Butter's Revival: How the kitchen’s most versatile workhorse is making a comebackFor decades, producers marketed margarine as a healthy alternative to butter, tugging on our low-fat-loving heart strings with all the “animal fat is bad, vegetable oil is good” chutzpa they could muster. It worked. Margarine consumption tripled that of butter from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, and many of us Gen-Xers endured soulless imitation butter throughout our formative years. Thankfully, we no longer live under our parents’ roofs – and butter is back in the kitchen.
Thanks to butter’s endless work ethic and unparalleled flavor, chefs and diners alike are acknowledging that a little fat can go a long way. Not only does fat help the body digest protein and absorb nutrients, consuming it makes you feel full longer, which can help control appetite. And when it comes to cooking, a natural fat like butter does triple duty in the kitchen – keeping foods from sticking to the pan, tenderizing tough cuts of meat and delicately imparting its flavor without overpowering the other elements of the dish.
For chef Gerard Craft, butter is a way to lend richness to a dish without weighing it down. In order for his heavenly mashed potatoes to better accept all that delicious liquid and fat, he boils Russet potatoes in a hot oven before folding in warm milk and melted butter – a full pound per every 4 pounds of potatoes. “We aren’t scared of butter. We cook with butter, especially for finishing dishes and glazing,” Craft explained. “People think butter is heavy, but it has a rich flavor. And when you eat it, it’s kind of light. It makes the potatoes rich in flavor but very light in consistency.”
At Dressel’s Public House, executive chef Michael Miller is tapping into butter’s nuttiness to bring out the full flavors of the season’s bounty. To prepare his creamy butternut squash risotto, Miller melts down a pound of butter to a foamy golden brown, then purées it with roasted squash. The dish, which also calls for melted mascarpone, turns ethereal when encircled by a maple gastrique and garnished with buttery pepita brittle and flash-fried sage. For his brown butter pan-seared branzino, Miller bastes the fish with butter – a technique that adds a caramelized flavor and crisp texture to the silver skin of this Mediterranean sea bass while keeping the white flesh succulently tender. Served on a bed of melt-in-your-mouth butter-poached leeks and topped with a tapenade enhanced with sweet navel oranges and a garnish of delicate oregano flowers, it’s a dish that speaks to the versatility of this ancient full-flavored fat.
Butter has also been a staple on the drink side of the menu at Dressel’s, where mugs of hot buttered rum sell like hot cakes once the winter chill settles in. The secret to its silky sweetness? A stick of melted butter slipped into the rum base mix.
While the choice of butter isn’t critical when stirring up hot buttered rum, when cooking with butter, Miller, like many chefs, opts for Plugrá. This brand of domestic, European-style butter has less moisture and a higher fat content than standard American butter, giving it a creamier texture, more flavor and a better tolerance for high cooking temperatures. Plugrá’s high butterfat content has also earned it a place in the Five Bistro kitchen, where chef Anthony Devoti finishes everything from risotto to pasta with the “flavorful and fantastic” ingredient, even using it to add creaminess to sauces. For the northern Italian cuisine at Five, Devoti prefers the almond notes and rich silkiness butter lends to dishes as opposed to the fruit flavors that dishes finished with olive oil take on. Though another natural fat, lard, is ideal for confit or rillettes, he explained, “It’s very intense and imparts such a porkiness” that doesn’t lend itself to being used as a finishing agent.
But Devoti’s penchant for butter doesn’t stop there. His culinary brigade also prepares compound butters – softened butter that’s blended with herbs, spices and other seasonings, and then rolled into a log, refrigerated and sliced into coins. Compound butter, sometimes called finishing butter, adds complex flavor to finished dishes like pastas and grilled meats, and can even be used as a creamy blanket for warm bread or crackers.
While restaurants are busy whipping up house-made compound butters to top hot-off-the-grill meat and fish, several local companies are turning out artisanal compound butter products that offer flavor and flair all their own. Top Hat Gourmet Butter, a St. Louis-based company, produces four flavors of finishing butters including garlic, Gorgonzola, mandarin orange and cinnamon honey. Black truffles are the flavoring agent for the compound butters from Nicola Macpherson of Ozark Forest Mushrooms, who blends the peelings and juice from this fawned-over fungi with white truffle oil and sea salt for a decadent, over-the-top truffle butter ideal for giving steaks and seafood a luxurious smooch. Another mushroom variety (this time, a local one) takes the starring role in the morel butter from River City Savories, an Alton, Ill.-based company known for its tasty use of this sponge-like, Missouri-grown shroom.
THE LOCAVORE’S CONUNDRUM
While it may be easy to find locally produced compound butters, tracking down locally made butter proves a much loftier task. Butter is nothing without milk, of course, and local milk can be hard to come by, especially in this economy. But if you can find it, fresh, small-batch, sweet cream butter is worth the journey.
