More widely available gourmet-butter varieties, from cultured to European-style, are giving cooks new interest in this ancient and essential staple.
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.
These days, the butter choices at any well-stocked grocery go well beyond regular salted and unsalted sticks. Terms such as “European-style,” “cultured” and “pastured” seem to proliferate on labels—without much explanation in the small print. There are also fancy imports from France, Denmark and beyond, all of which cost a bit more. What is the butter lover to make of it? This primer of basic butter terms will help you navigate the dairy case.
This is the most common type of butter, and the bulk of what you’ll find in supermarkets. Sweet-cream butter is made from pasteurized fresh cream and must be 80 percent butterfat and no more than 16 percent water according to the USDA. In our region, the options for buying locally made sweet-cream butter are somewhat limited, but family-owned Beaver Meadow Creamery in DuBois, Clearfield County, produces butter under its own label as does Turner’s Dairy Farms, whose butter is made from a combination of Turner’s cream and other locally sourced cream (both are available at Community Supermarket, with locations in Penn Hills, Lower Burrell, Fox Chapel and Natrona Heights). Among the familiar national brands at the supermarket, Land O’ Lakes is a good choice for consistent quality. Many stores now stock organic butter as well. Made from organic cream, which is produced without antibiotics, synthetic hormones or pesticides, this choice supports sustainable-farming practices.
Also called “high-fat” butter, this term refers to butter made in the higher-fat style of butters in France, where unsalted butter by law must be 82 percent fat. It’s highly recommended in recipes because the increased amount of butterfat means less water, which yields better results in baking and cooking. Butterfat doesn’t necessarily translate to flavor however. That is more typically a result of the cream—the type of cows it comes from and their diets—and whether the cream going into the butter has been fermented, or cultured. One of the best-known brands to try in your baked goods is Plugra (available at Trader Joe’s).
This is the American term for butter made from cream that has been slightly soured by the action of a natural culture (think yogurt or crème fraîche)—it’s the standard in Europe. (Many but not all American-made “European-style” butters could also be called “cultured,” since they are made from lightly fermented cream.) Before churning, the cream is fermented for hours, which produces acids and aroma compounds that result in fuller flavor. The texture is noticeably more velvety. It’s a slower and more expensive production method than sweet-cream butter. An outstanding example of this type of butter is Lurpak unsalted butter, made by the Danish Dairy Board (available at Whole Foods Market in the specialty-cheese department).