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October 08, 2009
I've written about butter many times, in my books, here on this blog and in The New York Times, but the subject fascinates me and I can't imagine that I'll ever be done with it. What brings me back to it this time is comments readers made on my kouing-amann post. It all started with Robert W wondering if he'd be more successful making kouing-amann - a yeasted laminate (folded and rolled) dough - using a European, higher butter-fat butter. And it continued when Styopa suggested using a 'dry' butter and Romina chimed in to say she uses high-fat butter to make kouing-amann in her bakery.
All this talk put me in mind, as sweet talk often does, of conversations I've had with Pierre Herme, (friend, co-author and le roi of French pastry). Shortly after Pierre and I met, we were discussing puff pastry and he asked: "Do you make your dough with winter butter?"
"Winter butter?" I'd never heard of it and hadn't a clue what it could be.
As Pierre explained it, winter butter is made with the milk cows produce when the majority of their feed is hay rather than fresh grass. Winter butter is pale, almost white (not golden like spring and summer butter), dry and excellent for puff pastry. So excellent, in fact, that Pierre said they stockpile the butter in their freezers so they'll have it on hand in the 'off' seasons.
I'm sure you've guessed by now, but you can only get winter butter from buttermakers whose milk comes from grass-fed cows. In other words, don't expect recognizably different winter butter from your supermarket brand, since most commercial buttermakers must strive for year-round consistency.
But dryness isn't the only factor that's important when you're considering butter for a pastry in which everything depends on it. You've got to consider fat and acid, too.
Butter is composed of fat, a negligible amount of milk solids and water and, to state the obvious - again - the more fat, the richer the butter. The amount of fat changes how the butter feels in our mouths and how it works in our doughs. How it tastes has to do with the quality of the milk and the buttermakers' finesse.
By law, in America every butter (except salt butter) must contain a minimum of 80% butterfat, while in France that minimum is 82%. While a 2% difference might not sound like much, just remember, whatever is not fat, is water. Interestingly, many of the best butters in France (butters like EchirÃ©, which are AOC, Appellation d'Origine ControlÃ©e) contain 84 - 86% butterfat, as does the American butter from Vermont Butter & Cheese Company.
The acid in butter is less talked about than the fat, but it's no less important in terms of taste and the way it works with dough. In fact, a butter rich in lactic acids will have a very different taste from 'regular' butter, a taste which comes from 'culturing' or fermenting the cream before it is churned into butter. Think crÃ¨me fraiche and you'll have an idea of the kind of tang that cultured butter has.
Culturing butter is slow and therefore expensive. The cream is allowed to ferment (cultures, like those used to make yogurt, are added to the cream) for hours before it is turned into butter. Churning this cream (which really is like crÃ¨me fraiche) produces a butter with real flavor, one that lasts in a way that uncultured butter doesn't, and a level of lactic acid that - and this I also learned from Pierre Herme - improves the way some butter/laminate doughs, like those for croissants and kouing-amanns, as well as other yeasted doughs, develop. And, of course, whatever you bake with them will be richer and have more flavor. Butters that are cultured, and there aren't very many of them in the States, will say 'cultured' on the label. (Again, there's Vermont Butter & Cheese Company butter and butter from the Straus Family Creamery in California.)
If you want to do a little taste test, try making my Bubble-Top Brioches (pictured, just out of the oven, at the top of this post), which were in this month's edition of The Baker in Bon Appetit. You can read the brioche story here (it's always fun when I can get my husband, Marie Antoinette and butter into one article), find the recipe here, and get a bonus recipe for the Brioche tarte-au-sucre, shown above in a photo by Aya Brackett taken for Bon Appetit.
Tags: Aya Brackett
, Bon Appetit
, Pierre Herme
, Straus Family Creamery
, tarte au sucre
, The New York Times
, Vermont Butter & Cheese
Chefs, Restaurants and Shops
Patisseries, Boulangeries & Chocolate Shops
| October 9, 2009 12:25 AM
That is really interesting. I never really paid much attention to the differences in butter. It's amazing how many varieties there can be and how it can affect what you cook. It's really pretty fascinating.
