A Case for Real Butter and Why There Is No Substitute

Altogether Now: Butter Makes Everything Better!


s a young pastry cook, I spent the better part of a decade elbows deep in butter; scraping huge 60-quart bowls of shiny swiss meringue buttercream and cooking enormous batches of butter-rich pate a choux. My relationship with butter runs deep, and I would never, ever cheat on it.

So if you’re a butter purist like me, you’ll look at butter substitutes populating the dairy aisle and think, What’s the point? No butter substitute can elevate the richness and complexity of even the most simple dishes like real butter can. Corn on the cob without real butter merely is just something to pick out of your teeth; Biting into toast without real butter is merely a sad sound bite; Mashed potatoes without real butter is just wasted space in your belly. And don’t even get me started about pastries! Pie crust made without real butter is just a joyless lump of dough; And croissants? Croissants just would not exist without real butter! The horror!

The truth is, there is no substitute for butter, which by definition must contain a minimum of 80 percent milk fat. Butter is derived from milk my friends, not trans fats developed in laboratories like most substitutes, which in fact do more harm to your muffin-top than butter in its fat-fabulous, unadulterated glory. In moderation, high-quality, grass-fed butter can even be good for you; it contains a high level of butyric acid — found only in a few foods, butter being one of them — which is shown to decrease inflammation in your intestines. It’s a decent source of Vitamin A, which is good news for your eyes if you often find yourself reading in low light. And get this; it’s high in medium-chain triglycerides which are shown to suppress the appetite. Can I hear it one more time? Butter makes everything better!

European Style Butter vs. Sweet Cream Butter

Of course, not all real butter is created equally. To this, I defer to my fellow culinary professionals. One could call local pastry chef Sasha Gustafson of Butter Cake Shoppe an authority on butter. She’s a strong proponent of the European style noting that, “Nothing compares to the aromatic punch that full-fat European Style Butter brings.” This is because European Style Butter or cultured butter is higher in fat content then Sweet Cream Butter (86 percent vs. 80 percent) and has less water which results in a more tender crumb and a more silky texture. It’s made in the old-world way where the cream is fermented before churning which creates more aroma compounds to produce a more buttery flavored butter. Sweet cream butter is formed in the more modern style made famous by the advent of refrigeration and the mechanical cream separator. It’s made from fresh, not fermented cream which produces butter that still tastes buttery just less complex. Think sourdough bread vs. plain white sandwich bread. Both are bread, but … well, you decide.

To Salt or Not to Salt

When purchasing butter, the choices can be overwhelming. Butter with salt, butter without salt. Butter packaged in foil blocks, butter packaged in boxes. Butter in long skinny sticks, butter in stubby sticks. Butter that’s yellow, butter that’s white. Let’s start from the beginning: A good rule to follow when choosing butter is to ask yourself, “What am I using this butter for?” When cooking or baking, use the unsalted variety. You can always add more salt, but it surely isn’t easy to take it away. Salted butter is generally best for the table, left at room temperature in a butter keeper, positioned directly next to lots of carbs for easy access. Butter packaged in foil blocks tends to be a bit pricer per unit and are usually of the European Style. And fun butter trivia of the day; butter packaged as a long skinny “Elgin” stick generally comes from East of the Rocky Mountains, whereas butter packaged in the shorter stubbier sticks comes from West of the Rockies (FYI most butter dishes cater to the Elgin style, remember that before you buy one for Grandma.)

What’s Up With Really Yellow Butter?

Apart from cultured vs. sweet and salted vs. not, color is a major biggie. Butter that is yellow with a low price tag probably has color additives to make it appear more buttery looking. Don’t be fooled. Good yellow butter should indicate the coveted grass-fed type where the color is derived from the dairy cow’s healthy consumption of grass, not grain, which is beta-carotene rich. However, paler, more white butter isn’t at all bad. In fact, it’s ideal when making something like buttercream frosting where a yellow tinge looks almost too buttery and can affect the outcome of any other colors you might add to it.

No matter how you spread it, butter is the unequivocal, luxurious punctuation to most any dish. Even if you suck at cooking, take it from me, just add a little butter, and ta-da you have something a little more memorable. Julia Child said it best.

“With enough butter, anything is good.” — Julia Child

Learn how to make Swiss Meringue Buttercream here.

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