Better Butter: A Tasting and A Recipe

The good news on the cookie front was that when I arrived in Paris with a pound of Land O’Lakes unsalted butter in my bag and made the cookies with M. Poilane, he pronounced them good enough to be published (see below). But, in talking about butter, Lionel Poilane set me on a quest for good butter and the search to understand how and why butters differ. (I wrote about this years ago for The New York Times. Unfortunately, you have to be a Times Select member to read it.)

Molly did a terrific job of presenting butter in 3 categories:

  • Sweet
  • High fat
  • Cultured

Just to make it easy, sweet butter is what most supermarket butters are. By law, American butter must be 80% butterfat, and this is what generic supermarket and premium butters like Land O’Lakes come in at. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor (another presenter in the tasting) made an interesting point when he noted that most butters naturally have 82% butterfat, so manufacturers remove fat to be at the lowest level of the standard.

In case you were wondering, butterfat is a very good thing in butter – the more butterfat you have, the less water you’ve got and the better the butter will be for baking and cooking.

High-fat butter usually has at least 82% butterfat. This is the amount of butterfat in Plugra and it’s also the legal minimum amount of fat for butter in France (unless it’s salted, which can have up to 2% less fat).

Just because a butter has more butterfat doesn’t automatically mean that it has more flavor. Flavor comes from:

  • The cream – and its flavor will be dependent on the type of cows and what they’re eating
  • Culturing

Cultured butters are la cr̬me de la cr̬me of butter and pretty unusual in the States. To get cultured butter, a natural culture Рthink yogurt or cr̬me fraiche Рis added to the cream, then the cream is allowed to ferment for about 18 hours before it is churned.

Clearly, this is a slow and expensive way of making butter and, to add to the expense, most buttermakers who culture their cream go the extra mile and churn their butters in small batches.

If you’re like me, as soon as you taste cultured butter you’ll be hooked. It has a subtle but seductive tang to it – again, think crème fraiche – and, because it has less water, a texture that is noticeably different, more velvety, than beurre ordinaire.

Molly said that she found that the high-fat cultured butters really showed their stuff in saucemaking, compound butters and, because of their lower water content, pie crusts. I’d add that their flavor makes a difference in simple sweets, like shortbreads and plain butter cookies (see the recipe below).

So here’s what was on that butter tasting plate pictured above. From 12:00 going clockwise, there’s:

  • Land O’Lakes
  • Pastureland, made by a cooperative in Minnesota
  • Kerrygold Irish Butter, a cultured butter
  • Kerrygold Irish Salted Irish Butter, also cultured
  • Echire, a small production cultured butter from France with 84% butterfat
  • Vermont Butter and Cheese Co, a small-batch cultured butter with 86% butterfat
  • Vermont Butter and Cheese Co butter with sea salt crystals, also cultured, with a butterfat content of about 84%
  • Goat’s milk butter – which accounts for its white color

My favorites: The butters from Echire and the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. butters.

To finish the tasting, we nibbled on Lionel Poilane’s Punitions made with three different butters. Here’s a picture taken in the wonderful Poilane bakery on the rue du Cherche Midi the afternoon we baked the cookies together.


If you want to have your own taste test, here’s the recipe:

French Butter Cookies/Les Punitions

From Paris Sweets, adapted from Lionel Poilane

Makes about 50 cookies

1 1/4 sticks (5 ounces; 140 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Slightly rounded 1/2 cup (125 grams) sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour

Put the butter in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until the butter is smooth. Add the sugar and process and scrape until thoroughly blended into the butter. Add the egg and continue to process, scraping the bowl as needed, until the mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the flour all at once, then pulse 10 to 15 times, until the dough forms clumps and curds and looks like streusel.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and gather it into a ball. Divide the ball in half, shape each half into a disk, and wrap the disks in plastic. If you have the time, chill the disks until they are firm, about 4 hours. If you’re in a hurry, you can roll the dough out immediately; it will be a little stickier, but fine. (The dough can be wrapped airtight and refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 1 month.)

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with one disk at a time, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it is between 1/8 and 1/4 inch (4 and 7 mm) thick. Using a 1 1/2 -inch (4-cm) round cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as you can and place them on the lined sheets, leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) space between them. (You can gather the scraps into a disk and chill them, then roll, cut and bake them later.)

Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are set but still pale. (If some of the cookies are thinner than others, the thin ones may brown around the edges. M. Poilane would approve. He’d tell you the spots of color here and there show they are made by hand.) Transfer the cookies to cooling racks to cool to room temperature.

Keeping: The cookies can be kept in a tin at room temperature for about 5 days or wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 1 month.