The pasteurized fresh cream that Marcoot Jersey Creamery uses for its sweet cream butter is a deeper shade of yellow than commercially made butter, thanks to its higher butterfat count (as well as protein and calcium) in comparison to that of a Holstein, the most common dairy breed. But you won’t find Marcoot Jersey Creamery butter in area stores or farmers’ markets. Due to the cost associated with production (It takes 20 pounds of milk to produce enough cream to make just one pound of butter.), the Marcoots only sell their rich, salted butter by special order, and use most of it for their cheese-making duties.
The steamy summer months sure didn’t help, since milk production naturally fluctuates with the seasons – the highest and richest time being the spring, when heifers are pasturing on spring greens. “This summer was so dry, we didn’t have enough cream to even make [butter],” said Amy Marcoot. The dry summer months were also a problem for Kilgus Farmstead, an Illinois-based farm that was forced to curtail production this year. In late September, the dairy bottled just 4,000 gallons of milk a week, a number that should’ve surpassed 5,000, according to co-owner Matt Kilgus. Until the cows recoup, which may take months, Kilgus has suspended distribution to St. Louis, a market he entered only this past spring.
“We wanted to start doing our own butter, but we’re finding that milk supplies are impossible,” said Craft, noting that sources such as Greenwood Farms, a small-scale family business in Newburg, Mo., have ceased dairy operations.
One great option for butter connoisseurs in search of a fresh product is to make it at home using the highest-quality heavy cream available, such as Kalona cream from Kalona, Iowa, sold at Local Harvest Grocery.
And if you’re worried by the 11.4 grams of fat in one tablespoon of butter in whatever butter dish you desire, just heed the advice of cookbook author Shirley Corriher, who wrote: “Leave the butter in the pie crust, but take a smaller piece of pie.”
FIND IT LOCALLY
Marcoot Jersey Creamery
Butter: $4. Available upon request. 618.664-1110, marcootjerseycreamery.com
Queen’s Cuisine Clotted Cream: $4. Available at Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, 618.205.6188, shop.qconline.us
River City Savories Morel Butter: $5. Available at Sinclair Food Mart, 202 Sinclair Drive, Jerseyville, Ill., 618.498.6856, rivercitysavories.com
Ozark Forest Mushrooms
Truffle Mushroom Butter: $5 to $12. Call for availability, 314.531.9935, ozarkforest.com
Top Hat Gourmet Butter Finishing butters: garlic, gorgonzola, mandarin orange and cinnamon honey: $7.25. Straub’s, The Wine and Cheese Place, 314.280.4727, tophatbutter.com
Churning out the differences between butters
Sweet cream butter
Butter made from pasteurized cream that contains at least 80% milk fat. Unsalted is preferred for baked goods and with seafood. Salted is better as table butter. Both can suffice for general cooking, although unsalted is preferable.
Butter made from cream churned slower and for a longer time than standard butter. Butterfat content is higher (at least 82%) compared to standard butter. Higher butterfat enables cooking and baking at higher temperatures without burning.
Butter with air whipped into it, which increases volume and spreadability. Good for toppings and spreads.
Compound butter (finishing butter)
Butter blended with herbs, spices and other seasonings. Great for adding flavor to finished dishes or spread atop warm bread or crackers.
Made from cultured sour cream. Good for baking, since the lower moisture content results in flakier pastries and fluffier cakes.
Clarified butter (drawn butter)
Purified butterfat. Butter that’s been melted and made clear by separating and discarding the milk solids and water. Clarified butter has a high smoking point, making it a good base for sauces.
MAKE IT AT HOME
Hand-shaking method: Open the carton top of heavy whipping cream just enough to drop a marble inside. Close back up. Keeping the top sealed with one hand, use the other to shake the carton until you can no longer hear the marble. (Depending on the amount of cream you use, the fat content of the cream and the shaking intensity, this process can take up to an hour.) Discard buttermilk (or use for baking). Place butter in a cheesecloth and squeeze out excess buttermilk. Store in a container in the refrigerator.
Blender method: To make 2 pounds of butter, pour ½ gallon of quality high-fat whipping cream into the bowl of a stand mixer. Let the cream sit until it reaches room temperature. Use the whisk attachment to whip the cream on medium-low speed, stopping to scrape the side of the bowl with a spatula. After about 10 minutes (depending on the butterfat content), the cream will thicken and separate into milky liquid and globs of fat, which will collect on the whisk. Remove the pieces of butter from the whisk and place in a muslin cloth or cheesecloth. (The liquid remaining in the bowl is buttermilk and can be reserved for drinking or cooking.) Rinse the butter under cold water until the water runs clear and no whey remains. Use your hands to squeeze the butter in the cloth to remove excess water. If you want to make salted butter, place the butter in a large bowl and work up to ¼ teaspoon kosher salt into the butter using a spatula or your hands. Shape as desired, then wrap well or place in a container and refrigerate. It will keep for 1 to 2 weeks or can be frozen.