Diving Into Butter

by on November 3, 2014

James Beard on good bread and fresh butter
My butter experience has changed, and I’ve been telling everyone about it.

The initial shift happened during my 40th birthday dinner at Coi, in San Francisco. When it was time for the bread course, about an hour into our tasting menu, our server bothered to mention that the little individual loaves of Japanese milk bread he was setting on the table were accompanied by the restaurant’s housemade cultured butter and Maldon sea salt.

The butter wasn’t just some anonymous off-white spread in a dish…they’d made it themselves, and there was rhyme and reason behind it. And it was stop-in-your-tracks delicious.

I mean, butter is usually just butter, right? We don’t think too hard about it. Restaurants rarely tell you about the butter they’re serving, and most of us keep our butter selection pretty simple at home — at most maybe a salted for spreading and an unsalted for baking. Honestly, I’m afraid we’ve been missing out.

I’m afraid I’ve become a little obsessed with butter. Not heaping on copious amounts of it…appreciating it. This isn’t about being all fancypants — the “good stuff” isn’t even all that expensive — it’s about tasting, learning, understanding, benefiting.

My husband Mike and I took a deep dive into butter. The first step in our education: “The Buttering”, aka a side-by-side butter taste test. I got a baguette and some Maldon salt, and set Mike up with a selection of butters: our everyday Challenge sweet cream, the Plugrá I use for baking, a cultured Kerrygold, a cultured Organic Valley and a goat butter (that’s the white one). I didn’t tell him what butters I’d included, so it was a completely blind test. The verdict: Mike liked them all (of course), but preferred the cultured ones, for their tangy, more pronounced flavor.

I began to read up on cultured butters. This article from The New York Times does a great job of explaining the nature of cultured butter — basically, butter made with cultured cream — and the history of how sweet cream butter became the standard in the United States. Not only do the cultures add flavor, but they make biscuits more tender and cakes lighter. All good things!

It was inevitable — I tried my hand at making my own cultured butter (and my first-ever YouTube video — enjoy the time-lapse!). The buttermilk was starting to spin out of control there — you can see me coming in with the plastic wrap! I followed the incredibly easy recipe for making your own cultured butter from the Food & Wine website and absolutely loved the results. Kneading the butter is kind of a gratifying process Once the butter separated from the buttermilk (hooray — we’ve got buttermilk too!), kneading the butter was actually a pretty gratifying process. I am grateful, by the way, for the new iPhone timer features so I could get these photos. I ended up with 1-1/4 pounds of glorious homemade cultured butter and a little over a cup of fresh buttermilk.I wound up with 1-1/4 pounds of glorious homemade cultured butter and a little over a cup of fresh buttermilk! I cup up sections of butter and passed them out to friends I hung out with that week (my friend, Meilee, and I even ordered bread at a restaurant to partake in our BYOB!). It was too good not to share. My husband buttered countless pieces of toast. I made some pretty incredible buttermilk pancakes (my favorite way to use buttermilk):


That was a lot to do about butter, I know. But I wanted to share it all with you in case it might spark you to take a fresh look at an ingredient that’s pretty ordinary for a lot of us. I’ll tell you what, plain old bread and butter has gotten a lot more enjoyable in our house — I hope it will in yours too!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy @Very Culinary November 3, 2014 at 8:36 pm

I love it. You should make some for holiday gifts! You want my address? 😉
Amy @Very Culinary´s last blog post ..Easy Apple-Cinnamon Pull-Apart Bread

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2 Kathy Strahs November 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm

If I can figure out a way to package it properly, I’d love to send some your way!

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3 Lil Sis November 4, 2014 at 5:11 am

I had no idea you would love homemade butter this much! I almost bought you a butter churner for Christmas last year!!

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4 Angela November 4, 2014 at 5:13 am

I bought extra butter milk the other day forgetting I already had some for cornbread, I was bummed, but now I have an awesome use for it!!

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5 John W.Cooke November 4, 2014 at 6:08 am

Hi Kathy
I enjoyed the article very much.Thanks so much for sharing. In your post you said it was your 40th. Birth
day celebration. O.K. so here’s the deal.Your post says you are 40, Yet your picture say you are 21.Fess up.
BTW Welcome back to the bay area.I live in Sacramento and get over to the bay area a few times a year.I just retired as a Culinary Arts Professor @ American River college here in Sacramento and it was the most enjoyable 16 years of my 53 years in the kitchen. Love your blog,Keep up the good work. Have a great day.

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6 Rachel @ Bakerita November 4, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Since I was in Europe, regular butter just doesn’t compare! I had some beurre de sel (butter with salt) in France and my butter life has since been changed. Nothing like biting into a baguette slathered with rich, creamy, butter with flaky salt bits. Too good!
Rachel @ Bakerita´s last blog post ..The Ultimate Snickers Cake (+ $250 Amazon Gift Card Giveaway!)

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7 Kathy Strahs November 5, 2014 at 11:39 am

I agree, Rachel!!

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8 Mike from Class November 5, 2014 at 11:30 am

I was initially skeptical but the cultured butters do seem to dial up the butter taste. Great post! Butter is our friend!

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9 Erin R. December 11, 2014 at 10:42 am

I tried this last week! What fun! I had made butter as a kid by shaking cream in a Ball jar but this was much better than what I remember. I let my cream sit out and inoculate for the full 48 hours since it’s cool in my kitchen right now, and it was really thick by the end. I used the plastic wrap over my mixer as suggested (thank you) and it saved me a lot of mess as the transition from whipped cream to butter is kind of sudden. It’s best to have the plastic already in place, is what I’m saying. After thoroughly kneading out all the lovely, thick buttermilk, I ended up with a pint of butter and about a pint of buttermilk. I served the butter at my family Christmas party on Sunday morning and people were just standing around with their knives in hand, spreading it on bites of bread and crepe. It’s subtle, but the flavor is so much richer than grocery store butter. Everyone loved it and seemed surprised at how much they were enjoying something as commonplace as butter. What a fun experiment. Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention and showing us how it’s done.

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10 Kathy Strahs December 11, 2014 at 1:48 pm

That’s so fantastic, Erin! I’m so glad you gave it a try. Butter is commonplace no more! 🙂 ~Kathy

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