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April 18, 2007
The amazingly talented Molly Stevens (she of All About Braising) organized a butter tasting at the IACP conference last week and, once again, my favorite butters in the tasting turned out to be the butters I always favor in a tasting, proving both the butters and I must be pretty consistent.
Most of us don't normally "taste" butter, we use it in baking, cooking or as a bread-topper, but I started tasting butter and studying butter about 7 years ago, after the legendary breadbaker, Lionel Poilane, didn't want to give me his recipe for his great butter cookies, Punitions, for my book, Paris Sweets, because he didn't think they'd fare well with American butter.
The good news on the cookie front was that when I arrived in Paris
with a pound of Land O'Lakes unsalted butter in my bag and made the
cookies with M. Poilane, he pronounced them good enough to be published
(see below). But, in talking about butter, Lionel Poilane set me on a
quest for good butter and the search to understand how and why butters
differ. (I wrote about this years ago for The New York Times. Unfortunately, you have to be a Times Select member to read it.)
Molly did a terrific job of presenting butter in 3 categories:
Just to make it easy, sweet butter is what most
supermarket butters are. By law, American butter must be 80% butterfat,
and this is what generic supermarket and premium butters like Land
O'Lakes come in at. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's
in Ann Arbor (another presenter in the tasting) made an interesting
point when he noted that most butters naturally have 82% butterfat, so
manufacturers remove fat to be at the lowest level of the standard.
In case you were wondering, butterfat is a very good thing in butter
- the more butterfat you have, the less water you've got and the better
the butter will be for baking and cooking.
High-fat butter usually has at least 82% butterfat.
This is the amount of butterfat in Plugra and it's also the legal
minimum amount of fat for butter in France (unless it's salted, which
can have up to 2% less fat).
Just because a butter has more butterfat doesn't automatically mean that it has more flavor. Flavor comes from:
- The cream - and its flavor will be dependent on the type of cows and what they're eating
Cultured butters are la crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of butter
and pretty unusual in the States. To get cultured butter, a natural
culture - think yogurt or crÃ¨me fraiche - is added to the cream, then
the cream is allowed to ferment for about 18 hours before it is churned.
Clearly, this is a slow and expensive way of making butter and, to
add to the expense, most buttermakers who culture their cream go the
extra mile and churn their butters in small batches.
If you're like me, as soon as you taste cultured butter you'll be
hooked. It has a subtle but seductive tang to it - again, think crÃ¨me
fraiche - and, because it has less water, a texture that is noticeably
different, more velvety, than beurre ordinaire.
Molly said that she found that the high-fat cultured butters really
showed their stuff in saucemaking, compound butters and, because of
their lower water content, pie crusts. I'd add that their flavor makes
a difference in simple sweets, like shortbreads and plain butter
cookies (see the recipe below).
So here's what was on that butter tasting plate pictured above. From 12:00 going clockwise, there's:
- Land O'Lakes
- Pastureland, made by a cooperative in Minnesota
- Kerrygold Irish Butter, a cultured butter
- Kerrygold Irish Salted Irish Butter, also cultured
- Echire, a small production cultured butter from France with 84% butterfat
- Vermont Butter and Cheese Co, a small-batch cultured butter with 86% butterfat
- Vermont Butter and Cheese Co butter with sea salt crystals, also cultured, with a butterfat content of about 84%
- Goat's milk butter - which accounts for its white color
My favorites: The butters from Echire and the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. butters.
To finish the tasting, we nibbled on Lionel Poilane's Punitions made
with three different butters. Here's a picture taken in the wonderful
Poilane bakery on the rue du Cherche Midi the afternoon we baked the
If you want to have your own taste test, here's the recipe:
French Butter Cookies/Les Punitions
From Paris Sweets, adapted from Lionel Poilane
Makes about 50 cookies
1 1/4 sticks (5 ounces; 140 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Slightly rounded 1/2 cup (125 grams) sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour
Put the butter in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the
metal blade and process, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed,
until the butter is smooth. Add the sugar and process and scrape until
thoroughly blended into the butter. Add the egg and continue to
process, scraping the bowl as needed, until the mixture is smooth and
satiny. Add the flour all at once, then pulse 10 to 15 times, until the
dough forms clumps and curds and looks like streusel.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and gather it into a ball.
