Better Butters?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To fully appreciate boutique butters, you have to feel that margarine is an abomination of nature. You have to abhor the concept of light butter. And as for low-fat pastries - well, life wouldn't be worth living if you had to eat those, would it?

Maybe you've noticed these new, richer butters on your supermarket shelves. You can recognize them by labels like "European-style" and "extra creamy," by the fancy packaging (often foil) and, most of all, by their price tag. They typically cost twice as much as ordinary butters.

Until recently, you had to go to gourmet shops or natural-food stores to find premium butters - if you could find them at all. Now they've become more widely available, in the same way artisanal breads have spread from small bakeries to the local Super Fresh. Even butter giant Land O' Lakes has jumped into the fray, with the introduction two years ago of its Ultra Creamy butter.

"Americans are going back to fat," says Allison Hooper, an owner of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co., which started producing some of the richest butter on the market two years ago. "They're saying, 'It's OK, and as long as I'm eating it, it might as well be good.' "

"Good" in the case of premium butter means two things: more butterfat and often more flavor produced by introducing bacterial cultures into the cream before churning (typical of European butters).

Since 1990, consumption of all types of butter has been on the upswing. It's increased on an average of 4 percent a year, according to Lydia Botham at Land O' Lakes.

The rehabilitation of this good but not-so-good-for-you food has happened gradually. After decades of denying themselves by choosing margarine over butter for health reasons, Americans were told that maybe margarines weren't better for them after all. In fact, those containing trans fatty acids actually posed more of a health risk while delivering none of the sensual pleasures of butter.

At the same time, interest in all-natural foods has grown, and people are less willing to eat foods containing ingredients they can't pronounce. Butter tends to have only one or two ingredients, such as sweet cream and salt, both of which are familiar to the consumer.

Premium butters, often labeled "European" and "European-style" and produced by small creameries, have an extra cachet. The new trend seems to be for consumers to indulge in mini splurges in lieu of big ones. While many people can't afford beluga caviar or prime rib, butter at $4 for half a pound falls into the "little-luxury" category. Pair that with a growing interest in gourmet cooking and foreign ingredients, and suddenly you see products like Organic Valley European Style Cultured Butter, Cadi (from Spain) and Lurpak Danish Butter on the shelves of local stores.

"The general public is rebelling against confusing nutrition reports," says Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appetit magazine. "They're saying calories and fat be damned. [Premium butters] are great for home baking and a lovely indulgence for guests."

From all the hoopla, you might think these boutique butters deliver huge amounts of extra butterfat. Not so. By law, American butters must contain 80 percent butterfat. Land O' Lakes Ultra Creamy is 83 percent fat, and Vermont's cultured butter is 86 percent - about as high as it gets. But proponents say even a few percentage points can make a delicious difference.

More butterfat is important because of what it adds (richer flavor and a silkier texture) and what it replaces (water). Less moisture means that pastry dough will handle better and the butter will have a higher burning point. Cakes may rise higher when cultured butter is used. Sauces are creamier and less likely to separate.

To make its beurre blanc sauce, the kitchen of Petit Louis uses Plugra, an American premium butter that until recently was available only commercially. For everything else, the Roland Park bistro buys regular unsalted butter.

"The beurre blanc has a much better texture. It's creamier, you can feel it on your tongue. And the sauce holds better through the evening," says chef de cuisine Peter Livolsi.

Kevin Randles, executive chef at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott, agrees. A couple of months ago, his kitchen switched from a commercial butter to Vermont's cultured butter for all its needs.

"It's a much richer taste," he says. "With regular butter or shortening, pastries and sauces don't have the silky taste in the mouth."

The professionals can tell the difference, but can the ordinary consumer? We decided to hold an informal taste test to see if these boutique butters are the bottled water of the '00s, with their popularity due as much to creative marketing as anything.

I brought to work ramekins filled with five butters: Plugra, Organic Valley, Kerry Gold, Vermont and one ringer, Land O' Lakes regular salted butter (not the Ultra Creamy). I tried to make them look as much alike as possible, labeling them A through E, but I couldn't do anything about the difference in color. Several people complained that the Kerry Gold, an Irish butter, was as yellow as margarine. But one praised it because it reminded her of her grandmother's butter.

I enlisted everyone who came by my desk to try the butters on bland crackers. One simply said they all tasted like butter to him. There was no consensus on which tasted better.

Only Rob Kasper, The Sun's food columnist, could tell enough of a difference among the butters to make the extra cost worthwhile. In fact, with most tasters, the Land O' Lakes did as well as any of the premium butters. Rob was the only one besides me who preferred the highest butterfat butter (Vermont). "Wonderful mouth feel," he said, hastily adding, "but none of them would I kick out of my refrigerator."

Meanwhile, another staffer, a former caterer, and I experimented with several different premium butters, both salted and unsalted, in our home kitchens. Here are our findings:

Certain premium butters, most notably the new-on-the-market Organic Valley and Kerry Gold Pure Irish Butter, have a fragrance that will knock your socks off. It's more pronounced than the taste difference.

For everyday baking, such as oatmeal cookies, the difference in flavor between regular and premium butters isn't worth the difference in price.

Be prepared for difficulties measuring these butters, which usually come in a half-pound block rather than a neatly marked stick.

You can saute with high-butterfat butters without needing to add a little oil to keep them from burning. They don't smoke and burn as quickly. They also don't spatter as much at high heats.

If you want the flavor of butter in a pie crust, you'll have more success using premium butters than regular, but after experimenting I would follow the advice of Vermont's Hooper and add some shortening to the mix, perhaps 6 tablespoons of butter to 2 of shortening.

Brown butter sauce is particularly good made with premium butters. Put about 4 tablespoons in a small saucepan. Stir continuously over medium heat until the butter colors a glorious dark brown and takes on a nutty flavor. Brown butter is delicious over vegetables or with seafood.

So are the boutique butters worth it?

True butter fanatics (like me) will appreciate qualities such as the extra butterfat of Vermont and the fragrance and tang of Organic Valley's cultured butter, but don't expect an enormous difference in taste.

You'll need to experiment to find your butter preference. One premium butter may taste too bland for you, another too salty, another too intensely buttery. Regular butter could be fine for your needs. That may be just because it's familiar, but if it ain't broke ...

Old-fashioned Chess Pie

If you're going to spend this much on your butter, you might as well bake something that showcases it. I had good luck with this family recipe for chess pie, which has very few ingredients to detract from the flavor of the premium butter. Serves 8

1/2 cup premium butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 extra-large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

one 9-inch pie crust (see below)

Melt the butter and sugar and let cool. Beat the eggs with a mixer until light and frothy. Continue beating while adding spoonfuls of the sugar-and-butter mixture. Add the vanilla. Bake in the pie shell for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Pie Crust

1/2 cup premium butter (or part butter, part white vegetable shortening)

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut the chilled butter into the flour until pea-size lumps form. Add just enough ice water to combine. Press together to form the dough. Wrap in wax paper and chill for 1 hour or overnight. Roll out and fit into 9-inch pie pan without stretching.

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