Thanks for the wonderful article.
| October 9, 2009 2:18 AM
This is fascinating! I've never thought much about butter, especially since here the stuff I can get isn't too good. When I'm back in California I'd love to check out the Straus Family Creamery and try making your brioche!
| October 9, 2009 3:06 AM
Dorie, this was really interesting, thank you. We've recently started making our own butter (from supermarket cream, 35%+ fat here in Oz) and have been playing around with "culturing" the cream first with greek yoghurt. It definitely produces a different flavour.
I wonder, if we make our own butter, what the content of fat would be? We certainly don't add water during the process, except to rinse the finished butter before pressing it to remove any excess buttermilk.
I know it won't taste as wonderful as specialty butters, but I really recommend everyone try making their own butter at least once. It's delicious just freshly churned and ridiculously easy with modern equipment. I wrote a short post about it here: http://wp.me/ps8kJ-SZ
(pls delete link if it's not appropriate - thanks Dorie)
| October 9, 2009 3:37 AM
Just wondering what "cultured" butter is in French? FermentÃ©? Like buttermilk? Doesn't sound right, but for the life of me I can't think of what you would call it. Thanks!
| October 9, 2009 6:28 AM
Dorie, Thanks so much for this tutorial on butter. I am always frustrated with the butter here in Brazil and this helps me understand why. Here in Brazil, although by law the butter has to have 82% butterfat, it is always tasteless. I am thinking this is probably due to the level of lactic acid, and the quality of the milk overall!
Anyway, keep up the wondeful work so we can learn from you!!
All the best,
Kerrin @ MyKugelhopf
| October 9, 2009 6:57 AM
Wow, if anyone had any questions about butter before reading your article - they certainly will have none afterward! Thanks so much for this fantastic reference, all we could ever want to know. Seasonal butter, who knew?! And so many great links above too. I think I'll start with Marie Antoinette + butter + Michael! Such fun!
| October 9, 2009 9:09 AM
I have been pointed here by Celia. Lovely blog, must try these brioche recipes. We are always recommended to use french butter for these recipes. There is also a very nice alpine butter which is swiss which we can get in some supermarkets, which is white and creamy and full of lactic acid I guess.
Can I just ask what a stick of butter weighs in grams? UK butter is usually sold in 250 gram blocks, is a stick 250 grams?
best wishes, Zeb
| October 9, 2009 9:43 AM
I have to learn not to read your blog until AFTER I've had some breakfast -- malheureusement, there is no fresh brioche within a 20 miles radius of my suburban office. My English muffin is not going to be nearly as satisfying as your pictures....
| October 9, 2009 11:22 AM
Marie-Antoinette did not say brioche but bread... It was misunderstood and then badly translated ;)
| October 9, 2009 11:54 AM
Dorie, thanks for sharing all these fascinating tidbits about butter! I guess just like any other ingredient the more you know about it the more you'll understand how to use it! I love learning from you!
| October 9, 2009 12:33 PM
I am lucky enough to have easy access to the fabulous Straus Creamery butter, and look forward to making puff pastry or other doughs with it.
I don't like to use substitute high fat butter for regular butter in regular pie crust, for example, because I find them less flaky, because of the water content. Rose Beranbaum talked about different butters for pie crust on KCRW's Good Food last week, and they talked about the possibility of treating high fat butter more like lard/shortening in this recipes. Interesting pastry/butter discussion.
Dorie, I clipped the brioche recipe immediately upon reading the Baker column. I am excited to tackle brioche now!
| October 9, 2009 4:29 PM
Organic Valley makes cultured butter. It's the only butter I use when we're in the US, and it's very good. It's widely distributed and should be available to most of your readers.
| October 9, 2009 7:59 PM
Winter butter - fascinating!!! Gorgeous brioches!
| October 10, 2009 6:23 AM
I love this article, not just for the information, but for reminding us that in America, there are well-made cultured butters. I did a blind tasting of caramel sauces made with 12 butters mostly from France with a few American-made butters thrown in.
I was sure a French butter would come out on top (and I'm a big cheerleader for French butter) but oddly, the Strauss butter tasted the best in that application. Of course, taste is subjective, but it was pretty interesting to experience.
| October 10, 2009 5:07 PM
I'm so sad for Canada - we have organic butter but nothing from small producers, the milk comes from cows raised the same way as it typically does. We can't even get unpasteurised milk unless its 'underground', and nobody really imports butter...
| October 10, 2009 8:57 PM
@Zeb: No, a stick is a quarter of a pound = 453.59 g/4 = approx. 113,4 g.
susan in ca :)
| October 11, 2009 1:16 AM
I, too am in love with butter. I have never heard of winter butter. Thank you for all this new and exciting information. I will have to go out and try cultured butter. I've never used them for baking. Good thing I live in Ca.
