Growing up enthralled with all things pertaining to food, I have instinctively and educationally been instilled with the how’s, when’s, and why’s concerning butter. True, it IS a Southern staple, but every region and culture has a form of this delectable condiment and ingredient. The Brits, the French, the Danes and Italians all boast their own better butter and in my lovely corner of the world, I wanted to very well understand and comprehend why I like the butters I use.
I have watched Mimi, Mrs. Mary, and Mama throw in butter here and there, melt it down, dice and cube it for pie crust, garnish biscuits with pats of it, and even top off filets with a dab just before removing them from the iron skillet or grill. I have listened to Granddaddy’s stories from his childhood on milking the cows and churning said milk into butter. Butter “back in the good ol’ days” was moreover a country family’s chore or farming family’s answer to “what to do with all this fresh milk?” Cows had to be milked and nothing was wasted…butter could be consumed and stored for a bit. City and townsfolk had to buy their butter –those living in bucolical settings made it!
I love the line from Little Women when Amy says, “Butter! Oh, isn’t butter divinity?!” I concur, Amy! I know what butter tastes like and I know what GOOD butter tastes like and BAD butter tastes like. After all, a stick of butter IS the difference between a good cook and a bad cook! Allow me to further digress, regress, or simply divulge into my butter fascination.
Virginia Willis, a culinary idol of mine, explains it best in her book Bon Appetit, Y’all. “Butter is simply over-whipped cream. In cream, the fat floats around in a water suspension. When the cream is whipped, the fat coagulates and the remaining liquid is buttermilk. Whereas cream is an oil-in-water emulsion, after churning, the butter is a water-in-oil emulsion. This emulsion, butter, is a complex combination of milk fat, milk solids, and water. American butter contains at least 80 percent milk fat; some European or European-style butters contain between 82 and 88 percent milk fat.”
Fascinating! Truly fascinating! Good gardeners, cooks, and decorators alike all have an instinctive know how in their field. Not that I am good per say, at any of these, I do feel as if I understand the methodology of these as opposed to, say Calculus or math in general! It makes total sense to me why cold butter is needed in pastries and biscuits - the cold butter lets out a burst of steam when hit by heat, creating a puff of air, thus fluffy biscuits, crusts, pastry. I can grasp that fact all day long, but don’t try to get me to understand anything concerning trig!
I understand cooking chemistry, but not the chemistry I “learned” at Auburn…plant chemistry, yes, general chemistry, NO! Anyways, I have come to this understanding of butter… of what it is and how to employ it in the kitchen. Here are some of the points this cook has gathered in my own measly culinary endeavors, and I wish them to be sufficiently helpful for your expeditions in the kitchen. And remember, butter in moderation is fine…one does not have to bathe in butter…just enjoy and employ it!
· Butter is a condiment AND an ingredient. When eating it directly, say on toast, pound cake, or biscuits, you need to be eating a complement to your dish, not just a dollop of dairy disillusionment. Butter should taste good when ingested. Creamy, delicate yet certain, and slightly sweet… I do prefer a bit of salt thus salted butter hits said palette portion perfectly - this a personal palette opinion mind you.
I can remember my first trip to Europe and being amazed about how good the bread and butter were! It tasted like butter! I have eaten my way across Europe totally satisfied with sampling bread and butter…it is that good. Read Julia Child’s My Life in France and you’ll feel the same way about French butter!
The same goes for butter as an ingredient. As an ingredient, butter is enhancing, building upon, and sometimes emulsifying or blending other flavors and elements together. Here, the butter should be good and dependable, for it is a workhouse in your batter, dough, or sauce.
· Butter is a tool. Butter can truly make or break your dish. Too much, too little…employ butter correctly and it will reward you. Room temperature butter beats better, creams better, and blends better with other foodstuffs. If the recipe calls for cold butter, use cold butter…room temp, melted, clarified, or browned…work your butter correctly as the awesome tool it is for your kitchen.
· Find a consistent brand and stick with it, pun intended. Virginia Willis uses Land o Lakes for simplicity and consistency, and I have found interesting factoids about my own butter experiments. One of my favorite finds is that Smart Balance tastes great on bread, toast, biscuits, and even pasta. Good success with baking too, though I prefer “real” butter for baking. As for butter in general, the good ol’ Publix brand works just fine. I cook and bake with and find it has quite a satisfactory flavor.
Now, though, if you wish to bring your butter desires up a notch, play with the “across the pond” big guns such as Kerry Gold, Plugra, and Lespak. The latter is “slightly salted” which I found just dandy in my kitchen. Kerry Gold is always highly recommended by cooks I respect, and I think it is fantastic for buttered pecans and butter cream or cream cheese icings. Plugra, somewhat the Dom Perignon of butters, is quite delicious.
All three of these are packaged well and aesthetically pleasing, and I feel that these fair better for clarifying or browning butter proper. It’s the water to cream ratio that makes these butters better for clarifying I feel, for these have a higher cream percentage. When clarifying butter, you are removing the water, breaking down the solids, and, thus, making a by product of an elucidated or clarified butter proper. In general cooking, though, Pubilx’s butter, Land o Lakes, and Smart Balance work quite well in this kitchen. Blue Bonnet for margarine, Breakstone, and several of the organic varieties all had good marks. I prefer organic milk, thus organic butter is super! I can get totally overwhelmed with brands, so my mainstays are Publix and Kerry Gold.
· It is YOUR kitchen, so be confident in YOUR dishes. I have found that I prefer a slightly saltier, creamy, and mildly sweet butter. Most professional cooks and chef tend to stick with and cook with unsalted butter, because of the control on salt content –adding the salt as the palette prefers. Yet, salted butter is unexpectedly great for cookies and sweets – something about that sweet/salty combo is yummy. Unless you have to watch your salt intake, salted butter is totally fine in my opinion. The amount of salt in the butter isn’t really enough to drastically alter the recipe of cooking chemistry. If you use salted butter, maybe don’t use as much salt as called for…always tasting always trying!
Research butter and experiment with different brands. If you have access to local butter and other dairy products and eggs, use them! You can even whip up and churn your own butter with a hand held mixer and some cream! However if you prefer to empower your culinary skills with butter, know something about its general makeup and why we use it where we do. “It’s like buttuh…” Actually, nothing but butter is like butter, and butter IS divinity!