Whether it’s clarified, cultured or grass-fed, foodies can’t seem to get enough of this flavorful fat.
By Jennifer Walker-Journey
Butter is back. The seemingly simple fat associated with so much guilty pleasure is suddenly sitting at the top of Sterling-Rice Group’s annual Culinary Trends report—the barometer that measures which foods are moving from cutting edge to mainstream each year. As a brand consulting and creative agency focused on all things culinary, SRG painstakingly composed its food trend list using its own elite foodie team along with an external Culinary Council made up of more than 175 epicurean experts, chefs, nutritionists, sociologists and more. What they found, soaring in popularity—past hydroponic lettuces, Japanese yams and bitter flavor—was butter. The creamy dairy product has reached an all-time high, found on 64% of restaurant menus, leading SRG to proclaim: “Butter is the new bacon.”
It’s a logical comparison, says Kiley Hagerty Stone, associate culinary director at SRG. Years ago, bacon was shunned for being a fattening indulgence packed with cholesterol and saturated fat that contributed to heart disease. But in the late 1990s, people began to see bacon in a new light thanks to a growing interest in high-protein diets like Atkins. This gave rise to a renewed interest in bacon, leading to the introduction of novelty products like chocolate-covered bacon as well as bacon-of-the-month clubs.
“And now, we’re seeing butter having this same rerise to star power,” Stone says. In its reemergence, butter has gone gourmet with extra creamy, cultured varieties that enhance baked goods, as well as flavorful artisanal butters that take center stage on charcuterie boards. “I just think it’s so awesome how a simple, sometimes hidden ingredient that most of us took for granted is getting romanced not just as a supporting ingredient, but as the star.”
Taking Center Stage
Butter’s bad rap can be attributed to, in part, the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encouraged consumers to cut back on their consumption of fat, especially saturated fat, to help prevent heart disease. For the next several decades, Americans flocked to margarine, a bland butter substitute made from hydrogenated vegetable oil. Margarine was presumed to be healthier because it contains less saturated fat.
But not all cooks have shied away from butter. Shortly after going public with her Type 2 diabetes diagnosis in 2012, Southern celebrity chef Paula Deen told Parade magazine that she had given up many unhealthy foods, including sweet tea. But the one thing she refused to part with was butter. “No, I will never use a substitute for butter,” she said during the interview. “Margarine is one molecule away from eating plastic.”
Much of butter’s newfound respect comes as a ripple effect from a 2014 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which concluded that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage … low consumption of total saturated fats.”
It was as if health experts had given consumers permission to ditch their butter substitutes and enjoy the real deal again. Americans responded with overwhelming interest. Three years after the study was published, butter consumption in the U.S. was nearing a 50-year high, according to the Wisconsin Agriculturist. Sales continue to climb as consumers have turned their interest to premium butters, Stone says, including everything from cultured and grass-fed to European-style and compound.
Taste and Texture
From creamier choices to flavorful varieties, butter options abound. “Butter is a return to the essence of food and I believe it’s one of these elemental things that won’t be going away anytime soon,” says Andrew McBath, owner of Atlanta-based Banner Butter. He and his wife, Elizabeth, started Banner Butter in 2012, producing small-batch butter made with cultured cream from hormone-free, grass-fed cows.
There’s a simplicity to butter that is almost mind-boggling, McBath says. It is made from churning cream until the butterfat separates from the buttermilk. To make it at home, all that is required is pouring heavy cream into a mixer and letting it whisk for several minutes before draining the excess liquid (which is pure buttermilk). What’s left over is butter, comprised of butterfat, milk proteins and a little water.
Unfortunately, large commercial producers have gotten away from the true art of butter-making, McBath says. “[Today,] 99.9% of butter sold in the United States is sweet cream butter. The cream is pasteurized and then immediately churned into butter. To add butter taste, they’ll add powder or liquid to the finished butter so that it will taste like butter. It sounds weird, but that’s what’s happening when they’re no longer fermenting the cream.”
Fermentation used to be a natural part of butter-making. Back in the olden days, farmers would skim cream off of fresh milk to use for butter. It would take a few days to collect enough cream for hand-churning. This holding period allowed the cultured cream to begin fermenting, which gives rise to a tangier, richer, more butterlike taste.
Banner Butter goes through a slightly different fermentation process. “We mix bacteria into the cream and go through a slow culturing process, which for us is about 36 hours,” McBath explains.
By law, butter sold in the United States must contain at least 80% butterfat. By contrast, European butters contain at least 82% butterfat. While this distinction seems small, it makes a huge difference in both taste and texture. Banner Butter contains between 85% and 87% butterfat depending on the batch, which makes each variety even creamier. “Some pastry chefs want to use high butterfat butter and cultured butter to make their croissants or brioche fluffier and lighter,” he says.
