Saturday, October 18, 2014

Butter - it's all about the flavor!

Most of us are not used to the taste of really good butter. Given the flavorless ubiquity of most American brands, it’s not a surprise we didn't mind giving it up for margarine and have little brand loyalty if we do buy butter. That's a shame really, because butter is so very good and makes good food taste even better. One of the best ways to enjoy butter is simply served at room temperature on a biscuit or piece of bread, where you can really taste it. And what should it taste like? The New York Times described the taste of good butter as "a combination of creme fraiche's slight sourness and fresh cream's sweet wholesomeness." I think that about sums it up!

Amish Country Butter on Julian's Autumn Table
Most butter has little to no flavor, and cooks and bakers often don’t mind. Its purpose in cooking is to enhance other flavors. In baking it is to provide plasticity, which gives cakes and pastries nice texture. Typical makers of butter often add heavy doses of salt, partly to improve flavor and also to add shelf life. During the months it sits in storage prior to sale, butter can begin to turn rancid even before the sell-by date, especially if storage conditions are less than perfect. In your refrigerator, butter also easily picks up the flavor of onions, mushrooms and whatever else it is stored near. So most of our experience with butter flavor is a little salty, slightly rancid, and tasting mildly of whatever else is in the refrigerator. No wonder we don’t really enjoy eating it.

So how do you select and keep the best tasting butter?  You might think looking for higher fat content on the label would help.

Recently higher-fat (lower moisture content) butters have become available on the American market under brands such as Plugrá, (whose name comes from the French for "more fat"). Even brands such as the widely available Kerry Gold or President brands (both European imports) have more fat than most American butter. American standards call for butter to contain a minimum of 80 percent butterfat. As the fat content goes down, the water content goes up further diminishing flavor. Even small differences in the amount of fat noted on the label will perform better when making sauces as they can provide a more satiny feel on the tongue. But fat and texture on the pallet is not all we are seeking for good taste. Higher fat helps, and I do suggest buying the highest fat content butter you can, although this alone is not the total solution.

“I can already hear some of you saying that butter is bad for your health and instead you are on a Mediterranean diet consisting of fats from olive oil only.  Well I've traveled the Mediterranean and much of Europe extensively, and I can assure you they eat good butter and plenty of it. While good butter is 86-90 percent fat, oil is 100 percent fat. And when something has real flavor, it takes only a small amount to satisfy you. As my physician friends would agree, if you can eat only a little bit of something, it might as well be the very best, and the real keys to good health are a balanced diet and exercise. So let’s not worry about the fat, and move on.”

Before industrialization, farmhouse butter was almost always made with matured cream. The cream was stored until there was enough to churn and you had the time to churn it. So it naturally developed flavor from bacteria. Sweet-cream butter as it's called, is largely a postwar phenomenon and the result of industrial-scale dairies, which churn cream into butter just as soon as it is separated from pasteurized milk.

Butter Sprinkled with Sea Salt
Looks Nice, Tastes Wonderful!
Sweet-cream butters, the only kind we can buy in most American markets, are generally rather bland, despite that tasty sounding name. Butter of course comes from cream, and as noted above to meet safety regulations and reduce spoilage, commercial dairies heat cream to a very high temperature (pasteurization) so that it will last for weeks without souring, hence the term 'sweet cream'. The many strains of good bacteria that can give flavor to butter are destroyed in this process, along with the few bad bacteria that causes spoilage. This is why small artisan butter makers use cream inoculated with specially selected strains of bacteria that has been treated using a slow/low temperature pasteurization process. Cream of this sort must be made by the dairy specifically for this use, raising the ultimate cost of the butter but greatly improving its taste.

Proper Storage and Serving Temperature
Most experts agree that freezing butter in an airtight bag (to prevent moisture loss) works just fine for longer term storage. Storing it in your refrigerator for cooking purposes and until you are planning to use it at table or for baking is fine too, so long as you place it in the butter keeper of your refrigerator and away from anything that might flavor it. Although butter is a dairy product, it's high in fat and also has a relatively high amount of salt added, and as noted herein is almost always made from pasteurized cream. These factors help prevent butter from spoiling when left out on the kitchen counter when you home is a moderate temperatures. I generally say if you are too warm, so is the butter and it should be refrigerated if not being used. But most of the time, I leave butter in a dish on the counter for use on biscuits, toast and other table uses (think pancakes.) The worst thing you can do is serve cold, hard butter to anyone at the table. At the same time, you don't want rancid or worse yet, spoiled butter that makes people sick. For extra safety, I never place whipped butter or no-salt butter on the counter for long period.

Favorites for your Table

Remember to purchase salted butter for table use, and unsalted for cooking purposes. Look for a high fat content (84%+) as well as 'cultured' on the label to give it a slightly tangy flavor.

Available Online and Near the Butter Maker
Walnut Creek Foods, in Ohio’s Amish country, makes a good tasting butter from pasteurized cream. Not as tangy as the Organic Valley below, it still always garners positive comments when served at my table. I also like the rolled hand-made shape and golden color. Like most butter sold to consumers, this is grade AA butter, the highest rating available from the FDA, which indicates it has received a score of at least 93 out of 100 points based on its aroma, flavor and texture. Available online in quantity, or at the store.


Straus Family Creamery chooses not to add bacteria into the organically produced cream it uses, pasteurizing the cream at a lower-than-usual temperature to make fresh-tasting sweet-cream butter. It immediately freezes and ships the butter to several western states and is available online if you pay shipping costs. The dairy is located about an hour drive north of San Francisco.

Burro Occelli, who still makes butter in hand-cut wooden molds in Italy is sometimes available stateside. Formaggio Kitchen (617-354-4750) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, receives shipments frozen. If you are willing to pay the highest price, you will be rewarded with a tangy, nutty, deep, creamy flavor. Also widely available throughout Italy.

Widely Available in the USA
Organic Valley European Style Butter: Available at Whole Foods stores, this Organic Valley award-winning "Old World" butter has an exquisitely tart, nutty flavor and 84% butterfat. Excellent for eating and baking. The best widely available butter I've found, I use this for dinner parties if I do not have the Amish Walnut Creek butter.
Kerrygold: Available in most super markets, this may be your best option if you can't get any of the above. Grass-fed cow’s make this Irish butter taste silky and creamy and give it a rich, golden yellow color. Kerrygold salted butter is a good all-purpose, all-natural butter that could easily be your standard daily table butter. I always also keep their Garlic & Herb butter on hand for use on vegetables and potatoes. This variety contains a mixture of chives, parsley, garlic, fresh herbs and spices and is highly recommended as an addition to your standard butter supply.

President, is France's #1 butter and comes from Normandy. Noticeably more pale than Kerrygold, it still has a nice flavor with a very slight cultured tangy taste. A good second choice if you can't find Kerrygold, although it seems to have a higher moisture content than other brands.

1 comment:

  1. I do love good butter. A great new pizza place in Jersey city (yes, jersey city), Razza makes awesome bread and it's own butter from Amish cream. It is a course and absolutely amazing. I could have just had that. Per se does special butter too. I get mine from an Amish farmer from raw cream, It rocks my world.... I agree with everything you say~!!

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