As more European-style butters commingle in the dairy case with central-casting stick styles, what used to be a simple salted or unsalted, basic or fancy choice has become mind-bending. Yet, everyday cooks don't need to read a lactic science paper to understand how to make chichi butter choices. It boils down to buttering (topical usage) and baking. What's your endgame? Are you slathering a hot, crunchy piece of toast to eat alongside your morning coffee? Or maybe you're buttering a lightly steamed bunch of fresh, warm asparagus or plump peas? Do you routinely bake chocolate birthday cake, or are you more a Danish butter cookie baker?
Since flavor matters most, consider multiple factors (outlined below) before buying swanky butter. It's going to be expensive, compared with your mother's supermarket spread, but price alone shouldn't define your favorite. To further confuse us, butter brands employ marketing shticks, such as romantic pastoral packaging or bolded words that define their purported attributes. First, let's review the law of the land for basic grocery store butters.
- What is basic butter?
For context refer to this flow chart: Milk comes from cows - cream comes from milk - cream gets pasteurized - this cream is churned into butter.
- USDA commercial butter basics
All U.S. butter must be at least 80% butterfat. (That leaves about 18% as water and 1 to 2% milk solids). Land O'Lakes, the best-selling brand nationwide, now offers a new extra-creamy European-style butter.
- European/European-style butter
This is butter that contains a higher butterfat percentage (82-86%) than basic butter and less water, resulting in a richer taste, softer texture and faster melt-ability. Look for Échiré (my favorite) or the more widely available Plugrá. Beurre d'Isigny is also good and can be found in many dairy cases, and Le Beurre Bordier is the butter folks buy as if it's a fine wine.
Added to pasteurized cream, live bacterial cultures release lactic acid while the mixture thickens and develops flavor (through fermentation) before being churned into butter. This is where a specific butter personality is developed. The taste has tang, along with other distinctive flavor notes that define it. Culturing takes time - and high-quality cream from cows enjoying green pastures and a life free of antibiotics - to achieve unique premium butter. While most European butters are cultured, not all cultured butters are European. Look for Organic Valley Cultured Butter or my overall No. 1 butter choice, Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter, with 82% butterfat.
- Salted vs. unsalted
Salt helps to preserve butter, creating a longer shelf life. It can also mask the taste of funky butter made from older cream. However, European-style butter makers go to great lengths to match their desired salt crystal size and provenance to their butter. Every brand offers both salted and unsalted.
In a perfect world, grass-fed butter comes from the cream of the milk of cows that have been 100% grass-fed. Authentic versions possess more nutrients than the alternative, particularly more vitamin A, D and K2, as well as five times the beneficial fatty acid CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). The butter tends to have a naturally yellow color as a result of the vegetation in the cows' diet. Brands will claim "grass-fed" if the cows eat some grass. Because of seasonal climate fluctuations, rarely would a large commercial company have the capacity to procure milk from cows grazing all year on grass. Much of the butter billed as grass-fed includes milk of supplementary grain-fed cows. Irish label Kerrygold is the poster child for grass-fed butter, and Vital Farms is a widely sold domestic brand.
Like all things organic in the United States, butter has standards to earn the designation. It requires the butter be made from cream from cows that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones and eat feed devoid of conventional pesticide, fertilizer or synthetic ingredients. Organic butter can come the cream of grass-fed cows or organic grain-fed animals. Humboldt Creamery Butter is certified organic, and about 80% of its cows' diet is grass.
Fresh, unfrozen butter should be consumed within a month of purchase. Butter can be frozen, wrapped well and airtight, for up to six months. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to come to room temperature from frozen. For everyday use, most U.S. manufacturers recommend keeping butter refrigerated. That's where we differ from our European counterparts, who generally leave butter out at room temperature on their counters. Because butter degrades from light as well as heat, a domed butter dish is essential for counter storage.
- Buttering (topical usage)
If you're a die-hard morning toast eater, bougie butter may be your Achilles' heel. Give in to it. There is nothing that will make you happier than a cultured, European-style unsalted butter slathered on toast with a sprinkling of crunchy salt on top.
When you are cooking gorgeous seasonal vegetables from your garden or the farmers market, you'll need to do nothing more than steam or roast them, then enrobe them in a melting knob of exceptional, cultured, European-style salted butter. Similarly, a twisted coil of steaming spaghetti needs little besides a butter bath and shower of Parmesan to dazzle your comfort food cravings.
When baking with bougie butter, my rule is simple: If the baked good I'm making relies on butter as a dominant flavor - think Irish shortbread, Danish butter cookies or Breton butter cake - then I'll invest in the best butter available. If baking a seasonal fruit dessert where the essential luscious flavor of a berry or stone fruit is the star, then an 82% cultured or sweet cream butter plays a supporting role. And for your kid's birthday cakes, just use basic butter.
Note that some imported butters, such as Président, come in 7-ounce (199 gram) packages, while others, such as Échiré, clock in at 8.8 ounces (250 g).
As for pie pastry, I've baked my basic dough recipe with a half-dozen different butters, and they've all worked fine using the same ratios of ingredients; flour, butter, salt and water. However, higher butterfat means less water, which could lead to more difficulty handling the dough. You may find that it gets sticky, or it falls apart. This is easily remedied by toggling the pastry back and forth from the refrigerator while you're working it if it warms too much. If you're a novice pie dough maker, stick with the lower butterfat versions (80 to 82%) for the most predictable results.
- Bottom line
After sampling a dozen types, my barometer for bankrolling fancy butter has come down to this: I'm a locavore. I prefer butter made from milk that comes from cows of known origin, from as close to my home as possible, where the cream is pasteurized and cultured and left to ferment over time to achieve a nutty, tangy 82 to 86% butterfat content.
Choose the European-style butter that contains the most appealing qualities to you. Buy a few different brands. Take them home and taste each one separately on the same type of crusty bread. Test-drive them by using each in a favorite simple butter-forward baking recipe and do a side-by-side taste test. Before long, you'll know what side your bread is buttered on.
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Quinn is a cookbook author and founder of Mad Hungry.