Some of the most popular Banner Butter products are flavored butters made by mixing the brand’s cultured butter with herbs, spices and other ingredients to create compounds like Balsamic Fig & Caramelized Onion; Cinnamon, Cardamom & Ginger; and Roasted Garlic, Basil & Parsley.
At The Lodge at Sea Island, Executive Sous Chef Matthew Krueger makes a tallow butter using rendered beef fat, incorporating rosemary, thyme and minced shallots. “It’s a nice steakhouse butter,” he says, adding that it pairs well with a rustic sourdough bread.
Experimenting with seasonal ingredients can really enhance the enjoyment of both making and eating compound butter, he adds. “I think it’s really cool when you can taste a bunch of butters side-by-side, like a flight of wine. You can really taste the dynamic flavor profiles and the different notes they add to whatever you’re eating.”
Both Krueger and Bill Welch, executive chef at The Lodge, agree that to make a good compound butter, one must start with a favorable base. They also add bacteria to craft a cultured butter. “That allows a tangy sourness to the butter that brings out a more natural flavor to a yeasted bread,” Welch says.
One way to add bacteria to butter is to add buttermilk. Welch is also experimenting with standard bread yeast and is curious about how different varieties of yeast, like beer brewer’s yeast, might affect the flavor. “Just like with beer brewing, each yeast strain has a different flavor profile,” he explains.
Whether the butter is compounded and served with a crusty loaf of bread, or clarified and served alongside cracked lobster, Welch says, “It’s nice to know butter is coming full circle.”
A Study of Butter
Discover your options when it comes to this creamy condiment to know which is best for your culinary needs.
Commercial butter (salted): Made from pasteurized milk, this is the most common type of butter sold in the U.S. The salt gives it a longer shelf life and a more enhanced flavor than the unsalted varieties, making it more versatile. It’s often slathered over toasted bread or spread on vegetables.
Commercial butter (unsalted): Commercial butter without the salt is often referred to as sweet butter. Unsalted varieties are frequently used in baking or cooking, which enables the chef to control the amount of salt in a recipe without limiting the amount of butter.
Grass-fed butter: As the name suggests, this type of butter comes from grass-fed cows, which results in a bolder yellow color and vibrant, grassy flavor. In addition, grass-fed butter is said to contain a higher amount of healthy unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s.
Cultured and artisanal butters: Most cultured butters today are made from added bacteria instead of natural fermentation. Either way, these butters offer a distinct element that imparts a more aromatic and concentrated buttery taste paired with a lower moisture content that makes it ideal for a cheese platter or to serve with rolls or sliced bread.
European-style butter: There are a lot of variations of European butter and some, like fine wines, come from distinct geographic regions, like Beurre d’Isigny from France and Beurre d’Ardenne from Belgium. European butter is churned longer to reach at least 82% butterfat, making it ideal for fluffing up pastries and cakes.
Clarified butter: Made by slowly melting unsalted butter down so that all that’s left behind is amber-colored butterfat, clarified butter has a higher smoke point, stays fresher longer and does not need to be refrigerated. Different varieties include ghee, which originated in ancient India, plus drawn butter. It’s best used for sautéing, frying or a as dipping sauce for enjoying lobster or steamed artichoke leaves.
Compound butter: Also referred to as flavored butter, compound varieties combine traditional butter with other ingredients, ranging from garlic and herbs to spices, citrus zest, peppers, honey and more. It’s great served at the table or alongside a basket of bread.
From the Island to the Kitchen
These two recipes, served at Sea Island’s Colt & Alison steakhouse, can be re-created to enhance at-home meals.
Yield: 1 quart
2 quarts heavy cream (40% butterfat)
1/4 cup buttermilk
Mix cream and buttermilk together in a mixing bowl using a whisk. Pour mixture into a container with a lid and store in a cool, dark room for 24 hours. (This will start the fermentation process.) After 24 hours, transfer the mixture into a large stand mixer with whisk attachment. Mix on high speed until the fat solids start to separate from the milk and water. Stop the mixer and drain the liquid using a colander. Save the liquid to use for buttermilk. Put the colander with the butter over a large mixing bowl filled with ice and water. Using your fingers, work the butter through the cold water to clean out any excess milk. Once the butter is light yellow in color and doesn’t have any water or milk within, portion into desired sizes.
Yield: 3 quarts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup shallots, minced
2 tablespoons white wine
2 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 pounds beef tallow (Note: Tallow is a rendered cooking fat made from cow’s fat that is solid at room temperature.)
1 1/2 tablespoons rosemary, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons thyme, minced
Heat a medium-sized sauté pan over medium heat. Heat olive oil, then cook shallots for two minutes. Deglaze pan with white wine. Remove from heat and transfer shallots to a mixing bowl. Add butter, beef tallow, rosemary and thyme, and mix with a rubber spatula.