Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Market Report: Butter Me Up

I may be a chef and a foodie, but one of my favorite meals has always been bread and butter. Though I was not a finicky child, on those nights that our family ate “grown up food” I would be allowed, assuming I’d at least tried my meal and finished enough of the vegetables, to get up from the table and butter a piece of bread for dinner. Over time, I remember the butter changing to margarine. I was skeptical, but not indignant. The benefits were obvious–instead of poking holes in my bread trying to spread hard bits of butter, our margarine logs, wrapped in shiny tin foil, spread easily straight from the fridge. But something was inexpressibly wrong with the taste.

I remember standing in the kitchen a few years later, putting together my bread and margarine, when my Mamma read aloud from The Buffalo News, new research showing that butter was actually better for you…she was right, of course, real butter is better in our bellies and on our palettes than any processed food product could ever be. Soon the hard, waxed paper wrapped logs returned, as did holey toast. It took several more years before I realized that the reason our butter never tasted as good as in restaurants was its lack of salt.

That little girl would be ecstatic if she could see inside my fridge today. It will come as no surprise that I don’t skimp on good butter, nor do I skimp on good bread. My ideal buttered toast, as I now prefer it, involves Bread Alone sourdough and a thick smear of sweet cream, grass-fed butter from Anne Saxelby’s shop. But there are oh-so-many variations! An Amy’s baguette spread with Plugra makes a dainty picnic; brown bread with salted, yellow Kerrygold is perfect with smoked sausages and cabbage; and my new favorite, a whole-grain Pullman loaf from Ely’s, was a comforting late-night snack when topped with my homemade sweet cream butter (yes, homemade!).

The skeptics may say it’s all just bread and butter, but a butter-phile knows better. At the most basic level, European and American butters differ in fat content (84-85% versus 80-81%). European butters are usually cultured as well, being made from fermented cream instead of fresh cream. The fresh cream, pasteurized butters made in the US and Britain are called sweet creams, and they often have a milder flavor than the cultured butters, which have more complexity. I recently picked up a log of Vermont Butter & Cheese Company’s European style cultured butter, which tastes–how can I put this?–like a cow! A lovely, creamy cow.

Timing is important as well, as butters made from the cream of grass-fed cows will be influenced by their diet. Kerrygold makes their butter only from summer milk, and its bright gold color and creamy taste reflect the cow’s rich diet during these months. Their salted butter is uncultured, and is so rich that it’s spreadable right out of the fridge. Organic Valley has a limited edition Pasture Butter containing only the milk of cows milked between May and September; for the rest of the year, their European Style Cultured Butter is an excellent foil to the traditional sweet cream.

I switch between cultured, sweet cream, salted and unsalted butters on my toast, as I enjoy the taste of all (and there’s always fleur de sel to add on top). Though it’s considered something of a sacrilege, I actually prefer to bake with salted butter, as I find it gives my desserts a little extra kick. I stick to American butters when baking, as the higher fat content of European brands can throw off the balance of an American recipe. I’m also a devoted fan of ghee, or clarified butter, which is a perfect medium for scrambling or frying fresh eggs. And It’s not just straight butter I love, either. Erin and I went wild over the truffle butter that Whole Foods carried last holiday season, and Celest has a thing for cinnamon butter. Flavored butters…what isn’t there to love?

The method for making butter at home hasn’t changed since my elementary school science class. A Ball jar, some cream and a strong arm are all you need, as well as something to read while you shake. If you’re without a jar or the patience to shake it, a bowl and an electric mixer will do. I started with a pint of Ronnybrook heavy cream so thick I needed a spoon to get it into the jar. After replacing the lid, I shook it for several minutes while a perplexed Taleggio looked on. After about five minutes the cream stopped sloshing and turned into whipped cream; about ten minutes more, and a soft lump of butter began to splash around easily in the buttermilk. After twenty minutes and a nice long article in the New Yorker, the butter was mostly separated, and I poured off the buttermilk to use later in biscuits.

Then I made myself a piece of toasted baguette and slathered it on. Creamy, sweet and incredibly fresh. Next time I may try this with–dare I say it–raw cream. That funky, unpasteurized, totally illegal dairy that comes straight from the cow to be sold on the “black” farmers’ market. For risk of shutting down this totally delicious and food-forward operation, I can’t give any contact details over the Internet regarding where to find this cream so flavorful it tastes like cheese, but write me if you want details. Because as any food maven should, from handmade ravioli to black market milk, I’ve gotta guy who knows a guy who knows raw dairy.

All of this butter love has convinced me that I finally need to invest in a butter bell, the French-style butter dish that suspends fresh butter in a small cup of water, to keep it cool and spreadable outside of the fridge. As my nine-year-old self would agree, bread and butter is one of the most delicious meals there is, but toast with holes should be avoided at any age.

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6 Responses to “Market Report: Butter Me Up”

  1. Buffalo At Heart

    I always wondered if those butter bells are any good. If you get one, let me know what you think.

  2. Thom

    I was given a few pounds of Plugra recently. It ended up in biscuits.

    Why don’t you make your own butter? I think house-made butters are something chefs need to take more control of. It’s so easy, why don’t all nice restaurants do it?

  3. Amelia in Australia

    Fantastic article on butter. We have quite good butter in Australia – very fresh. However I have been recently trying French butters – I love that unsalted, slightly sweet taste. I have shunned margarine in favour of butter for the past year after reading Michael Pollen’s book “In Defence of Food”.
    Love your blog btw!

  4. Kimberly Belle

    I DO make my own butter, Thom! That’s what I was trying to communicate in this post. I agree, it’s so easy and so yummy, and I too wish more spots would give it a whirl. Amelia & Buffalo At Heart, thank you SO much for taking the time to write me about your butter adventures. I will certainly let you know how the butter bell fares. Xo

  5. Bells

    thats why you and the littlest get a long so well. she absolutely LOVES bread and butter.

  6. Leighann

    Thank you for this! I had no idea this is how butter is made. Mine came out perfectly!

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