Butter Up

More widely available gourmet-butter varieties, from cultured to European-style, are giving cooks new interest in this ancient and essential staple.



Photo by Laura Petrilla

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Whether slathered over warm, fresh bread or lending its sweet creaminess to hot pasta or steamed vegetables, butter is a simple but sublime pleasure. Making butter is as straightforward as agitating cream to concentrate its fat (as anyone who has mistakenly overdone the whipped cream knows).

Putting a specific date on its discovery is nearly impossible, because any traveler carrying milk at any time could have found that a churning motion yielded butter—but food historians know that its ancient history precedes its mention in the Bible. In India and Scandinavia in particular, longstanding traditions called for using butter for both culinary and ceremonial purposes. In the West, on the other hand, butter didn’t become popular for eating until more recently—a bit surprising now that we consider it an essential staple. The Greeks and Romans ate olive oil exclusively and considered butter the food of wild barbarians; however, they did use it to treat wounds or to beautify the skin and hair. During the Middle Ages, only the poorest peasants ate butter.

Finally, in the 16th century, the European middle classes began to catch on—and soon butter was integral to the pastries and sauces of cuisines from France to England. In those days, butter production took place on small farms where cream from different milkings was left to sit, becoming soured by lactic-acid bacteria in the process. Because of the fermenting, or culturing, that took place naturally, the result was a very tangy and full-flavored butter.

Today, this process is re-created in making cultured butter, the most popular type in Europe; it has a subtle but clearly different flavor from the sweet-cream butter found in American kitchens. Tasting the difference between these two distinct varieties and sampling other butters such as “high-fat” butter, touted as better for baking, are easy to do now that numerous imported and artisan butters are so readily accessible. Like wine and chocolate, butter has become firmly entrenched in the gourmet-foods category, and even has its own descriptive vocabulary to prove it: Common adjectives include “grassy,” “tangy” or “nutty.”

So, if your impression of butter varieties boils down to two words—salted and unsalted—it’s definitely time to take an adventurous trip down the dairy aisle. With so many different choices comes the opportunity to find a new favorite. Sampling the wide offerings is an affordable pleasure and an experiment that might improve not just your morning toast, but also the many delicious dishes that rely on butter to boost their flavor and richness.

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