Charlotte writes a most informative, educational, and above all, mouthwatering article about butter. I am running out now to buy some to spread on my tartine.
What is it about French butter that makes it taste so good?
"As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists."
- Joan Gussow
For many people it is the distinct taste of butter that dominates their food memories of France. Some people even consider French butter to be the best in the world. But what is it about French butter that makes it so good and distinguishes it from butter made elsewhere?
For the most part, in France and the rest of Continental Europe, butter is made with fresh cream that has been allowed to gently ferment and is more properly known as lactic butter. Butter made from ripened cream, really crème fraiche, produces a rich, complex and tangy butter that has a more distinctive taste than the delicate and subtle flavored sweet butter made from fresh uncultured cream. The “ripening” our “souring” of cream can be compared to the fermentation process that takes place in beer making. It changes the character of the cream making it thicker and more importantly, from a gustatory point of view, the process develops tastes and aromas not present in fresh cream. Butter churned from sweet or uncultured cream lacks the same depth in flavor and its’ taste will be almost identical to cream. For visitors to France from America, Britain and New Zealand where the milder sweet cream butter is more common, that first taste of cultured butter can be a real sensation.
However, cultured cream is not the only element at play in the rich taste of French butter, there is also the high percentage of butterfat that gives it a smooth spreadability and sensuous mouth feel. Butter is composed of fat, some milk solids and water. The more fat, the richer the taste. Unsalted butter in France, by law, has a minimum of 82% butterfat (salted butter has slightly less). This high percentage of fat not only adds flavor but also affects the texture and determines how butter will behave when combined with other ingredients. Essentially, more fat means less water. Water when added to flour creates gluten, good for breads, and bad for pastries. Less water, more butterfat means creamier cakes, flakier pastries and soft, tender brioches and buns. A high butterfat concentration also makes thicker, more satiny sauces and illuminates meat and vegetables dishes.
The best butter starts with good cream and good cream comes from the milk of cows that are well fed and looked after. The breed of cow, their diet and the seasons also influence the final taste and texture. Milk, in the spring and summer when the cows are grazing on fresh herbs and flowers, will produce butter with a tender texture and deep color rich in red and yellow carotene, in the fall and winter when the cows eat mostly silage, the butter will be paler, but will have a higher fat content and a firmer texture.
The way the cream is ripened and variations in the churning process also play a role in the taste of butter. Really good butter is made slowly, using time-honored techniques. It can take anywhere from 12 to 36 hours for cream to “ripen” naturally and sharpen in taste.
Churning, a process that agitates the cream and separates the fat from the liquids or buttermilk is ideally done slowly using wooden blades. Industrial high speed churning with metal blades is said to introduce too much air into the cream causing it to oxidize and affect the taste in a negative way. Once churned, the solid butterfat is drained of excess liquid and washed several times and then finally kneaded. The butter is either left unflavored or salt is worked in during the kneading process. Slow, careful kneading using traditional gestures gives the butter a tender suppleness impossible to reproduce mechanically. Only 10% of the butter made in France is produced this way.In contrast, the majority of butter in France is industrially produced from pasteurized cream that is churned, washed and kneaded in fully automated butter making machines in one quick continuous process.
Traditional butter regions in France include Auvergne, Bresse and Lorraine but Normandy and Brittany are the most important with a history of dairy farming that stretches back over centuries. Normandy, with its’ lush, low emerald green hills and rolling plains has a reputation for butter tasting of green grass and hazelnuts, Brittany on the other hand with its’ sea marshes has the reputation for fresh tasting butter blended with sea salt. A relative new comer on the scene, the area known as Charentes-Poitou, came in to dairy farming only after the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century wiped out the regions vineyards. Charentes butter, sometimes called “butter for Parisians”, quickly established a favorable reputation. It was considered to have a mild, less assertive flavor than the butters from the more traditional dairy regions of Normandy and Brittany, and a firm texture that was good for making pastries and croissants
A quick look at the amount of butter used in practically any traditional French recipe is a good indication of the importance of this ingredient in the French diet. However, all pats of butter are not the same. The vast majority of French butter is made in industrial size dairies and co-operatives and this butter, everyday butter, has a lot of merit, but it is the smaller amount, about 20% of the total out-put, produced on family farms and in small-scale co-operatives that is the stuff of food memories.
How it spreads around
Beurre Fermier/Farmhouse Butter
Traditional farmhouse butter, made from the milk of a single herd on the premises of the farm. Farm made butter wrapped in parchment paper with or without labeling can be found in the local markets of the dairy regions. This hand made butter is often churned in small batches and seldom has wide distribution.
Farmhouse butter is made from raw, untreated cream, crème cru, so it will have a lot of individual character and aromas not found in butter made from pasteurized milk. Deep yellow and very aromatic in the spring when the cows are pastured and milder in color and flavor in the winter when they are mostly eating hay. But the flavor and texture of the final product will ultimately depend on the farmer’s butter making skills. Making butter is not difficult but making good butter requires some finesse.
