Butter: You love it. You need it. But these days, there are so many types you’re not quite sure which to buy. You’ve heard that the Trader Joe’s butter ranks up there with some of the best in France (and in fact, it is made in Brittany!) You know that unsalted is best for baking, but you’re not sure why. Then there’s sheep’s milk butter and goat’s milk butter; where to start?
Here’s a 101 on your favorite emulsion of fat and water, including which type is great for what in the kitchen, plus how to store it.
Butter is a sensitive little guy. Keep it well-wrapped in the fridge, and far, far away from stinky foods like onions and garlic. (There’s a reason it gets its own little compartment!) Those who love to bake know that butter can keep in the freezer for ages—for best flavor, you should probably use it within a year—wrapped very well. If your home is in a cool climate, you can likely keep the butter out for a day, preferably in a dish or butter bell. A good shortcut for butter at the right temperature, of course, is to pull it from the refrigerator 20 minutes to half an hour before you need it.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in baking, the temperature of butter is crucial. Well-chilled and diced or grated, it’s all the better for creating flaky layers in biscuits and pie dough. Room temperature or melted butter tends to be best in dishes like chocolate mousse—ideal for whipping and creating loft. Just don’t skim this part of a recipe; if butter’s temperature is called out specifically, it matters.
Salted vs. Unsalted
This is the most important distinction to make in the store, even for those who are just throwing a box into their cart. If you buy salted butter, you are essentially buying a pre-made recipe. You will have to adjust the saltiness of whatever you’re cooking or baking to accommodate the saltiness of your butter. So if the only time you ever use butter is with jam on a biscuit, go for it! Buy that salted butter. But know that if you end up baking with that stick, you’ll have to dial down the amount of salt in the recipe accordingly. And salted butter varies in saltiness by the brand. Caveat emptor.
Cultured butter comprises cream that has undergone a brief fermenting process, resulting in a pat of butter with slight acidity, balancing the creaminess. Try a pat of it, room temperature, on a just-from-the-oven scone or biscuit. It’s a remarkable thing. That said, we wouldn’t recommend this type of tangy butter for, say, a compound butter to melt on top of a steak.
Whether it’s Irish, German, Finnish or Danish, European-style butter tends to be richer. Europe and the USA have different standards for butterfat content in butter. Overseas, they go luxe with 82 percent butterfat. Stateside, it’s a lowly 80 percent. The difference is noticeable. Go with European for a richer-tasting finished product.
Products from cows that eat just grass, instead of grain, are in high demand these days. Grass-fed beef is in vogue; grass-fed butter is exactly what it sounds like. It’s also higher in Omega 3s and vitamins than grain-fed butter, and made a cameo as part of the bulletproof (butter) coffee fad.
Sheep and Goat
Because of scientific intricacies involving beta-carotene, these two types of butter tend to be ivory, not gold. Sheep’s milk butter claims richness and a slight sweetness over cow’s milk butter. Goat’s milk butter can have the slight tang of goat’s milk cheese, and tends to feel lighter than cow’s milk butter.
Clarified, Ghee and Brown Butter
Butter primarily comprises three things: fat, water and milk solids. When you heat it over high heat, it’s the solids that tend to break down and burn. So cooks around the world have figured out workarounds. Clarified butter is simply butter simmered for a while over low heat until its water evaporates and the yellow butterfat and white milk solids separate. You skim off or discard the milk solids, and boom, you’ve got a silkier butter product you can cook at a higher heat. Ghee, a favorite in Indian cuisine, is simply clarified butter cooked so long that the milk solids begin to brown, creating the delicious nutty flavor of browned butter. Since all of the milk is removed during production, ghee is a good choice for the lactose intolerant. Browned butter is just that: no straining, no fuss, just brown, nutty, delicious butter to pour over seared scallops or whatnot.
Butter: What’s not to love. And hey, don’t forget that if you like, you can make your own!