Most of us love butter. It melts beautifully on a piece of toast, it gives wonderful flavor to both sweet and savory goods and provides a preferred mouthfeel to the likes of buttercream frosting. Here at the shop, we carry quite a variety of butters and sometimes folks ask us what distinguishes them from each other – a very fair question!
One of the most critical differences can be whether the butter is made in the European style. European butter is typically made with cultured cream which means it sits for some hours before churning. This allows the butter to ferment slightly, lending it a slightly tangier and nuttier flavor profile. As well, the increased acidity is important when baking – the acid helps to tenderize pastries like croissants and bread. Most American butters are not cultured and are labeled as “sweet cream” butter.
Are you buying your butter for baking, cooking or direct consumption? Most professional kitchens (including ours) use unsalted butter. The reason for this is that it allows each chef and baker to more closely control the seasoning in their dish, adding the desired amount of salt themselves. However, when taking home a crusty baguette and some butter, Ihsan – owner of Formaggio Kitchen – invariably selects La Baratte des Gourmets, a butter containing large crystals of fleur de sel that give a burst of flavor in your mouth when they hit your tastebuds.
Another factor to consider is butterfat content. In the US, butter must contain at least 80% fat. In France, however, the required minimum is 82% (unless it is salted – in which case, it can contain 80% fat and up to 2% salt). In addition, most butter contains 1-2% milk solids (the white stuff that floats to the top when you melt your butter). This means that a typical French butter might have a water content of 16-17% whereas a typical American butter would have a water content closer to 18-19%. In general , a lower moisture content translates to cakes that rise higher and flakier pastries. There are, however, American exceptions – American butters that are more akin to their French predecessors, such as the one we carry from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.
Keeping these differences in mind, here is a more specific run down on the butters in our refrigerator case:
Plugrá – This is a slow-churned butter that is commonly used in professional kitchens – it is what we use in our bakery and kitchen. Made in the United States by Keller’s Creamery. Unsalted. 82% butterfat content.
Celles sur Belle – Celles sur Belle butter is made by Sèvre et Belle, a small cooperative in the village of Celles sur Belle in the west of France, dating back to 1893. Founded and run by local folks, it has remained faithful to tradition while constantly adapting to advances in technology. They have deliberately restricted themselves to a reasonable size. Celles sur Belle is a protected, AOC butter from the Poitou-Charentes region of France. It is made in a traditional way in barrel-shaped churns from cream fermented for 24-36 hours. This helps the butter develop a “nutty” taste, considered typical of the region. Unsalted. 82% butterfat content.
La Baratte des Gourmets – La Baratte des Gourmets is an AOC French butter and is a favorite of Ihsan’s, particularly on a slice of Poîlane bread. The milk used to make it is collected daily in Charentes-Poitou. The cream is then matured for 18 hours – after which time the butter is churned in small batches. An 80% fat content and a 2% salt content – they use a salt collected by hand on the Ile de Ré.
Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery (VBC) – VBC makes all sorts of delicious dairy products – cheese, cream and butter. We order their Vermont Cultured Butter (European Style). While working on a dairy farm in Brittany, France, Allison Hooper (one of VBC’s co-founders) observed the butter-making process and has since translated that experience into a butter of her own. VBC cultures fresh, high quality Vermont cream from the local St. Albans Cooperative, a co-op of five-hundred family farms located in Northeast Vermont. The cream is then churned in small batches into butter. Unsalted. 86% butterfat content.
Beurre de Baratte Rodolphe Le Meunier - Rodolphe Le Meunier has been decorated with one of France’s highest honors, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF). He was also the 2007 World Champion Cheese Affineur. Needless to say, he knows a lot about his dairy. Rodolphe represents the fifth generation of his family to make and age cheese in the Loire Valley. No wonder then that his butter is so exceptional. Manufactured in Normandie, it is churned and shaped by hand. The milk is collected and it is pasteurized no more than 48 hours later. Then, before 72 hours have elapsed, the butter is churned. This butter is naturally a deep yellow color (reflecting the beta carotene that transfers from the fresh greenery the cows are munching on year-round to their milk). Unsalted.
Here is a video (in French) of Rodolphe explaining what goes into making good butter.
Burro 1889 – Burro 1889 is made by Le Fattorie Fiandino, a family-owned dairy. The milk used to make Burro 1889 is from Piedmontese cows that roam the hills eating fresh grass. The machine used to produce the butter is a centrifugal cream separator. This process for churning butter is distinctive in that the paddles are fixed and the container spins around them, meaning more butter is separated out from the buttermilk and water, giving it a smoother texture than traditionally churned butters. After the butter is separated from the buttermilk, it is allowed to ferment or mature in a cool space for a minimum of 72 hours. We carry both a salted and unsalted version of this butter. The salted version has an 80% fat content and a 2% salt content – they use a salt hand-harvested by Culcasi, a saltworks in Sicily. The unsalted version has an 82% butterfat content.
Beurre de Brebis– Alastair MacKenzie and Lucille Giroux, based in Québec, Canada, are the dynamic duo behind sheep dairy, La Moutonnière, where this butter and a host of delicious cheeses are made. Their butter is different from all of those listed above by virtue of milk type. Beurre de Brebis (in English, “butter of sheep”) is a sheep milk butter. Sheep milk butter can be fermented but Alastair and Lucille chose to keep theirs unfermented. Alastair tells us that:
“Smaller [fat] globules make [sheep milk] more homogenized than cow milk, so the fat doesn’t rise. Sheep cream when whipped will turn to butter very quickly and almost skip the whipped stage… It also has a higher melting point… Bakers like it as it is sweeter than cow butter.”
When La Moutonnière had their cream tested, it logged in with a roughly 65% fat content. They have not yet tested the level of fat in the butter but given that cow milk heavy cream is around 38%, we wonder if sheep milk butter would have an even higher butterfat level than cow milk butters! It is worth noting too that there is some seasonal variation – Alastair reports that their sheep milk in the spring contains around 5% fat. At the moment, however, lactation is ending and the fat content in the milk is around 8%. Beurre de Brebis is sweet, pale (almost white), and is good for high temperature cooking. It has a harder set than cow milk butters. Salted.
Further reading: here is a great article from The New York Times by Dorie Greenspan that helped us in our research – plus it includes recipes from two French baking masters!