Divide the ball in half, shape each half into a disk, and wrap the
disks in plastic. If you have the time, chill the disks until they are
firm, about 4 hours. If you're in a hurry, you can roll the dough out
immediately; it will be a little stickier, but fine. (The dough can be
wrapped airtight and refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the
oven to 350 degrees F (180 C). Line two baking sheets with parchment
Working with one disk at a time, roll the dough out on a lightly
floured surface until it is between 1/8 and 1/4 inch (4 and 7 mm)
thick. Using a 1 1/2 -inch (4-cm) round cookie cutter, cut out as many
cookies as you can and place them on the lined sheets, leaving about 1
inch (2.5 cm) space between them. (You can gather the scraps into a
disk and chill them, then roll, cut and bake them later.)
Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are set but
still pale. (If some of the cookies are thinner than others, the thin
ones may brown around the edges. M. Poilane would approve. He'd tell
you the spots of color here and there show they are made by hand.)
Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.
Keeping: The cookies can be kept in a tin at room temperature for about 5 days or wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 1 month.
On the Road
| April 18, 2007 11:04 PM
What a wonderful post! Thank you for writing an ode to butter--I think it is about time the U.S. makes cultured butter more readily available. I am extremely jealous of your butter tasting opportunity (as well as most everything you do)! I have not yet tried the Punition recipe from "Paris Sweets", but now I have a great motivator. Poilane's bakery was a highlight of my recent trip to Paris--and close to where I was staying. I believe his croissant is the best I have tried.
On a separate note, I went to school at U. Michigan and was very lucky to have Zingerman's so close by. I hope you have had a chance to visit the shop!
| April 19, 2007 7:15 AM
Robyn, I don't know where you live, but as I travel around I find a wider selection of butters available these days. Even in my small town in Connecticut, there is a grocery (not a supermarket) that sells about six different types of butter. It's possible that somewhere close to you there's a store with a few kinds of butter and that you might be able to do your own tasting. If you find the butters and do the tasting, I'd love to hear about it.
| April 19, 2007 11:23 AM
can you believe this? Our friend Kerrin just emailed me and mentioned this latest story of yours. I am deeply moved, to see Lionel, whom you know I loved, and to remember spending a morning in his basement, 10 years ago, doing the punitions with his friend Robert, who is also my friend. At the time, it was all hand processing, very hard because of the sugar in the dough, the daily production was 5000 pieces I think, now it is up to 20.000 and they do the dough (je ne sais plus comment on dit exactement en anglais) in a machine, but they are still cut out one by one by Felix and Romain, whom I often visit in the afternoon.
As for butter, I also cannot stress enough during my classes the importance of high fat sweet butter. Jean Paul Coffe, whose radio program samedi matin sur France Inter is quite informative, just did a one hour session sur le beurre, I podcasted it but have not listened yet, when I will if there is some "scoop" about french butter I will make sure to let you know.
Meanwhile I find the Monoprix Gourmet AOC des Charentes very good, and PlugrÃ works well for me when I am in the US. By the way I prefer le beurre des Charentes au beurre de Normandie, even Isigny, I think it has more flavor. Also a long time ago I heard that the clearness of the water when churning is an essential factor (like in beer)
Enough, back to work, je t'embrasse,
| April 19, 2007 2:00 PM
Paule, it's great to hear from you. As I wrote, I am a fan of the butter from Echire, which is in Les Charentes, and I was told that in the Echire "buttery", the butter is washed with water from a local source. So yes, it seems that even the quality of the water is an important factor in the flavor of great butter.
| April 19, 2007 2:25 PM
Wow! My previous knowledge of butter: salted and unsalted.
VJ : )
| April 19, 2007 2:36 PM
Any thoughts on clarified butter?
| April 19, 2007 8:07 PM
If most butters have 82% butterfat why do the manufacturers remove it? Seems it would be better to give the public a tastier and better product, no? Must have something to do with cost. I also favor Echire and Vermont Butter although I haven't tried baking with them. Their taste alone is incredible.
Punitions are wonderful but I always eat too many! Just one more...and before I know, an entire bag is gone!
