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On Bread (and Butter) Alone

Butter is butter is butter, right? Sweet cream butters are all made with cream (from cows) that's been whipped into a frenzied state in which the fats glob together and the water falls away. So it should all pretty much taste like butter, yes? Well... yes and no, actually.

After reading a piece on Endless Simmer, in which Brendan goes crazy for Kerrygold, I really wanted to know whether I'd be able to detect appreciable differences between butter brands... particularly the "higher end" brands (read: imported).

So, before the wimpy dollar dropped any further against the powerful Euro, I biked to my local Key Food (Greenpoint, Brooklyn). I knew they carried lots of crazy European brands.

Bread and Butter

Are there differences? You betcha. I can say (or type, rather) this with conviction now, because I just tested nine different butters in rapid succession.

Taking one in the gut (ow!) and another one in the wallet (oh!) for scientific research, I'm publishing my results for you, dear reader.

The Method

Just so you know a little bit about the process here... I made every attempt to purchase the sweet cream/unsalted butter varieties for maximum flavor range. (I'd hoped to use Plugra, a "European-style" US brand as the tenth contestant, but the only type on hand was salted, unfortunately.)

I'm listing the lineup in the random order in which they were sampled. Super-thin slices of a "French" loaf were used as sample-carriers and sparkling mineral water was the palate-cleanser. (And just in case you were wondering, "Yes... I do feel ill now. Thanks for asking.")

The Lineup

9 Butters

1. Lurpak
Weight/Price: (8oz/277g) $3.99
Origin: Denmark
Color: Pale white-yellow
Sweet and creamy with long-lasting pleasant flavor that lingers in the mouth.
Score: B

2. Spomlek
Weight/Price: (7.05oz/200g) $2.99
Origin: Poland
Color: Pale yellow
Creamy. Buttery. Nothing distinguished.
Score: C

3. Delitia (Parmigiano-Reggiano Butter)
Weight/Price: (8oz) $4.99
Origin: Italy
Color: Pale white-yellow
This is a funkier butter flavor. Is it possible it's not as creamy?
Score: B-

4. Mantuanella Farmstead Butter
Weight/Price: (200g) $5.99
Origin: Italy
Color: Pale white-yellow
Again, this one has a funky-farmy flavor. For some reason, I like it slightly better than the Delitia. Maybe a little sweeter?
Score: B

5. Krowka Maslo Wiejskie from Lieberman Dairy
Weight/Price: (200g) $2.99
Origin: Pennsylvania, USA
Color: Pale white-yellow
With a flavor that's fresh, sweet and creamy, I have sudden visions of buttercups for no apparent reason. Not sure if I like this one more than others because it's whipped, so there's a little extra air in it? Maybe it's actually fresher because it's from PA? Whatever the case, I like it.
Score: A-

6. Celles Sur Belle
Weight/Price: (8.82oz/250g) $4.99
Origin: Poitou-Charentes, France
Color: Pale white-yellow
It's... buttery. But it tastes kind of flat. Nothing to write home about. Maybe it's old?
Score: C

7. Elle & Vire
Weight/Price: (200g) $3.99
Origin: France
Color: Pale white-yellow
Wow! Yum! This butter tastes sweet and fresh with crazy high notes that make it taste... lively. I was just wondering if I was experiencing butter fatigue, but WOW! I want to eat the whole packet. I'm a little shocked.
Score: A

8. Land O' Lakes
Weight/Price: (16oz, 453g) $4.29
Origin: USA
Color: Pale white-yellow
Ah, the butter of my youth. It's fine. It tastes pretty flat, actually.
Score: C

9. Kerrygold
Weight/Price: (8oz/227g) $2.50
Origin: Ireland
Color: Yellow
This tastes like it could be a good, creamy butter, but they put salt in it (is that just for the ones they stamp "Imported"?) so most of what I'm tasting is salt. I'm actually pretty disappointed.
Score: C+

The Summary

I know people go crazy for European butters, but some of those brands just don't seem like they're worth the money or the hype, particularly with the dollar in the doldrums these days.

Land O' Lakes is the best dollar value among these samples and it's probably fine for baking. The Pennsylvania brand, Krowka, made a surprisingly strong showing. And I don't know what kind of crack they're putting in the Elle & Vire brand (maybe I just got a very fresh batch?) but I like it. A lot.

I suspect that freshness has a lot to do with quality, so I'd bet that any butter tasted at the source is going to be simply delightful.

Yours in food exploration,

Labels: , ,

4.03.2008

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please re-taste Kerry Gold unsalted. I had it recently at a dinner event and it was terrific.

4/03/2008  
Blogger G in Berlin said...

I'm eating Kerrygold here in Berlin and this is the first time I have ever enjoyed butter.

4/03/2008  
Blogger MissGinsu said...

As I mentioned over at Serious Eats, the packaging was rather confusing. Whether it's salted or not, it says Pure Irish Butter on the outside, and you need to read the ingredients list to see if it's salted. You can see both of 'em at their website. I would be willing to put the unsalted version to the test. I just think it's interesting that there's so many Kerrygold lovers popping in here. Where's the rabid Celles Sur Belle crew?

