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.
Walk into just about any grocery store and, in the dairy aisle, you’ll see several butter packages labeled “European style.” The descriptor was seen rarely only a few years ago and now brands like Plugra are all over the place. Some cooks swear by these specialty butters – but are they better than the standard American-style?
The difference between European-style and American-style butters is butterfat content. It has nothing to do with the actual origin of the butter or the cows that made the milk that went into it, as there are plenty of American producers who make “European-style” butters here. Regular butter is 80% butterfat and 20% water. Plugra is around 83% butterfat. It might not seem like a huge difference, but this slight increase gives the butter a creamier taste. If you do a side by side taste test with toast or bread, you may notice that Plugra tastes richer than regular.
When baking, however, this flavor difference is usually lost because it is subtle and masked by other flavors. It generally only comes out when you are making a very butter-heavy dish, like a very rich shortbread. In regular chocolate chip cookies, there may be a slight difference between two otherwise identical batches, but it will be the sort of difference that is incredibly hard to pin down unless you already know the secret. Since the water content of butter is what produces flakiness when baking pie crust (the butterfat produces tenderness), a traditional crust made with Plugra might be slightly less flaky and a bit more tender, similar to the way a crust made with part shortening and part butter is. Overall, however, the difference between the two when it comes to baking and cooking is nearly negligible. If you like the richer flavor of European-style, feel free to substitute it in any recipe, but consider sticking with regular when the butter flavor is going to be masked by something stronger from a cost-effectiveness standpoint.