Time to Butter Up!

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If you wait long enough, some things come full cycle, and when it comes to food, it seems like once again butter is staging a triumphant renaissance of sorts.

Butter, that wonderful, creamery tasting spread is, like an adorable puppy that bites. It’s something that’s hard to resist… even though you might pay the price afterwards.

And while the retail price of many things has gone up in recent times, the “price” you pay for eating butter (health-wise) may actually have gone “down”. For even though the butter vs. margarine health debate has been around since margarine was “invented” in the 1800’s, it hasn’t been until recently that many have begun to understand the full health implications of both.

Butter of course, is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk. Butter consists of butterfat, milk proteins and water.

Margarine on the other hand is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, water and salt.

Based on just that, anyone would be tempted to say that margarine is the clear winner in the “health contest”. Of course, like many things, it’s just not that simple.

When it comes to reducing your dietary intake of cholesterol, margarine wins. However, when it comes to eliminating the now all too prevalent and menacing “trans fats” in your diet, butter is the big winner.

And there’s plenty of additional debate on both sides regarding the general nutrition, other health related benefits, taste, cost and ease of use of both.

And at Nino’s, we sell a great deal of both depending on which side of the bread your….well,… “spread” is on.

Only one thing is certain, a tablespoon of either is 100 calories and if all else was equal; it seems most people would likely choose butter over margarine.

So where did butter actually come from and how did it end up taking a 3 foot space in Nino’s dairy aisle??

Butter is presumed to have been used as a food as far back as ancient Egypt and Persia. The first methods of “churning” were (let’s just say) “slightly” less sophisticated than today’s modern, carefully controlled, tiled floor and stainless steel environment….(like an inflated goat skin filled with milk, tied with rope and beaten with a stick.)

But…what they ended up with was still butter. Sort of….

Today’s butter is generally made from cows’ milk but can also be made from the milk of other mammals, including sheep, goats, buffalo, and yaks. Salt, flavorings and preservatives are sometimes added to butter to give it added interest. Its color, depending on what the animal likes (or is given to eat) generally ranges from pale yellow to almost white. The animal’s diet also greatly influences the butter’s flavor. Historically, the most prized butter comes from the cream of cows pastured on quickly growing spring grasses & the flavor of these butters is incredible.

In the United States, products sold as “butter” are required to contain a minimum of 80% butterfat; in practice, most American butters contain only slightly more than that, averaging around 81% butterfat. European butters generally have a higher ratio, which may extend up to 85%.

Your Butter Score

The quality of butter is based on its body, texture, flavor, and appearance. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) assigns quality grades to butter based on its score on a standard quality point scale. Grade AA is the highest possible grade; Grade AA butter must achieve a numerical score of 93 out of 100 points based on its aroma, flavor, and texture. Salt (if present) must be completely dissolved and thoroughly distributed. Grade A butter is almost as good, with a score of 92 out of 100 points. Grade B butter is based on a score of 90 points, and it usually is used only for cooking or manufacturing.

The U.S. grade shield is usually found on the main panel of the butter package, but may be shown on the side or end panel. U.S. Grade AA and Grade A are the quality ratings most often seen. The actual grade definitions read like this:

U.S. Grade AA
Delicate, sweet flavor, with a fine, highly pleasing aroma made from high-quality fresh, sweet cream and with a smooth, creamy texture with good “spreadability”. It may possess a slight feed and a definite cooked flavor.

U.S. Grade A 
Pleasing flavor, made from fresh cream. Fairly smooth texture. May possess any of the following flavors to a slight degree: Acid, aged, bitter, coarse, flat, smothered, and storage. It may possess feed flavor to a definite degree.

Butter’s traditional 4 stick pound is also something of interest as well. This practice is believed to have originated in 1907, when Swift and Company began packaging butter in this manner for mass distribution. However later, due to differences in the machines developed on both the east and west coasts which cut and package butter, there are now 2 slightly different package shapes.

The dominant shape east of the Rocky Mountains is the Elgin, or Eastern-pack shape, named for a dairy in Elgin, Illinois. The Elgin sticks are 4.8 inches long and 1.3 inches wide.

West of the Rocky Mountains, butter printers standardized a different shape that is now referred to as the Western-pack shape. These butter sticks are 3.1 inches long and 1.5 inches wide.

Both sticks contain the same amount of butter, although most butter dishes are designed for Elgin-style butter sticks.

Another type of butter is Clarified Butter which is butter with almost all of its water and milk solids removed, leaving almost-pure butterfat. Clarified butter is made by heating butter to its melting point and then allowing it to cool; after settling, the remaining components separate by density. At the top, whey proteins form a skin which is removed, and the resulting butterfat is then poured off from the mixture of water and casein proteins that settle to the bottom. Clarified butter is similar to Ghee which is another type of clarified butter brought to higher temperatures of around 120 °C (250 °F) once the water has cooked off, allowing the milk solids to brown. This process flavors the ghee, and also produces antioxidants which help protect it longer from rancidity. Because of this, ghee can keep for six to eight months under normal conditions.

As mentioned, European butters have a slightly higher fat content than traditional U.S. butters, and in part, contributes to its higher cost. Many of these butters have an Origin Designation that is protected by law and guarantees you that you are getting exactly what you’re paying for. Examples of some of these butters are:

  • Beurre d’Ardenne, from Belgium
  • Beurre d’Isigny, from France
  • Beurre Charentes-Poitou (Which also includes: Beurre des Charentes and Beurre des Deux-Sèvres under the same classification), from France
  • Beurre Rose, from Luxembourg
  • Mantequilla de Soria, from Spain
  • Mantega de l’Alt Urgell i la Cerdanya, from Spain

At Nino’s, we carry a number of butters, both from the U.S. and from Europe to satisfy even the most discriminate butter lover. Here’s a sampling:

  • Calder’s Farm Fresh Butter (Michigan, U.S.)
  • Plugra (U.S.)
  • Land O Lakes (U.S.)
  • Tillamook (Oregon, U.S.)
  • Breakstone’s (U.S.)
  • Kerrygold (Ireland)
  • President (France)
  • Lurpak (Denmark)
  • Goldstruck (Germany)

So whether you butter that toast or whisk a “pat” into your favorite dish, remember what famous American Food author and father of American cuisine once said:

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.”
James Beard (1903-1985)