4/03/2008  
Blogger G in Berlin said...

It's not in the Kaiser or Ullrich that I can walk to, or I would give it a try.And, strangely enough, I always salt my butter;-)(only fleur de sel, fresh ground-and imported to Germany via Costco).
Hey, I'm new here- where is your recipe for gazpacho? All I can find is a photo (and it makes me hungry).

4/03/2008  
Blogger j.ho said...

You can also tell it's salted by the nutrition facts label, which everyone should make a habit of reading in their purchasing decision process.

Kerry Gold is my favorite. I'm downright passionate about it. I suspect there isn't a Celles Sur Belle crew due to availability. Kerry Gold is available at 4 grocery stores in a 5 mile radius of my house (and I live in New Hampshire!).

4/03/2008  
Anonymous Devin said...

Good job. I always wondered if the imported butter was worth it. But I always chickened out and went with Plugra. Now I gotta try me some of that french butter!

4/03/2008  
Anonymous a cold cruel beast said...

Hah, I almost picked up some Kerrygold for the post-St. Paddy's Hangover Potluck. Dang. Could've saved you a butter purchase!

4/03/2008  
Blogger MissGinsu said...

g in berlin: I seem to have posted my gazpacho love without following up with my gazpacho instructions. For shame! I will rectify...

j.ho: I just had a conversation with a bunch of coworkers who have wildly varying opinions (all strong opinions) on the topic of butter (salted vs. unsalted, varying brands, imported, domestic...) I think it's one of those things for which people have great loyalty.

As for me, I'm just happy when people have opinions about their food. It means they care about what they're consuming. :)

4/03/2008  
Blogger grey eyes said...

hi! i think the difference with european butter and american butter is that european is cultured (as in contains food cultures, not well-educated and urbane). you can make your own:

http://www.travelerslunchbox.com/journal/2007/6/21/getting-some-culture.html

i haven't tried it yet, but looks easy.

athena :-)

4/03/2008  
Blogger Virtual Frolic said...

If comparing "fancy" butter, you should try the Land o lakes ultra creamy butter. It's a bit more expensive and I believe it has a fat content comprable to imported butters. Also - might be worth trying President from France too - I believe Cooks Illustrated rated them first or second, I forget which.

4/03/2008  
Blogger Annie said...

Butter that has a bit of that sweetness is the best. I'm not a big butter fan though and I only use it in baking...nothing else! Seldomly bread. I do want to try some of those imported ones now, though..

4/03/2008  
Blogger Jessy and her dog Winnie said...

I agree, butters do taste different!

4/03/2008  
Anonymous Kate said...

Wow! This is great! I can't wait to try the Elle & Vire. Believe it or not, I shop primarily at the Greenpoint Key Food, so I know I'll be able to get it. I've tried the Kerrygold and the Polish one and agree with your assessments. They have Plugra and also the same fresh butter that's sold at the farmer's market at The Garden if you ever wanted to do a Part II.

4/03/2008  
Blogger That Guy at the Bar said...

Life is so much better with Butter! Thank you for your scientific study!

4/04/2008  
Blogger Yvo said...

Wow... thanks for that, Miss G, I can't imagine how you feel after all that butter... but now you have plenty in your fridge for random baking bouts, or butter eaters that may visit you (I know a couple of people who do that). Mmm... butter.

4/04/2008  
Blogger DocChuck said...

My wife and I really enjoyed your interesting post on butter.

Having said that, I realize that probably no two taste-buds are exactly alike.

So, I must take exception with your rating of KerryGold pure Irish butter. My wife and I visit Ireland frequently, and I must say that we are really "spoiled" to Irish dairy products, including Irish butter.

Fortunately, KerryGold butter is now readily available on "this side of the pond."

Another butter which we enjoy is PLUGRA European Style unsalted butter. Although it is (I believe) made in the U.S., it contains the higher ratio of butter fat than do most American butters.

Of course, my wife, a medical doctor, will tell her patients about the potential dangers of over-using butter, we use it in moderation . . . BUT only the best, when we do.

4/04/2008  
Blogger *fanny* said...

This makes me realise how lucky I am to live in France. Elle & Vire's butter certainly isn't the best french butter and is even considered as 'cheap' here; so really I can't imagine what American butter tastes like; probably like kiwi butter.

If you ever visit France, try to taste Jean Yves Bordier's butter. HEAVEN ON A TOAST. love it xxx

4/05/2008  
Blogger johnmc. said...

Kerrygold unsalted comes in a silver wrapper as opposed to the gold wrapper of the (one true) salted version. As far as salting goes, that's the default for Irish butter.

4/08/2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a dairy products grader (mostly butter and cream) for the USDA and I've tried just about every butter commercially available here in the states and in Europe.