That is such a lovely photo of you and M. Poilane. It must have been an awesome experience baking with him. The bakery is always my first stop when I visit Paris. I dream about the apple tarts.
| April 20, 2007 8:22 AM
You hit the nail on the head â€“ manufacturers lower the butterfat content because of cost, and because they can! They do it quite simply by adding water to the butter, so, as Dorie points out lower fat = higher moisture. If 2% seems like a slim difference, consider the difference between whole milk (which has 4% milkfat) and low-fat milk, what we call 2%. It's a big difference! If you do the math the other way, there's almost 50% more water in an 80% (generic American butter) and an 86% butter (like Vermont Butter & Cheese butter). So, it really is a big difference. I encourage you to try a piecrust or cookies with one of these higher fat butters. You'll be impressed, I promise.
Perhaps someday butter manufacturers will start boating the butterfat percentages on their packaging â€“ the chocolates do now.
Thanks, Dorie, for the cookie recipe and the wonderful photo of you and M. Poilane.
| April 20, 2007 9:24 AM
Thank you all for writing such really interesting comments.
Take a look at Molly Steven's comment for a good look at how to do the math when it comes to butterfat. As Molly says, it would be great if American buttermakers would list their butters' butterfat content on the label the way many chocolatemakers now do. Interestingly, in France, both chocolate and butter makers must label their products.
VJ, about clarified butter: It's not something I use very often, but it would make sense that the better the butter you start with, the better the clarified butter you end up with. Also - -and remember, math is not my subject -- it would seem that if you start with a butter with a higher butterfat content, then you would get more clarified butter/pound than if you used a butter with a lower fat content and therefore more water.
| April 20, 2007 9:05 PM
Thanks for such an interesting post. I've been buying Kerrygold recently on a friend's recommendation (granted, he's Irish), and really enjoying it.
Also, when I lived in the Middle East, Plugra and Lurpak are the common brands of butter (and super cheap). Even poor people in Syria use it, which struck me as ironic, they use better butter than Americans do.
They also use samne, which is sort of like ghee, and has the most wonderful aroma, but I'm getting carried away...
| April 20, 2007 9:19 PM
I made the cookies and they were great! My sister gobbled them up. I had a little bit of dough left from the scraps so I kneaded half of it with a little cocoa powder until it was dark brown and layered it with the other half in checkerboard fashion. I rolled it into a log and froze it. I cut eensie weensie little cookies out of it and baked them. They were a little lopsided, but delicious.
| April 20, 2007 10:33 PM
Mercedes, it's fascinating to hear about what butters are being used in Syria -- thank you for sharing this information with us. And, no, you didn't get carried away -- I'd love to hear more.
Vicky, I'm so happy you made the cookies and liked them. It was a great idea to add the cocoa. These cookies are very plain and they'll take to variations, you can add citrus zest, spices, even chopped nuts or chocolate, and they'll always be good.
| April 20, 2007 11:39 PM
Oh how i love and miss my butter...my parents tease me that is practically the only thing I eat when I go home. Here I use Kerrygold most of the time as it fits my budget a little bit more easily than cultured butter which I find for $5.99 for 8 oz...
| April 21, 2007 8:07 AM
I can understand why you miss the butter in France, Helen. As I was reading your comment, it made me think of how, in France, when spring comes, friends will often say, "Look, you can tell spring is coming - the butter is getting more and more yellow!" Of course this happens because the cows are eating grass instead of hay. I love it!
I think Kerrygold is a good choice for the price and, you're right -- the imported French butters can be very expensive, depending on where you have to shop.
| April 21, 2007 8:53 AM
Dorie, This is such a helpful post on the rarely discussed qualities of butter. I was only somewhat aware of the different styles of butter and their fat content. Putting this into terms similar to wine tasting makes it easily understandable! It really makes you think about the flavor of the final product in baking. I'm going to print this out, and keep it with my baking references. Thanks so much!
| April 22, 2007 1:25 AM
I never thought to taste butter....just pretty much figured butter is butter! The funny thing is I live an hour from Land O Lakes but have never bought their butter. I will do a taste test next week. Have you tasted difference between Organic and non-Organic? I try to buy Organic version of any dairy.
| April 22, 2007 8:54 AM
Steamy Kitchen, buying organic is always a good idea, although I've never done a tasting between organic and conventional butters. For me, the most obvious taste differences are between cultured and non-cultured butters (and, of course, between salted and unsalted). But, as with everything, the quality of the raw ingredients is crucial. With butter, that means the quality of the cream and, by extension, what the cows fed on, how far away they are from the buttery and, therefore, how long a time lapse there is between collecting the milk and processing it and, related to that, how the milk is cared for from the start. It's not so simple, is it?
