little of it out there. It may be worth saving your alarm for another topic—or simply sparing a thought for the beaver.

9 Vintage Thanksgiving Side Dishes We Shouldn’t Bring Back

We all have that aunt—the one who’s been bringing her Miracle-Whip-bound pimiento-pea salad to Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Although you may swear she got her recipe straight from the devil, it turns out that cheese-and-lime-Jell-O salads and their ilk were all the rage in her day. So it’s not (totally) her fault! To cut her a little slack, here are some examples of vintage Thanksgiving-themed recipes that will make her salad look like a perfectly golden-brown turkey.

1. CRANBERRY CANDLE SALAD

Best Foods Mayonnaise Ad 1960s with Jello Molds

Nothing complements the tart, refreshing flavor of cranberry sauce like some gelatin and salty, eggy mayonnaise. If that weren’t weird enough, this recipe also tells you to shove a real candle in there and then light it. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to eat around the melted wax, but we can’t be sure—maybe it’s considered a condiment.

2. CANDIED SWEET POTATOES WITH ANGOSTURA BITTERS

This recipe for candied sweet potatoes, which involves baking them in a mixture of butter, sugar, and angostura bitters, is probably either really good or really bad. It sort of makes sense, adding bitters to cut down on the sugar factor. Alternatively, you could just not make a candied version of something that already has the word sweet in its name.

3. CREAMED ONIONS

This once-popular Thanksgiving mainstay has been neglected over the last century, for perhaps obvious reasons. In some households, the idea was to pour creamed onions over the turkey, like gravy, to add a little moisture. Or possibly because eating a chunky mouthful of pearl onions and cream sauce by itself is gross.

4. TURKEY AND STUFFING ON JELL-O

Thanksgiving Jello Ad

There’s not much to this one, is there? It’s a pile of turkey and stuffing dumped on top of a cranberry orange Jell-O ring—sounds delicious!

5. WINTER CORN

This mixture of corn, sour cream, and bacon is sometimes found on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables. It’s mostly off-putting because its main ingredient is creamed corn. That said, creamed corn really needs all the help it can get, so adding bacon can only improve it.

6. SWEET AND SOUR TANG POPCORN (A.K.A. ASTRONAUT POPCORN)

Reportedly, this was a popular Thanksgiving dessert in the ’70s. The idea seems to be an offshoot of caramel corn, but … with Tang powder.

7. HOT DR. PEPPER

You gotta give the good folks at Dr. Pepper a few points for at least trying here. They noticed that soda was not often considered a cozy, comforting holiday drink, and they stepped up to the bat undaunted. Bold move.

8. FROZEN JELLIED TURKEY-VEGETABLE SALAD

There’s only one way to improve a dish as alluring as Jellied Turkey-Vegetable Salad, and that’s to stick it in the freezer. From the sound of the recipe—which combines cream of celery soup, salad dressing, diced turkey, vegetables, and gelatin—this is basically the inside of a turkey pot pie if it was served frozen. And also if it was square.

9. JELL-O FRUIT CORNUCOPIA

Sure, cornucopias were for holding food in olden times, but don’t you wish you could eat one? Well, guess what—your years of longing are finally over, because someone has made a Jell-O version of one with fruit trapped in it. You don’t even have to take the fruit out of the cornucopia this time—you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Dreams do come true.

Up Your Turkey Game With This Simple Buttermilk Brine

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iStock.com/4kodiak

Whoever chose turkey to be the starring dish of Thanksgiving dinner has a sick sense of humor. Not only does the bird take hours to thaw and cook before it's safe to eat, but its size makes it very difficult to cook evenly—meaning there are many opportunities for the millions of amateur cooks who prepare it each year to screw it up. But there's no reason to settle for dry, flavorless turkey this Thanksgiving. With this buttermilk brine recipe from Skillet, the breast will come out just as juicy as the thighs with little effort on your part.

A brine is a salty solution you soak your uncooked meat in to help it retain its moisture and flavor when it goes into the oven. A brine can be as simple as salt and water, but in this recipe, the turkey marinates in a mixture of buttermilk, water, sugar, salt, garlic, citrus, bay leaf, and peppercorns for 24 hours before it's ready to roast.

Rather than a whole bird, this recipe calls for a bone-in turkey breast. White meat contains less fat than dark meat, which is why turkey breast often turns out dryer and less flavorful than legs and thighs when all the parts are left to cook for the same amount of time. The buttermilk brine imparts a tangy creaminess to the turkey breast that it otherwise lacks, and by cooking the breast separately, you can pull it out of the oven at peak juiciness rather than waiting for the meatier parts to cook through fully.

After the turkey breast has had sufficient time to soak, remove it from the refrigerator and drain it on paper towels. Blot any excess buttermilk and pop the meat into a roasting pan and into a 375°F oven. In addition to lending flavor, buttermilk promotes browning, which is essential to a tasty Thanksgiving turkey.

When the internal temperature reads 150°F (which should take 90 minutes to 2 hours), pull out the bird, let it rest for 15 minutes, and commence carving the most succulent turkey breast ever to hit your Thanksgiving table.

[h/t Skillet]

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