Butter. It’s all about the cream. Eric Clapton shoulda used those slow hands to milk Jerseys and Guernseys... Okay, what I’m getting at is that making butter isn’t nearly as tough as finding the best cream. Whether you shake, churn, or whip it, to make butter you simply gotta input energy into cream.
You can take it easy. You may use a mixer. There are certainly people out there who can discern between machine-made and handmade butter (the differences between the two are subtle), but it seems unlikely those people will be at your dinner table dissing your butter-making gear and criticizing your methods. Therefore, if you don’t have the meta-skills of the Flash and have no desire to develop the dreaded “chronic butter elbow” (sure, I made that up), simply pour 4 cups of pasteurized 35% cream into the 16- or 20-cup bowl of an electric mixer, turn the motor on to “whip,” and let it go. Eventually (and probably sooner than you think), the cream will surrender to the constant slap-sloshing of the balloon whisk, first becoming fluffy whipped cream and then breaking into what looks like curdled grains to then finally arriving as a lump of yellowish fat resting in white liquid. And there you have it: butter. That’s it. All you needed to do was add energy.
I’m not implying that this isn’t a worthy pursuit, and I’m not saying it isn’t an experience worthy of a try. (In fact, I tell you how to do it in more detail on pages 16 to 20 of the book.) I just feel I should point out that you can simply buy that brand of butter at the supermarket, which gets it from the dairy that boiled (pasteurized) the cream in the first place. Short of your desire to attain Popeye-like forearms from all that shaking and whipping, your homemade butter will taste the same as their retail version.
Butter made from extraordinary cream goes beyond mere drool inducement. It inspires poetry and song. It ignites protestations of love and, dare I say, fisticuffs?
Okay, making it yourself made it taste better psychologically, but it didn’t make it actually taste different. For that, my friends, you need good, nay extraordinary, cream.
Butter made from extraordinary cream goes beyond mere drool inducement. It enters the realm of swooning and sensory overload. It inspires poetry and song. It ignites protestations of love and, dare I say, fisticuffs?
Cold butter. Warm bread. Thar be glory!
So, good cream and whether it’s been pasteurized are where the important differences lie, and depending on some other variants (say, the mammal and what it eats), you may note obvious differences in colour and flavour.
Before I go any further, please bear with this small rant about pasteurization: Yes, it’s vital that we pasteurize milk for mass production, mass storage, and mass distribution. The effect of this discovery by Monsieur Pasteur, when coupled with the advent of antibiotics and the fact that the population of the planet has doubled in my lifetime, is nothing short of an inarguable reason. That doesn’t mean you should believe the wailing Cassandra ninnies who have outlawed raw milk in Ontario and most of the developed world. I buy raw milk direct from a dairy farmer. I have done so for many years. He is a responsible farmer and an ethical businessman, and I trust him. I have also been to his farm, seen how he sterilizes the equipment, know how, where, and what he feeds his cows, and how the calves are handled, and what other animals, machinery, and systems are around. I’m educated, experienced, and knowledgeable enough to take full responsibility for that raw milk and to whom I feed it. Nobody should take raw milk production lightly nor should it be sold or shared with people who don’t understand it as I do—but here’s the kicker: My education was done in a way that absolutely anybody could emulate. Please, lawdy, please, stop making the purchase of raw milk illegal and instead have it carefully and respectfully managed, tested, and controlled. The idea that raw milk will ever again replace pasteurized is imbecilic—it doesn’t need to be more than an extremely small part of overall production—but the glorious taste of it alone should mean that anyone who has any interest in good food should be able, at the very least, to taste raw milk if they desire it.
What does raw milk taste like? I can tell you that it has a deliciousness that can’t easily be described, and you can imagine that boiling would definitely change it. Let’s leave my explanation at that. I’m sorry, but there’s no sense in me prattling along, extolling the virtues of a flavour that few will get the chance to try. I will, however, offer this: If the flavour of raw milk is obviously better than the boiled stuff—and it is, believe me, right hand held up in a sweary promise—then raw cream and the butter you can make from it is akin to the way heroin is described in Trainspotting. Definitely in the realm of the best sex.
