Julia Child once said “With enough butter, anything is good.” But good butter makes everything even better, says Rinske de Jong, co-owner of Working Farms Dairy, who uses a 75-year-old Danish steel churn to turn the cream from her cows’ organic, grass-fed milk into rich, edible, spreadable gold. Read on to find out what makes it so good — and answers to all your other pressing butter questions.
What the heck is butter made of anyway?
Short answer: Mostly fat. The process starts by separating out the high-fat cream from fresh milk. The cream is then churned, which alters the membranes around its milkfat droplets, allowing them to stick together and form a semi-solid (butter) while the liquid (buttermilk) drains out. More specifically, butter consists of about 80 to 90 percent fat, plus some liquid and milk solids.
What’s the difference between various kinds of butter?
Think of butter like orange juice; there’s pulpy, low-pulp, no-pulp, concentrate, fresh-squeezed, etc. Deciding which is best for you comes down to personal preference, what you’re using it for and, often, budget. Here’s a rundown:
• Unsalted or sweet cream
This is standard, no frills, workhorse butter you can use for anything. That said, big differences in flavor and quality exist. For example, small-batch butter from the milk of grassfed cows like at Working Cows Dairy have a healthier ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s and other nutrients that give it a deeper flavor and rich color, de Jong says. (Her butter is almost orange due to high levels of beta-carotene that come from the cows’ grassy diet). It may also have slightly higher levels of butterfat, giving it a richer flavor. Supermarket sticks, on the other hand, are paler and milder, containing around 80 percent butterfat.
• Salted butter
Just like unsalted, but with salt added for flavor. If you like butter on toast—or anything else that centers butter — salted may be your jam. That said, there’s no set standard for the amount of salt added, so some brands may taste very salty and others less. For that reason, stick with unsalted for cooking and baking (unless a recipe specifies otherwise). But you can absolutely use them interchangeably, especially if you’re not one to micromanage flavor. “There's really not enough salt for it to make a big difference in a dish,” says Kelsey Barnard Clark, chef and owner of KBC restaurant in Dothan, Alabama. “I’ve had people ask during cooking classes if salted is okay, and I’m like, ‘Girl, we’re about to add like 20 tablespoons of salt to this dish, so that little bit’s not gonna matter.’” If you’re sensitive, let your taste buds guide you and reduce any other added salt.
• European butter
Churned longer to reach a butterfat minimum of 82 percent, this is your fancy, or gourmet butter; it tastes richer and spreads more easily. It’s pricier than standard sticks, so if you’re on a budget, save it for any use where butter plays a starring role (i.e. butter cookies, on bread, etc.). American brands have started selling “European-Style,” products, which offers a more affordable option.
Live, good-for-you bacteria are added to the cream to ferment it (similar to yogurt) before churning. The resulting flavor is more tangy and developed. European butter is often cultured, but you can find cultured American butter, too.
Do I have to keep my butter in the fridge?
Nope. As long as your house doesn’t get sweaty hot (say, above 75 or so), butter can live under a lid on a butter dish on the counter or in a cabinet. Ideally, it should be firm, not mushy, but still soft and spreadable. If you don’t have AC or like to crank up the heat come winter, consider a butter bell. It’s a small ceramic cup you mash or scoop butter into and then place upside down in a matching cup with water at the bottom, which keeps butter fresh and cool. Store any sticks not currently in use in the fridge or freezer.
How important is it to follow a recipe that calls for cold or softened butter?
Pretty important. Ice-cold butter helps biscuits, scones and other pastries become flaky. (Use a food processor or grater to make it workable.) Soft butter is best for soft cookies and cakes.
Can I soften butter in the microwave?
Yep. Just be sure to cut it into tablespoon-size pieces and warm in 10-second increments, stirring in between so it softens uniformly, Barnard Clark says.
What’s the best way to butter a pan?
Most people just rub the end of a hard stick of butter around and call it a day. For best results, Barnard Clark suggests using warm or room-temperature butter and painting it on with a pastry brush.