Beurre à la ancienne/Artisan Butter
The darlings of the butter world. Small-scale operations making traditional rustic butter from organic or carefully selected milk, collected from several herds in the region. The cream is most often pasteurized but there is a growing trend towards artisanal raw cream butter. More or less handmade depending on the size of the production, these are dairies producing quality-churned butter often labeled beurre de baratte à l’ancienne, from naturally fermented cream.
When butter is made in a baratte, the idea is that it is churned in small batches, then removed from the churning tub, washed and kneaded and molded in separate steps before being wrapped in waxed paper with homey labels.
These products tend to be closely associated with place where they are made. A few have quite a following and find their way on to of the best tables in France. Some of the better know are la Beurre de Bordier, Au Bon Beurre and butter from the Fromagerie Beillevaire.
Appelation Origin Controlé /AOC butters
AOC butters, like other products awarded this certification, express a sense of place that comes from the soil, climate, traditions and local influences that come together only in that region. These AOC butters, which come from Charentes-Poitou, Normandy and Bresse are made from milk collected from pasture-fed cows from strict geographical designations. The resulting cream is pasteurized, then seeded with a lactic starter culture and allowed to mature for a minimum of 15 hours before being slowly churned in small batches then finished off by hand.
Beurre d Echiré is probably the most well known of the AOC butters and comes from the region of Charentes Poitou. It is renown not only for its flavor but also its’ flexible, fine and elastic, appreciated by pastry chefs world wide. But Beurre d’ Echiré is only one of many well-known butters comes from dairies in the departments of Charante, la Charente-Maritime, Les Deux-Sevres, La Vendée and La Viend in the same region.
AOC butter from Normandy, made in Isigny Ste Mere, is a region that has been famous for its butter since the 16th century. The milk is collected from cows grazing in the sea-sprayed pastures of the departments of Cotentin and Calvados on grass rich in iodine and beta-carotene. The resulting butter is a sunny yellow with the flavor of hazelnuts.
Bresse, on the far eastern side of France between the Saone and Jura is the latest region to have its butter awarded the AOC status.
Label Rouge/Red Label butter
Like other Label Rouge products, this logo is awarded to butter produced under a strict set of guidelines that guarantee the quality of the product. The guidelines apply not only to the standard of the milk but also the manufacturing process. Milk for red label butter is collected from pasture fed cows in designated areas; the cream is separated then pasteurized before a slow maturation of 12-17 hours. And like other products under this label an independent third party controls the quality of the production regularly.
Le Beurre Bio/Organic butter
Organic butter is made from organic milk and the quality of the final product depends on the producer. To be certified organic, the herd from which the milk is obtained must be fed a diet of organic feed, are not allowed growth hormones or be treated with antibiotics. Certified organic products will carry the AB logo, Agriculture Biologique, on the packaging.
Beurre Industriel/Industrial butters
Today the vast majority of butter produced in France is made industrially in factories where hygiene and bacterial acidifying are strictly controlled. This is every-day butter found in foil wrapped blocks in grocery stores and corner markets. The cream used to make this butter can come from numerous farms spread out over several regions. At the factory, these different creams will be pasteurized and blended giving the final product a uniform consistency. Industrially produced butter is made in one continuous process in a machine called a butyrateur, the cream goes in one end and butter comes out the other end. Butter made with this non-stop mechanical method erases a lot the individual nuances found in butter that is made artisanally in smaller batches using separate steps.
Pasteurization destroys both the good and the bad bacteria so fermenting cultures must be reintroduced into the cream after it has been treated. Allowing cream to culture naturally is not very efficient in terms of time and space, therefore large-scale manufactures have come up with a method where the bacterial cultures are introduced into the cream as it is churned. The resulting butter is pressed, packaged and then left to rest in cold storage where it “ripens” and develops some personality.
Beurre extra fin and beurre fin/Extra fine or fine
Extra-fin on the packaging indicates butter that is made from 100% fresh, pasteurized cream while fin refers to a butter that can contain up to 30% previously frozen cream.
Beurre Cru/Raw Cream butter
Butter made from raw, untreated cream, with a minimum of 82% butterfat. Beurre cru is made by hand on farms and also in some semi industrialized dairies. It is highly perishable.
Beurre Doux/Unsalted butter
The default butter for cooking and baking. Using unsalted butter allows the cook to have control over the amount of salt in a recipe; important in making sweet things where too much salt can mask delicate flavors. Unsalted butter is also better for baking as too much salt can toughen the dough by increasing the gluten in the flour. Unsalted butter will have a minimum of 82% butterfat.
