Butter, Part I
The first chapter of Fat, Jennifer McLagan's splendid book (which deservedly won all types of awards, including this year's James Beard 2009 Cookbook of the Year), is completed devoted to butter. The full chapter heading is "Butter: Worth It." I so agree.
It's an ingredient that's had its share of denigration and aggressive substitutions. Post-WWII there was pearl white oleo to which you'd have to add a pellet of yellow food coloring so to make it resemble the familiar pale yellow of real butter. And now there's no pretense -- the totally fake margarine (okay, it uses real hydrogenated soybean oil and real soy lecithin) proudly declares it’s the-same-but-not-really.
But there's nothing like butter. I'm not here to attempt to persuade anyone's dietary choices and I know that how we eat has a direct impact on our health. But in my practice of moderation, I'd rather enjoy the luxury and complexity in a teaspoon of good French butter than a cup of margarine.
Many decades ago someone who knew even less about butter than I, convinced me that salted butter was semi-rancid unsalted butter that the grocers sent back to the manufacturer to be salted and sent back to the stores. Of course this is about as true as that mean Neiman-Marcus cookie story. In fact, while salt once was a butter preservative, today's butters are salted entirely for reasons of flavor. Salted butter is not usually salty, per se, but its flavor is more forward with that sense of "oh, this is what butter tastes like" that you get on real buttered popcorn, not the fake movie stuff. Unsalted butter is sweeter, with a paler taste, which makes sense since salt puts a spotlight on anything to which it's added. Including butterfat.
- Butter is made from 100% heavy cream that has been agitated so to separate water and butterfat. The fat left behind is butter. The watery liquid that is removed is buttermilk or whey. Contrary to its high-cholesterol sounding name, buttermilk in fact is very low fat which makes sense if you consider how it's produced.
- Nearly every butter available in our stores has been pasteurized.
- Unsalted butter is exactly as its name suggests. Butterfat without any added salt.
- Salted butter includes one to two percent salt (that's like adding one to two teaspoons per pound). Some salted butters include grainy salts like sel de fleur, giving the butter an almost crunchy texture and a more aggressively salty taste.
- European butter has a higher butterfat content -- as high as 86%. This is in comparison with regular butter, which will have a butterfat content of about 80%. More butterfat means less moisture and this translates into a denser, more refined texture and when used in baking, it can produce flakier pastries. In addition, some European butters are made with cultured cream and due to the addition of lactic acid bacteria, it has a more forward, bigger flavor. A few butters made in the U.S., including one by Cabot, will be labeled "European" as a way of declaring its higher butterfat content.
- Organic butter is made with cream that's been certified organic and antibiotic free.
- Whipped butter is simply butter to which nitrogen has been added which means it is softer to spread. But keep in mind that the whipping also reduces volume so you're actually getting less product for the money. If you love whipped butter, especially on pancakes or scones, just let a stick soften to almost room temperature and then whip it yourself using a hand or stand mixer.
- Truffle butter is plain butter to which bits of black or white truffles have been added. Two popular brands are d'Artagnan and DaRosario and a little 2 oz. container usually costs $10 to $15. And what's the point? Well, if you are a truffle lover and with truffles costing the price of Caribbean vacation, a tablespoon of truffle butter tossed with a bowl of fettuccine (use dry pasta and search out DeCecco's, making sure it's the egg fettuccine), or added to scrambled eggs, or glossing plain steamed green beans will satisfy many a craving.
- Clarified butter has been melted so as to separate its water, milk solids and pure milk fat, producing a clear yellow liquid. By removing the water and milk solids, the remaining liquefied fat will not burn as easily, making it a good choice when butter is used in higher temperature frying.
- Ghee is the name in India for clarified butter that has been additionally cooked, adding more complex flavor and extended stability (ghee can keep unrefrigerated for many months). It also has cultural and religious importance.
- Compound butter is a term used to describe butter to which flavorings have been added. Truffle butter is one but more quotidian examples would be made with garlic, minced tarragon or other fresh herbs, chopped shallot, or ground cinnamon. It's simple to make: use a fork to mash together softened butter with the ingredient of your choice and then refrigerate until ready to use.
- Countries that have dairy legacies, such as Ireland and France, deserve their reputations for really excellent butter and flavors can subtly vary depending on the grasses the cows eat. Butters from Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Holland are exported to the U.S. and are increasingly easy to find in our grocers and specialty markets.
The first choice is salted versus unsalted, or sweet, butter. I almost always buy unsalted because I use it almost exclusively in baking. Like many of you I watch my calories and healthy fats and prefer to cook with olive oil or canola oil, saving butter for the occasional pie crust or the splurge of a sauce or pancakes. I buy a pound at a time, preferring the convenience of individually-wrapped quarter-pound sticks that have measuring marks on their wrappers.
Despite seeming fragile, butter can be kept at room temperature for several days without spoiling. But it also easily absorbs adjacent odors so it's always best to keep your butter wrapped in plastic wrap or in a sealed baggie and refrigerated. Butter also freezes beautifully, making it easy to buy when on sale and keep it on hand for either an unexpected inspiration to bake or else to satisfy a craving for a buttered English muffin.
The advantage of sweet butter is that it gives you complete control over the amount of salt in a dish. That's why, for example, recipes for a salted caramel sauce will call for unsalted butter plus some measured amount of salt. Likewise, when I put sweet butter on a baguette -- I'll often add a tiny pinch of salt.
That said, there are some truly remarkable salted butters, so for the cook who wants butter as a garnish -- meaning to put on something rather than in a recipe -- salted butter shouldn't be overlooked. Flavors vary from mild to slightly sour and the only way you can find what you like is by tasting.
But I wanted a little expert guidance so I asked Steve Jenkins, the food wizard at Fairway Market, for a few suggestions beyond Land O'Lakes, Breakstone and Cabot -- all of which are very good. He didn't disappoint:
"My personal butter passion is the Parmigiano Reggiano Consorzio butter, wrapped in paper; the butter is made from the cream skimmed from the raw milk used for the production of PR [Parmesan] cheese. And the sea-salted butter from Vermont Butter & Cheese. Exquisite. And you are fully correct in your admiration for the Cabot butter. Irish butter is superb, as is the cultured French butter (bacterial starter cultures added to the cream as is traditional in French buttermaking, a practice inculcated by the cheesemakers who think of butter as more a cheese than a confection)."
From someone who really knows his butter, other brands that Mr. Jenkins recommended were President, Isigny, Le Gall, French goat's cream butter from Poitou Charente, and sheep's cream butter from Rouergue (Roquefort). All are usually available at Fairway and other markets that carry imported foods.
There's still more to know about butter so in next week's newsletter I'll give you a lesson in how to make your own -- it may bring back some childhood memories. And I'll offer up ways to put butter into your cooking, even if it's only an occasional treat.