Blame It on Paris
| April 22, 2007 11:48 AM
Thank you for this, Dorie! I used to live near a cremerie and buy butters there in Paris, and back in the U.S. we are constantly trying new butters to try to find a good one. Without much success usuall, unfortunately, although we finally last week found a local dairy farm here that does fresh cultured butter that is pretty good. I will have to look for the Vermont Co. ones you recommend.
| April 22, 2007 10:52 PM
This was a very interesting read. To be honest, until very recently I never really gave much thought to butter. I knew that the butter that I usually buy in the supermarket (which is what I use to bake with) isn't on the same level as Plugra, but I never really bothered to stop and think about what makes good butter.
I've yet to see Plugra here in Toronto or any other types of butter such as the cultured ones you referred to.
I see I'll have to spend some time studying butter. Good think it's so delicious!
| April 23, 2007 4:52 AM
Fascinating article. When I started cooking seriously, switching for margarine to butter was one of the first things I did. Now we eat butter with everything, purely because we prefer the taste. We use an Italian Butter (with a cow embossed on it) for 'eating' and Wheelbarrow butter for cooking with. Both have are unsalted and have a delicate, but defined flavour. The 'cow' butter is truly sublime though and I could almost eat it alone! The Kerrygold is considered over here to be one of the cheaper butters, although the spreadable is quite useful when you can't be bothered to wait for it to soften!
| April 23, 2007 3:09 PM
Thank you for posting this discussion about butter for those who do not subscribe to the Times, it was very interesting! One question - Do the big time producers of butter (i.e. Land o Lakes, Mid-American Farms)contract with farms spread across the whole United States? If so, will their end products vary from batch to batch because not all of the cows will be under the same conditions on the farms? Because the cream is so vital to flavor and the cream is dependent on the cow's environment wouldn't there be some natural variatoin within the same product line? Sorry for so many questions, its just my curious mind in motion.
| April 23, 2007 3:25 PM
Alison, you raise a fascinating question about the quality of cream the big-time butter producers get. I don't know the "real" answer to this question and if someone does, I hope he or she will jump in. Here's what I think I know. Companies like Land o'Lakes get their cream from farmers who are part of the Land O'Lakes cooperative, which I would think means that the cows are raised and fed according to strict guidelines.
You mention consistency and I've always been struck by how consistent Land O'Lakes butter is. The quality, which I consider high, is always the same -- ditto the texture, taste and color. No matter the season, the butter is the same, which is not at all the story with artisanal or small-batch butters. With these butters, what the cows eat changes with the seasons and so the butter changes too.
Please -- I'd love to hear from someone who really knows this. It's such an interesting point.
| April 23, 2007 6:53 PM
Hi Dorie. I was wondering what your thoughts are on homemade butter as a way around grocery store quality. I seem to remember making butter on field trips in elementary school, and a Google search reveals it's as easy as pouring cream into a stand mixer, running it for a while, and draining off the buttermilk. That would make for an interesting flavour comparison. Also, any ideas on what one would have to do to make homemade cultured butter?
| April 24, 2007 3:58 PM
I don't "really know this," but, the influences of terroir and seasonality in farmstead and artisinal dairy products seem totally reversed in the mass manufacturing process, where uniformity hinges on successfully taking the terroir *out* of the process.
The answer to the question of consistency seems necessarily to begin with the commingling of milk from a few thousand co-op member dairies within a 100-mile radius (as it does in at least one Land o'Lakes plant). Scientists and engineers -- not artisans -- take over from there.