Beurre demi salé and Beurre salé /Lightly salted and salted butter
Originally salt was added to butter at the end of the churning process as a natural preservative. Refrigeration makes salting butter today purely a question of taste. Salted butter can have slightly less fat than unsalted butter, a minimum of 80%. Beurre demi salé, is lightly salted butter with 0.5-3g salt for 100g. Beuure salé is more heavily salted with 3g of salt per 100g. The everyday industrial brands add fine salt and blend it so that it makes no noticeable difference to the texture, the more expensive and artisanal versions add cristaux de sel de mer, large sea salt crystals or the more mineral tasting fleur de mer, sea salt flakes. The larger salt crystals will give the butter a distinct crunch.
Salted butter is generally used as a spread on morning toast or to add flavor at the end of the cooking process for savory dishes and vegetables but sometimes it shows up in pastry and dessert recipes looking to temper sweetness. In a pinch salted butter can be substituted for unsalted butter in recipes just remember to adjust or leave out any extra salt.
Beurre croquante/Crunchy butter
Butter salted with large sea salt crystals – it gives butter a distinct crunch.
Beurre a la Motte/Block butter
Large blocks of butter found in creameries and fromageries.
Beurre aromatisé/Flavored butter
Butter of any variety to which seasonings have been added.
Beurre fouetté/Whipped butter
Soft, spreading butter. Is not intended to replace ordinary butter in cooking.
Beurre de pâtisserie, beurre de cuisine/Pastry butter
A pasteurized and dehydrated butter containing 96% butterfat and reserved for professional use by pastry chefs and in the agri-food business.
Beurre concentré, beurre sec/Concentrated butter or dry butter
A professional butter made up almost entirely of butterfat, 99.8%. This high fat butter is essential for flaky croissants and puff pastry. Water in butter results in too much steam. The extra steam causes the pastry to cook too quickly and weighs down the layers. The result is an uneven rise and heavy, misshapen pastry.
Beurre de Cuisson/Cooking butter
A butter inspired by clarified butter from which the milk solids and water have been removed leaving pure butterfat which unlike regular butter can be heated to high temperature without burning. This butter is pure butterfat and virtually tasteless. It can replace other fats to sauté meat and vegetables or in recipes calling for clarified butter.
Beurre clarifié/ Clarified butter
Unsalted butter slowly melted over low heat so that the pure butterfat separates from the milk solids. Any foam on the surface is skimmed then the butterfat is poured off leaving the milk solids behind. The resulting clarified butter can be heated to higher temperatures without burning.
Butter that has been melted then cooked until the all the water evaporates and the milk solids turn brown infusing the ghee with flavor. Once cooked, the ghee is strained off and the remaining browned milk solids used to flavor savory and sweet dishes. Ghee can be heated to higher temperatures than simple clarified butter. Traditionally used in Indian cuisine.
Easy spread butters and Light Butters
In France, butter, beurre, is a designation for a product that is at least 82% butterfat. Anything containing less fat has to be called something else.These spreads are often sold under a brand name.
Beurre Tendre, facile à tartiner, beurre tartinable /Easy spread butter
Butter that has been conditioned in such a way as to make it supple and spreadable straight out of the fridge. It exists as a classic butter with out any additives containing 82% butterfat or in low fat versions.
Beurre Allégé /Light butter
A low fat, churned butter, 41-65% butterfat, with lots of added water and possibly blended with gelatin, cornstarch or flour. Best suited as a spread. It can replace regular butter in cooking when only small quantities are called for however are it is not suitable for recipes like a Hollandaise sauce for example, where it is a principle ingredient.
Beurre Legér/extra-light butter
Also know as half butter with 39-41% butterfat. Gelatin, cornstarch or flour might be added to the blend. Intended to be used as a spread. This butter should is not suitable for cooking.
How it measures up
Butter comes packaged in many different forms and weights but is most commonly found in blocks of 250g. At the fromagerie butter can still be found in large blocks, beurre a la motte, that the shop assistant will slice off in the exact weight desired.
Butter is generally sold in 125g, 250g or 500 g blocks.
250 g = 2.2. Sticks, 1.1 cups, 17 US tablespoons or 8.8 ounces
2 sticks = 1 cup = 226 g = 8 ounces
1 stick = ½ cup = 113 g = 4 ounces
½ stick = ¼ cup = 56 g = 2 ounces
1 US tablespoon = 14 g
1 US teaspoon = 5 g
1 ounce = 28 g
Charlotte Puckette, from Charleston, SC left the world of shrimp and grits and moved to Entebbe in Uganda with the Task Force for Child Survival for the Carter Presidential Center. Staying in East Africa for three years, she traveled the world and developed a passion for cooking. Charlotte moved to France and graduated from the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school in 1992 with top honors and the Grand Diplôme. She briefly worked at L’Oasis restaurant in La Napoule and later at Fauchon gourmet shop, before starting her own catering business Cuisines et Traditions du Monde, introducing people to ethnic cuisine. She is the co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije) She also teaches the Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes and is constantly on the prowl for new restaurants or sources that will provide her with inspiration for her creations.
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