Article

Basically… butter

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, food writer and Cookbook Club host Angela Clutton explores the importance of quality and provenance when it comes to buying basics. This month: butter

Image: John Holdship

Butter tends to bring out the evangelical in me. Not in the religious sense (even I don’t think butter is an actual religion) but in the being-zealous-about-its-wonder sense. Get me going on the subject of butter and I am likely to bang on for a goodly while about its flavour, colour, provenance and all the wonderful things it can do to other food—from a humble piece of toast upwards.

Before I launch into all that, though, let’s first establish whether a conversion about butter is needed. Did your morning toast receive a spreading of some kind of processed pseudo-butter? The result of past decades of government and food industry propaganda about those pots of manufactured processed fats being ‘healthier’?

There is increasing momentum for getting through the message that everything we the public were told about natural / processed, saturated / unsaturated fats was at best questionable and, in my view, wrong. If you are not yet converted, I ask you to just to think about how that spread was manufactured, how butter is made, and make your choice from there.

That said and off my chest, this is not the place for any lengthier of a rant adding my arguments to all that. This is instead the place for celebrating all that is wonderful about butter at its best.

A healthy and happy herd
The making of butter, its flavour, and quality are fundamentally reliant upon the flavour and quality of the milk and ensuing cream it is produced from. A previous instalment of this Basically… series was about the provenance of milk, and all of that applies to butter, too. Cream from a healthy and happy herd that grazes on flavoursome pasture will produce superior butter. The kind of butter that you just have to look at to know it is going to taste of something and is a world-away from insipid mass-produced butters.

The wooden moulds used in old dairies to form butter into round pats would have stamped into the butter an indication of where the dairy herd grazed, and therefore a clue as to its terroirs’ flavour notes. Pats with swans indicated a water meadow; bog myrtle meant it was a hill farm; and corn sheafs were the obvious sign for a farm that grew corn. If only our modern butters carried such insignia. In their absence, the way to have some certainty that what you are buying has been made in the way you hope is, as ever, to ask when buying it. If the place selling it to you can’t tell you, then put the butter down and move along. 

At Neal’s Yard Dairy, they will not only be delighted to give you the full story about the herds, but also the butter-maker’s artistry. Find out about how the cream was churned—by hand or machine? Mass-market butters go for the largest-scale, fastest churning option for the obvious reason of keeping costs down and producing high volumes. Fast churning does not produce good butter. Slower churning, whether by hand or mechanics, is far better for developing the flavours.

Intensely-flavoured
They’ll also talk to you about the cultured butter, whose cream has been allowed to ferment a little and develop a subtle tang, or the more intensely-flavoured and coloured whey butter made by churning whey cream, which is a by-product of cheese-making.

Then there is raw butter, which benefits from unpasteurised milk and, therefore, cream. With real dairy skill, the milk that left the udder totally sterile is managed so that it then picks up the right strains of good bacteria that form flavour. Hook & Son will tell you more about that.

Each instalment of this series on basic ingredients is yet to conclude with anything other than the key factors being the quality of the core produce, the skills applied, and the care and time taken over achieving the end result. Butter is no exception to that, but the codicil is that when you buy a good butter, the responsibility for its flavour transfers to you.

Good for the soul
Oxygen and light are the enemies of storing butter, so keep it sealed and covered. Don’t store it for so long it can pick up other fridge flavours. Do bring it to room temperature before using—it won’t just spread better, it will taste better too. Not that the spreading of it on toast is all this calibre of butter is good for. Cook with it, use it for exceptional hollandaise and other sauces, and see your baking benefit too (as in my recipe for salted lavender sables). Butter: good for the kitchen and somehow also for the soul.