Haven't made brioche in ages, but now I've schedule brioche making for next week!
| October 11, 2009 6:46 PM
@ Ute-S Thanks for the info!
| October 12, 2009 12:30 AM
Dorie, I'm confused. You say that "[w]inter butter is made with the milk cows produce when the majority of their feed is hay rather than fresh grass.
Then..."you can only get winter butter from buttermakers whose milk comes from grass-fed cows."
Winter butter = grass-fed cows?
Winter butter = hay-fed cows?
Do you mean that you can only get winter butter from butter-makers whose milk comes from HAY-FED cows? This is fascinating (thank you) and I'd love to ensure I understand the difference.
| October 12, 2009 9:49 AM
What an interesting article! I agree with the last commenter, I was confused about what you meant there, you might want to clarify (no pun intended ;-).
| October 12, 2009 3:19 PM
Fascinating post. I guess I know zilch about butter. I wonder if the Irish butter I buy is from grass-fed cows?
Anyway- I am into making brioche right now...have just finished making dulce de leche brioche and have a pumpkin brioche next on my list. Such fun reading other recipes to see how they compare.
| October 13, 2009 9:36 AM
Thank you so much for following up on my original question.
| October 13, 2009 4:45 PM
This is making me hungry. I'm going home to make cornbread and then slather it with butter.
| October 13, 2009 5:20 PM
Very helpful tip sheet! I agree that learning about butter is as fascinating as eating it is delicious. I love using European butters, and now I'm really excited to try cultured varieties.
| October 26, 2009 7:52 AM
What a great article, as always, thank you! I made butter last night from heavy organic cream and salted half of it with sea salt infused with lemon - left the other half plain. We had a taste testing with these and some French butter - and my fresh unsalted butter was amazing! So was the fresh salted butter, it brought out some of the flavors in the baguette we used for a base. Now I'm going to explore culturing the cream first.
| October 27, 2009 9:45 AM
Dorie, this was fantastic. So interesting! I never knew most of this information, and now I can't stop myself from thinking about it each time I see a pat of butter or eat a butter pastry. Very enlightening, thank you!
| November 2, 2009 11:45 PM
I made these brioche. and LOVED reading about all your tips on making the perfect brioche. I had some left over and it made exquisite bread pudding (see my post: http://www.ztastylife.com/2009/10/reading-now-bread-pudding-wpecans-maple.html)
| November 9, 2009 12:33 AM
Wow I had no idea how little I knew about butter!!
I learned a great deal, thanks!
Now I have to go get some better quality butter.
| December 8, 2009 7:51 PM
Your brioche recipe in Bon Appetit sounds SO easy -- I
have always wanted to learn to make brioche, so going to jump in and give it a try. Do you ever use the fluted brioche
baking tins? I have some but never used them....
| December 19, 2009 1:51 PM
In regard to the 'grass fed' question. I believe Dorie was referring to cows that are grass fed in general and as a matter of principle.
A 'grass fed' cow that is allowed to roam in an open air, sun lit pasture and eat grass during the summer
would then, as a matter of practicality, be fed hay during the winter.
Most production dairy lot cows are fed on a diet of corn or processed corn/grain derivatives (not to mention a boat load of hormones and antibiotics) in order to increase production.
Being an animal that has evolved as a grass forager; the diet of corn causes severe problems in cows, including an increase of e. coli in its gut.
The milk from such cows is obviously of altogether different quality than that of our pasture raised, grass fed, bovine friends, which ultimately is realized in any product made from it.
| October 1, 2011 9:43 AM
Thanks for the All Recipes link, I use them all the time anf added the scratch version to my recipe box : )
replied to comment from Pookky
| October 2, 2011 1:20 PM
You are most welcome!
| April 11, 2012 7:46 PM
THANK YOU, DORI.I LOVE YOUR BOOKS.AND OF COURSE YOUR WONDERFUL RECEIPTS.
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