I’ll just leave you hanging there, thank you.
If you can milk it then somebody, somewhere, has made butter (among many other things) out of that fine effort.
As far as the provenance of good milk, the usual farm suspects apply: cows, sheep, and goats. I could include some exotics, but they tend to be extensions of these species, like water buffalo (mostly known on this part of the planet for the cheese—not butter—made from its milk, but, hey, you can imagine the glory, yeah?). And, of course, within all of these species there are variations depending on varietal, pasture, paddock, farmer, and weather. If you have yaks, you can produce not only butter from their milk but also—if you know the secret (a kinda off-putting secret) of the Mongolian herders—an alcoholic beverage. Go ahead, Google it.
Species, varietal, and terroir deliver the opportunity to spotlight the distinct natural flavour of the respective milk produced. Jerseys produce a higher-fat milk most of the time, and Guernsey cream tends to be much more yellow. Goat milk tastes, well, goaty. Some people like that while others don’t at all. (Sheryl, my love, and the kids, I’m looking at you.) Sheep’s milk is lovely and apparently easier to digest than most milk. If you can milk it then somebody, somewhere, has made butter (among many other things) out of that fine effort.
And what of terroir, you ask? Oh, yes, I could meander through an absolutely huge discussion about how I want to taste the place of what I’m eating. I want to taste the sunshine and rain, and I want to actually notice what the animal has been eating, what it’s been up to. Generally, the most excellent flavours (dude!) come from the subtle variations of breed, pasture, and weather found when somebody (you know, typically the farmer) cares enough to do all the little loving things that affect quality—like helping the animals live a decent life outdoors with the foods that best help them achieve peak health. (Misery shows up in milk and meat, believe me.)
One way to illustrate the point I’m trying to make about the subtleties affecting flavour is to relate a story I was told a while back. So, caveat up front: I don’t really know if this is a true story. I don’t know for sure the who, where, or when, and I likely don’t have all the facts correct, but since I’m trying to make a point about butter and quality, not create a valid history, I think that’s enough warning. Here goes:
The story has a few layers, but the two main points are as follows.
- A trained palate can indeed taste variations even in very subtle cases.
- These variations cause ripples like a stone thrown into the middle of a pond.
I wallow in the variations, I worship the ripples, and I find both solace and inspiration in discovering the differences in their short- and long-term effects on the end result.
The material processes that ingredients come in contact with affect everything from flavour to how long the ingredient will last. Ever put fresh mushrooms, just boring old button mushrooms, in a paper bag in your fridge? Ever store the same kind of mushrooms in plastic wrap instead? Those mushrooms don’t look, smell, or taste the same, and they don’t keep as long. Paper is the better choice there, by the way, but this is not a rule thing. That would make it simple. Nope, there are many ingredients that would perish in a paper bag long before they would in plastic. I’m not advocating for one over the other. I’m saying that what ingredients come in contact with from dirt to dish makes a difference, period.
The difference between wet grass and dry, grass that has been profusely fed fresh manure and grass that has not, how quickly or slowly the grass grows, the type of grasses growing, the machinery or lack of it in logistical process, and how all these variables combine will make the milk, therefore the cream, therefore the butter, taste different.
Variation is objective. Flavour is affected by variation. But flavour is subjective.
Crappy little plastic tubs of yellowish fatlike splooge is an insult to the thousands of years we’ve been wandering the skin of this planet in search of a better, more delicious, meal to share with family and friends.
So, what’s the best-case scenario for milk quality and, therefore, butter quality? Ah, you could argue that for days. But I would insist you want to know where the milk came from, maybe even which varietal the cow happens to hail from, or, at the very least, when the milk was produced.
You want fresh. The rest will get you butter.
If you are asking, I will tell you that my favourite butter to date has been fresh, raw, Jersey cream churned as soon as I got home. After the perfection of raw-milk butter, my next favourite is from a long-established creamery called Stirling, not so strangely located in the town of Stirling, Ontario, and they make a salted whey butter that I love. (No, they aren’t paying me to say that. It’s really good.)
