Butter has existed for thousands of years. It’s referenced in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, though it likely only started tasting palatable around the 19th century when butter makers started chilling the cream before churning.
Luckily, butter is available in several safe and delicious variations today, from the standard store-bought block (salted or unsalted?) to small-batch cultured butter.
In her book, “Butter, A Rich History,” Elaine Khosrova recounts tasting through two dozen or so samples of butter for a project, and determines “no two were alike!” Butter, she writes, shows terroir, or taste of place, and each has its own color, consistency, and flavor.
The (what can be many) differences between butters depend on the animal (while most butter is made from cow’s milk, butter from other animals, most commonly goats, can be found as well); its habitat; its diet, and the way humans make it.
(There are even seasonal differences between butters. “The Oxford Companion to Cheese“ explains, “Winter butters are firmer than summer butters, because the milk of cows on pasture contains fat that is softer and less saturated.”)
When it comes to choosing the best fancy butter for your next spread for a party or for a special loaf of homemade bread, there are several variables to consider. The following are the ones that matter most, from color to fat and salt content and beyond.
If butter is made with the milk of grass-fed cows, that butter will be yellow, thanks to the presence of beta-carotene. With cow’s milk products, that yellow color will usually correspond to richer flavor and higher nutrients.
If a goat butter is yellow, though, it’s been dyed. Goats process beta-carotene differently than cows, and products made from their milk will always be stark white, even if they exclusively grazed on pasture. Water buffalo butter will also be white.
One of the reasons that European butter is prized is its higher fat content. In the U.S., our minimum required fat content for unsalted butter is 80 percent (salted butter will have less). Unsalted European butter must be at least 82 percent fat and can be up to 86 percent. This requires longer churning to isolate more of the fat. For baking flaky pastries, butter with a higher fat content is ideal.
Sweet cream butter has not been cultured. Most of the butter sold in the U.S. is sweet cream butter, including some favorites like Kerrygold.
If a butter is labeled as “cultured,” it has been inoculated with the same type of cultures used to make yogurt or cheese. It then must be allowed to sit and mature before it is churned — usually this takes between nine and 15 hours. The name-protected Charentes-Poitou PDO butter must sit for a minimum of 16 hours to fully develop its signature flavors. Cultured butter usually has a slight tang to it, thanks to the presence of lactic acid.
Even in the U.S., it was more common for butter to be cultured before the 1970s, when lactic concentrates began to be added to butter, both to add flavor and to extend the life span.
Salted vs. Unsalted
When choosing between salted and unsalted butter, it’s important to think about the potential uses for the butter. As salt is a preservative, salted butter will stay fresher for longer. Typically, unsalted butter is recommended for baking.
Like many of our favorite wines and cheeses, there are some butters with AOC and PDO designation. These include:
*Charentes-Poitou PDO butter, which must be made in the French departments of Charentes, Vendée, or Vienne. This region was better known for vineyards until phylloxera hit in the 1880s, after which it converted to dairying. Winter butter from Charentes-Poitou is prized among French pastry chefs.
*Isigny PDO butter from Normandy. The cows must have been grazing near the sea marshes of the region, which imparts a distinctive taste, thanks to the iodine and other trace minerals rich in that grass.
*Bresse PDO butter from the French departments of Ain, Jura, and Saône-et-Loire.
*AOC Beurres des Deux Sèvres, often called Beurre d’Échiré. Must be made with the milk of cows grazing within 19 miles of the Atlantic village of Échiré.
Other excellent producers include Rodolphe Le Meunier, Jean-Yves Bordier, Beppino Occelli, and Kerrygold.
American Craft Butter
While the average French grocery store butter has the average American grocery store butter beat hands down, there are some excellent American butter producers whose butter is arguably as good as the French stuff. Look for Ploughgate, Banner, Vermont Creamery, Organic Valley Cultured Pasture Butter, and Ronnybrook.
Compound butter is butter with other ingredients added. Truffle butter or garlic butter are two examples of compound butter. One of the most famous compound butters is seaweed butter, said to have been invented by famed butter artisan Jean-Yves Bordier in 1986.