Land o'Lakes even has a division called "Ingredient Solutions," which, they say, exists "to develop custom ingredients that help manufacturers achieve specific flavor, appearance and performance goals."
Artisans need not apply.
Cooks Illustrated provides some good, and much more complete answers here: http://tinyurl.com/ysuqqt
| April 25, 2007 6:46 AM
Mmm -- thank you for adding so many interesting points to the discussion. And, of course, you're right -- the goal of large industrial buttermakers is to take the terroir *out* of their products, so that they will always be the same, no matter where the milk comes from.
Rob -- I led a deprived childhood: we never took a trip to anyplace where butter was being made. In fact, the one food-related field trip I can remember was to the WonderBread plant!
I've never made homemade butter and I'm not sure how you would culture it. To culture butter a "culture", is it an enzyme?, is added to the cream so that it ferments. It's similar to what is added to cream to make creme fraiche or to milk to make yogurt.
I wonder if you could make creme fraiche and then churn it? Doesn't that sound like it would work?
| April 25, 2007 3:30 PM
I'm no scientist, but having been reading everything I could get my hands on lately about making cheese, I've learned a few things I would never have thought anyone I know would want!
The culture is an acid whose purpose is to break down the fat globules so they will adhere together (into butter). It used to be that soured cream was used for this purpose (i.e., unhomogenized milk was allowed separate and the cream was allowed to sour or acidify). A little cultured buttermilk will do the trick now.
Or you can make uncultured butter just by beating the heck out of heavy cream. But it probably won't taste as good.
| May 1, 2007 11:20 AM
Thanks for the butter tasting notes. I've never heard about cultured butter but I shall try Vermont Butter and Cheeses's.
| May 8, 2007 8:38 AM
Thanks for this great post! I am ready to jump out of bed and make some muffins so I have something good to spread with butter!
I encourage everyone to try making your own butter from the milk of cows that produce high-butterfat milk (like Jerseys). We recently started getting all of our milk raw from a local dairy with a mixed herd of Guernsey, Jersey, Holstein, Brown Swiss and Ayrshire. I have yet to try making cultured butter (that's my next project) but making sweet butter is as easy as whipping room temperature cream in a Kitchenaid mixer until the buttermilk and butter separate. An extra whipping after washing also improves the texture. This is an easy and very satisfying activity!
The best part is how the taste and look of the butter changes with the seasons. During the winter, the butter is whitish and the flavor quite mild because the cows are eating hay. As soon as the grass came up, the butter was a rich golden hue and had a delicious, almost "grassy" edge to it. Yum yum.
| May 8, 2007 10:21 AM
Lauren, I would bet that making butter at home with great milk is a true treat. Sadly, for so many of us, finding great milk is a problem. I can get raw milk in Connecticut, so I'll give buttering a whirl.
I recenty heard a terrific story from Martha Foose, who is the executive chef for Viking Range company. She makes her own butter and she makes it in a paint-mixing machine, you know, one of those automatic shakers. Evidently, when she told Ari Weinzweig about her better butter technique, he liked the idea so much he installed a paint mixer in his store, Zingerman's, and they now whip up butter on the spot.
| May 8, 2007 12:51 PM
Today only I found your blog . Hurrah!
& what a coincidenc!
After owning 'Baking from my home to yours' & 'choc desserts by PH', become so thrilled!
I'm not a baker at all. but after trying some of your recipes(almost-fudge gateau/coconut tea cake) fr. your 'baking' makes confident that i can bake too!
This is such a helpful post regd. butter.
Being Indian, we used to churned butter(aka makkhan) fr. buttermilk.
Oftenlyy, i become confused , for any baking recipe calls for 'buttermilk' what exactly does it mean? Buttermilk made by indian method or buttermilk obtained fr. western way.( add lemon juice in milk and so on)
Precisely, your note on buttermilk (baking from my home to yours) is more over related to indian method of making buttermilk.
can you give exact proportion of yoghurt (crÃ¨me fraiche) and creme for cultured butter?
Anyways, thanks a lot for sharing all informations/ideas thru UR books or UR blog, with us .
| May 10, 2007 10:07 AM
Tanya, how interesting that you used to churn butter from buttermilk. I'm imagining that the flavor of the butter had a distinct tang -- but then, I'm imagining that your buttermilk tastes like American buttermilk.