What’s the best way to eat butter? That’s easy. On anything and everything. For me, melted on fresh pasta is the ultimate.
After you explore the impact of breed, geography, weather, gear, and technique on butter’s flavour, then you should consider the effect that butter’s temperature has on other foods. Whether you have the best or the usual butter in hand, there is adventure to be had in exploring the many possibilities.
Consider the glory of rough shavings of ice-cold butter between a folded slice of too-hot-to-eat, fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread. While the cold butter referees the searing heat, absorbing the worst of it and preventing your lips and tongue from burning, it also delivers the flavour of the bread and itself in what seems like a ridiculous magnification of both.
Stone-cold butter isn’t the usual stuff just kicking around, however. Typically, the butter dish on your kitchen counter is at some degree of room temperature. This common “softened” state, waiting so innocently for indiscriminate smearing, can lend visual feast to flavour. You have to be watching, though, because it’s fleeting. A perfect pat topping a pile of steamed greens, resting in the hollowed peak of a mash mountain of sweet roots, or lingering on the glistening surface of a large piece of seared flesh—each and every time, never failing, the ephemeral fat will shimmer and disassemble before your eyes. At first it seems to merely melt down the sides, pooling in a creamy skirt. But, sighing, it lets go and separates into oil, water, and solids, each with a slightly different song of acid, sweet, salt, sour, and umami.
Butter picks up flavours and delivers them to you. But I’m not done with temperature.
If cold is the arbitrator, and room temperature the common delivery service, then hot is our bold temptress. Example: Gently cook raw lobster meat not in a broth or court bouillon but in deep, warm, melted butter. Upon tasting, try to not have your brain explode in an overload of flavour.
Discussions of provenance and applications aside, maybe I can sum up another way and save us some time. Conjure up any image of butter you like. Now imagine margarine in its place. If this doesn’t cause your vision to momentarily blur, your smile to fade, your appetite to dwindle—if it doesn’t seem pointlessly sad—then you should just set this book aside, maybe fire up your microwave, and enjoy yourself a wonderful meal of classically combined mystery ingredients preserved in a slurry of chemicals, because you will likely never understand flavour, let alone the phenomenal joy of sharing and imbibing fresh food.
Way harsh, dude.
People are realizing that as a natural and whole food, butter is good for you ... And there are more varieties of butter, more brands, on store shelves than ever before, making it ever easier to get our fix.
Maybe. But maybe all is not lost. After all, they say butter is making a comeback. Sales have been steadily rising since butter was first shunned under faulty health claims and replaced in fridges across North America by “butter-like” spreads. People are realizing that as a natural and whole food, butter is good for you. Every day, more and more people are replacing their plastic tubs with bricks of golden butter. And there are more varieties of butter, more brands, on store shelves than ever before, making it ever easier to get our fix.
This book represents my perspective on butter as an ingredient, sure, but if successful, I will have hopefully established that, despite margarine’s existence, butter was never seen as a bad thing by experienced cooks (nor ethical food scientists) anyway, and it can be a bellwether of integrity.
Confused by that? Don’t be. Butter is one of the most logical and obvious ways of adjudicating a cook or a restaurant.
A wonderful mentor of mine, Alfred Caron, and I had already travelled and eaten together many times when I asked what his thing was with ordering soup and a green salad everywhere he went. “If you can’t make soup and a salad look, smell, and taste properly delicious,” he said, “then how could you possibly cook anything more complicated?”
Considered like this, butter speaks to one’s sourcing and procurement attitude about food cost versus value, and your depth of food knowledge overall. Crappy little plastic tubs of yellowish fatlike splooge is an insult to the thousands of years we’ve been wandering the skin of this planet in search of a better, more delicious, meal to share with family and friends.
Butter is the glorious destination of a long and complex journey that led us to conclude that we should sit down and think about maybe building a more permanent shelter and sticking around these parts for a while longer, maybe even take good care of some animals on a daily basis, shake some cream, and wait until there’s something truly worthy to smear it on.
Please find smear-worthy things forthwith.
Book 1 in the Chefs to Readers series | Includes 25 recipes | Full-colour paperback with French flaps | 176 pages