The first observation I have is that many of the 'flavors' that are apparent in many European butters are really the result of defects in cream storage or production techniques. Arguably, many defects are more benign than others (feed or cooked flavors), but some are indicitive of more serious production issues (moldy, rancid, musty, or tastes like added flavor neutralizer). Here's my take on some famous European butters:

1. Kerrygold. Great example of defects being perceived as positive attributes. The dairy industry in Ireland really is just getting out of the dark ages when it comes to sanitation and production. This butter varies A LOT by batch and I've had batches that taste musty, moldy, cooked, and smothered. One particularly interesting batch tasted as though the udders weren't washed before milking. I have to admit I used to LOVE this butter when I was young because it conjured up images of foggy, seaside Ireland, but those musty flavors are indicative of some pretty serious sanitation issues during production.

Kerrygold also has some issues with body texture in their product. The softness of the butter is determined by the percentage of low vs. high temperature melting-point fats in the product. Some of this is determined by the cow's diet, but this is an issue that can be corrected for by changing the rinse temperature of the finished butter.

2. Lurpak. This is a pretty clean tasting Euro butter. Flavor is slightly acid and the culturing is apparent, but no major defects. Flavor is nothing outstanding though.

3. Isigny. I like this butter a lot. The salted version has some coarse rock salt and occasionally the buttermilk isn't completely removed (leaky is the technical term), but the flavor is really great.

4. Parmesano Reggiano. This is a good example of a whey cream butter. The butter is made from cream separated from cheese pressings. This gives this butter a really distinctive cheese flavor that some people really adore.

5. Lescure. The salted version is just about the saltiest butter I've every tried. Hard to focus on the actual butter flavor. Sometimes if you cut this butter in half you can see waves in the color resulting from incomplete churning (also a problem in the Isigny).

6. Jana Valley. This New Zealand butter is a really great pastry butter (it's only available in unsalted). Often it has a distinct grassy flavor. Good body and consistent from batch to batch.

7. Anchor. Also from New Zealand, but not as outstanding as Jana Valley. The salted is fairly salted.

8. President. Widely available at even basic grocery stores, this is a pretty safe place to start if you're just getting introduced to foreign butter. Nothing special, but a dependably decent cultured butter.

A note about all the European butters: make sure the store you buy from stores and imports the product correctly, and sells fairly quickly. Most European wrappers are pretty inadequate and you'll get a distinct storage flavor really quickly.

Now on to the Americans:

9. Vermont Butter and Cheese. This is my favorite butter when I want a cultured version. I've never tried the unsalted, but the slightly salted is really great for eating or baking (salt content is a measly .5%, compared with the 2% industry standard). Very creamy and fresh tasting. The version with sea salt crystals is unique but watch out for product that's been on the shelf for a while, because it's wrapped only in paper and will absorb ambient flavors.

9. Plugra. Pretty generic. Not much flavor on it's own, which I suppose is why many cooks like it as a base.

10. Strauss Family. I was really disappointed with this stuff. It's got a very waxy, stiff body (almost the opposite problem as Kerrygold). Flavor wasn't anything to write home about either.

11. Kate's. One of this country's great butters. It's only 80% fat, but if you want a really clean butter that tastes, well, like cream, this is the butter for you. Good wrapper helps keep the product fresh.

12. Wuthrich. Not many people have seen this one, and it's a really new introduction to the market (the salted incarnation has only been around since 2006). Made as the premium, high-fat line by Wisconsin butter giant Grassland, either the salted or unsalted has won best in show butter at the World Dairy expo several years in a row.

I could probably go on about butter for hours, but that's a pretty decent overview of a few butters. Bottom line is that butter is a personal preference. If somebody didn't like it, it wouldn't be on the market.

4/15/2008  
Blogger MissGinsu said...

Holy milkfat, anonymous... I think you may win the award for longest comment on the site. Thanks for all the info. I'll definitely keep an eye out for Kate's and Wuthrich.

Thanks also to everyone who's taken the time to read this post and really consider butters. I think that shows a big win for anyone who wants to ensure the future of high-quality foods on grocery shelves.

4/15/2008  
Blogger MilliMe said...

Miss Ginsu,
Can you tell me where I can find Elle&Vire's product in the US?
Thank you so much = )

4/15/2008  
Blogger MrsDocChuck said...

I'm a nurse, not a doctor, but I do work in a LA Weight-Loss Clinic and often must caution our clients regarding poor food choices, especially the overindulgence on fats. Somehow they are confused that carbohydrates are "bad" and fats are "good," and consume fats to excess (extreme excess at times).

Though I have never been able to accompany my husband on his trips overseas, he has introduced me to the JOY of Kerrygold butter. Like a fine olive oil, a butter like this must be enjoyed deliberately on its own and not used for cooking or baking.

4/15/2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although, it is probably mostly a matter of taste like it is with most everything in life, I've been pretty happy with Kerrygold unsalted for baking. There is definitely a difference from American-style butters when it comes to the taste and texture of the finished products. Even my chocolate cake and brownies taste richer.

6/12/2009  
Anonymous jim said...

Land O Lakes distributes a single pat serving that you can find in some cafeterias/restaurant venues and they (in my humble opinion) score an A+++ in taste. I would love to be able to purchase this butter for my kitchen. So far I have been unable to find any butter that comes close to the taste of the single serving even Land O Lakes pound packages do not score any near as well.

11/21/2009  

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