Butter is a staple in the the kitchens of every baker and is a crucial building block for all kinds of recipes, from simple chocolate chip cookies to flaky croissants. Most baking is done with plain, simple unsalted butter. This type of butter is labeled “sweet cream” butter and is available in every supermarket in the US. Over the past few years, European style cultured butters have been joining sweet cream butter on market shelves, boasting a richer texture, more flavor and double or triple the price of sweet cream. European style butters have a higher fat content than sweet cream butter (83-86% compared to 81-82%) and they are inoculated with bacterial cultures and allow to “ripen” before churning, giving them a more complex flavor.
In a recent issue (Nov/Dec 2011), Cook’s Illustrated set out to find The Best Butter in a taste test of seven cultured European-style butters and three regular sweet cream butters. They tasted the butters alone, when spread on plain crackers, and when baked into their recipe for French butter cookies to see how the butters stacked up when baking. The results were somewhat surprising, as the Cook’s Illustrated team learned that one type of butter was not better than another across the board.
Their top placing butter was the European-style butter, Plugra, which had a “thick and luscious” flavor and also produced crisp, tender cookies in the baking test. Other European style butters did not fare as well. Some held off-flavors, tasting like the artificial butter used to flavor margarine or popcorn, which arose from a naturally occurring compound that is used to artificially flavor margarine and popcorn and was overly assertive in the butter because of the bacterial formula used to culture the initial cream. Other European style butters did not fare well in the baking test, producing cookies that were too firm and dense. This result was from some of the very high fat butters, as the proteins in the flour of the cookie dough were able to set firmly before the butter (which was slower to melt than standard butter) melted during baking. Most of the complexity of the European butters was also lost during baking.
Their second place pick was Land o’Lakes Unsalted Sweet Butter. This is the most widely available supermarket butter and the test kitchen reported a “fresh cream” and “clean dairy” flavors. The secret to its flavor is a patented flavor protect wrapper that, although it is based on parchment paper, is at least as effective as foil wrappers at keeping unwanted refrigerator flavors from contaminating the butter. Insufficient wrappers actually contribute to unpleasant flavors in many other types of butter, and that is something to keep an eye out for (holes in the foil or loose wrapping) when you are shopping for butter. This butter is the test kitchen’s favorite for baking, and turned out crisp, tender butter cookies.
Other “Recommended” butters included Vermont Creamery Unsalted European Style Cultured Butter, President Unsalted Butter, Organic Valley European-Style Unsalted Butter, Organic Valley Unsalted Cultured Butter and Lurpak Imported Butter, Unsalted. The “Recommended with Reservations” butters included Cabot Natural Creamery (mild and a “victim of poor wrapping”), Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter Unsalted (velvety texture, but “artificial” buttery flavor) and Horizon Organic Unsalted Butter (another victim of poor wrapping, with a “watery” and “thin” flavor).