Better Butter

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December 24, 2008 at 9:53 am

Melissa Graham

While I’m an equal opportunity user of fats in my cooking for most of the year, butter holds sway in December. The flaxen logs are the building blocks for the cookies, cakes and confections that play such an important role in holiday celebrations.

Of the many things that I love about butter, I always appreciate that, unlike the other two parts of the holy trinity of sweet baking – flour and sugar, locally produced butter is plentiful and available at many grocery stores. So while there’s still a little bit of time for holiday baking, I wanted to give a run down of my favorite butters that are either produced locally or made by sustainable producers.

Organic Valley

Organic Valley is such a cool company and so I’m always happy to buy their products. Organic Valley is a cooperative of family farms whose profit sharing model provides 45% to the farmers, 45% to their employees and 10% to the community. Because the butter is made from organic milk, it’s free of pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones. While they’re a nationwide cooperative, with members from New Hampshire to California, their model is regional dairying. The milk that we buy in our Chicago stores is from Heartland Pastures, while milk purchase in a Boston grocery is from New England Pastures. The butter is unfortunately not sourced from a specific dairy; however, it is a superior ingredient made by a sustainably minded producer. I use three of their varieties for baking:

Cultured

The standard, 4 part-pound box, with each stick wrapped in wax paper, is soft on the tongue, with a rich, full flavor and a clean finish. I use this for the majority of my baking and cooking. Around the holidays, Whole Foods usually offers a pretty significant discount on both salted and unsalted cultured butter. I buy a ton and freeze it.

European-Style

Like Presidente or the Plugra gold, the European-style is sold in an 8-ounce package wrapped in foil. Richer than the cultured with 84% butterfat, it also has a tangy finish that makes it perfect to use in recipes where butter is a predominant flavor, like pastry dough, butter cookies or shortbread.
Check out my recipe for wheatmeal shortbread here.

Pasture

The Pasture butter is awesome. It’s available only for a certain time during the year because it is made from the milk of cows that have grazed on pasture from May to September. Like other “grass-fed” butters, it’s high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and Omegas 3 and 6. Like the European-style, it’s available in 8-ounce, foil-wrapped packages and has an 84% butterfat content. It’s deeper in color than the previous two because of higher levels of beta carotene from the pasture grass. It’s mellower than the European-style. The best comparison between the two that I could come up with is that the European-style’s tang is like fine vinegar, while the Pasture is like wine. It’s got a roundness that coats the entire mouth. I use this when the flavor of butter is paramount to a recipe, like puff pastry. I also use this as table butter as it is addictive on good bread. When baking with the pasture butter, remember that it is salted so you need to reduce the salt in your recipe.

Read More: A note on the importance of buying organic butter

PastureLand

PastureLand is another butter made from “grass-fed” milk. It’s produced in southeast Minnesota where the milk is transported the day of collection to a creamery where it’s churned in small batches. Like the Pasture butter, it’s deeper in color, yellowish like a dahlia. Again, this butter is higher in nutrients like CLA and Omegas 4 and 6. No hormones or antibiotics are used in the production of the milk. It once was available from Zingerman’s, but now can be purchased on-line. Again, like the Pasture butter from Organic Valley, because it’s rich, both in quality and in price, it’s better used in a recipe for which butter is a predominant flavor or as a table butter.

The first time that I used this butter was for puff pastry – it was amazing. Get the recipe here.

Grassland

A Wisconsin family-owned company, Grassland produces rBGH-free butter from the cream of 100 Midwest suppliers. Grassland butter is only available at Jetro/Restaurant Depot. Price-wise, it’s more reasonable than either Organic Valley or PastureLand. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much oomph. Compared to the Organic Valley cultured butter, it tastes flat and lifeless. It doesn’t make as much of a difference with regards to savory cooking, but in baking, better butter makes a better product. The website does note that they produce a European-style butter, which I would love to try, but I’ve never seen available for purchase in small quantities.

Homemade

Even skeptics such as Peter Singer (The Ethics of What We Eat) admit that an ethical reason for eating locally is the ability to build a relationship with the farmers who raise or produce your food. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet a farmer or creamery owner churning butter commercially selling it to the consumer. So, unfortunately, the butter that most of us eat will not be produced by someone we know unless we make our own, which is a pretty easy thing to do. In fact, some of you may have already done so unintentionally if you’ve ever over whipped heavy cream.

Blue Marble Family Farm (a little “o” dairy farm) produces some of the finest dairy that I’ve ever tasted, including heavy cream that isn’t ultra-pasteurized – perfect for making butter.

The process is simple. In a scrupulously clean bowl of a stand mixer, dump the heavy cream. Whip with the whisk attachment at high speed until the cream has solidified and separated into butter and buttermilk. Wrap the butter in cheesecloth and squeeze out any remaining liquid. Refrigerate the butter. Either discard the remaining liquid or use as you would buttermilk – though understand that it will not have the same consistency of commercially produced buttermilk.

Blue Marble sells at Green City Market and directly to the consumer, delivering to Chicagoland residences.

More Resources

  • Why Organic Butter is Better, New Hope.com
  • Sierra Club List of rGBH-Free Cheese Companies, Organic Consumers Association
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