The buttermilk that I use in Baking From My Home to Yours is storebought and ready-made, although, if I want to make a recipe that calls for buttermilk and I have none on hand, I make a mixture of yogurt and milk, using 2/3 cup yogurt and 1/3 cup milk to make 1 cup of buttermilk.
I wish I could tell you how to make cultured butter at home, but I don't have the answer.
I'm delighted that you're baking from my book, enjoying it and having success with the recipes. There's nothing that makes me happier than to learn that we've got another convert to baking. Welcome!
| September 11, 2007 2:05 AM
I am wondering if you could find out if there is a law about leaving your cream out to culture for 24 hours. I am selling cultured butter but am getting word from the State that I can't sell it after letting it sit out. That I must try to make the butter cold and introduce bacteria. There are no laws in this state on culturing, just on milk products. 45 degrees or less at all times is the law. Is it possible for you to find out anything on culturing butter laws? I certainly would appreciate it since my whole business is based on the cultured flavor.
Any help is appreciated.
| April 23, 2008 11:21 AM
Somehow I've only just caught up with all the talk, blogs and articles about French butters and their transformational effect on baked goods. So I've got my hands on a couple of packs of insanely expensive Echire - unsalted of course. Apart from puff pastry, which I've yet to master, what should I use it (or save it) for to showcase its flavour... and make me feel it's money well spent :-)? Butter cookies/shortbread would be an obvious. Any others?
| January 17, 2009 4:59 PM
Dorie, I made these yesterday using a batch of homemade butter and they were delicious, thank you! Our butter was made with leftover cream from Christmas - we allowed it to sour an extra week past its expiry date, then beat it until it split, and whacked the resultant mass between wooden gnocchi paddles until the whey was discharged. This recipe really showcased the flavour of the butter and was fun to make. Thanks again!
Martha in KS
| March 30, 2010 5:39 PM
Dorie, when I saw this story on Sunday I was amazed by the way Poilane caressed the ingredients to make the cookies. You could tell that he loved the process of creating something luscious. Thanks for sharing the memory.
| March 30, 2010 7:22 PM
Dear Dorrie, this story reminds me of being young and growing up in Killingworth and making our own homemade butter from our jersey cows cream(so thick it was like pudding)-rich and amazing. we actually used to eat butter and sugar sandwiches. oh to have that homemade flavor again...
Pete from DC
| June 28, 2010 8:29 PM
Just wanted to update this blog post and note that since Sept. 18, 2007, and continuing through to the present date (June 28, 2010), the New York Times discontinued its Times Select membership, and has made the online version of the newspaper viewable to all for free.
So, for those who are interested, anyone can read Ms Greenspan's article on butter (as I just did by clicking on the link she provided) entitled "Butter With a Pedigree. Ah, the French." No membership, subscription, or fee is required
I realize it's laborious to go back and update / edit older posts, but I just wanted to let Ms Greenspan and any present readers be aware of this.
| August 13, 2010 2:44 PM
Hi love your site and the great discourse on butter, which I love far too much to the point of worship. I found the butter in the northwest coast to be the best American butter, but cannot get it here in the coastal South, so I try artisanal brands when I can. I also found the butter in Switzerland to be amazing.
A chef I knew insisted that the best butter came from cows that were fed from a particular kind of grass that grew there.
But the object of this comment which is quickly becoming an epistle is tracking down the cookie of my childhood in New Orleans, just a simple roll-and- cut sugar that the nuns would sprinkle with sugars for Mardi Gras. However, the note was in my mother's attic before Katrina...
The cookies had the texture of sables bit were more brown. I am not at all sure the nuns would have used butter, and I was told that they possibly used powdered egg yolks.
Does anybody have any idea about helping with nostalgia? I have met other school friends who say the same thing- divine cookies but we can't achieve the same results.
| December 28, 2010 9:23 AM
Doris or fans : I've been trying to recall the name of the French cafe in Paris that's known for making a wonderful chocolate fudge and serving it in a communal bowl, passing it around from table to table. Any idea or recommendations of a good chocolate or dessert substitute when I visit Paris next?
All my best,
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