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

(page 1 of 2)

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.

Hot Reads

Review: Sienna Mercato

Review: Sienna Mercato

Matthew Porco, one of our Chefs of the Year, designs the menus at Sienna Mercato's downtown establishments.
Film Noir Fall Fashion

Film Noir Fall Fashion

Fall into autumn with a fashion landscape awash in black, white and nifty shades of gray.
An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

PittGirl has had enough of the criticism of fanatics and asks the media to stop labeling everyone.
8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

Hoping to take a leaf-peeping road trip? Keep food at the top of your priority list and consult our lineup of eight destinations, most within 150 miles of the city.

The 412

Thrival Festival Rocked Bakery Square 2.0

Thrival Festival Rocked Bakery Square 2.0

Relive the two-day event that was part innovation and part musical brilliance.
Cameras Roll for ‘The Last Witch Hunter’

Cameras Roll for ‘The Last Witch Hunter’

Although shooting has begun for this flick, plan to catch Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood while they’re out on the town, not during film production.
Carnegie Mellon’s Smart Headlights Aim to Make Life Easier

Carnegie Mellon’s Smart Headlights Aim to Make Life Easier

CMU’s Robotics Institute may help to make nighttime driving a little easier on the eyes.
Put on Your Robe and Head for the Rooftop

Put on Your Robe and Head for the Rooftop

Catch a screening of "The Big Lebowski" — plus grab a White Russian — at this showing, held on top of a downtown parking garage.

Hot Reads

Review: Sienna Mercato

Review: Sienna Mercato

Matthew Porco, one of our Chefs of the Year, designs the menus at Sienna Mercato's downtown establishments.
Film Noir Fall Fashion

Film Noir Fall Fashion

Fall into autumn with a fashion landscape awash in black, white and nifty shades of gray.
An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

An Open Letter to Local Sports Reporters

PittGirl has had enough of the criticism of fanatics and asks the media to stop labeling everyone.
8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

8 Foodie Day Trips (and a Few Weekends, Too)

Hoping to take a leaf-peeping road trip? Keep food at the top of your priority list and consult our lineup of eight destinations, most within 150 miles of the city.
From Field to Fork

From Field to Fork

We put together this dynamic guide to help you find and engage with the region’s sustainable producers of meat, honey, alcohol, fruits and vegetables.
Review: Café Zinho

Review: Café Zinho

Seasoned chef and entrepreneur Toni Pais continues to impress folks who dine at his longstanding Mediterranean establishment, Café Zinho.