OK, I’ll admit it, today’s column started out as an “Ask Lisa” question from reader Mark Loudermilk of Munroe Falls.
The answer I wanted to give kept getting longer and longer and longer, until it had well passed the boundary of a reasonable answer and had turned into, well, what you are about to read below.
I can’t take all the blame.
Loudermilk started it when he sent a question that was four questions in one. And it was all about butter.
I couldn’t ignore this one, lest I risk a haunting by the ghost of Julia Child.
Here is what Loudermilk asked, although I have shortened it a bit:
“When I attended pastry classes, I was instructed to use high-quality unsalted butter such as Kerrygold or Plugra in baking over lower-quality butters because there was more water or lower fat in lower-quality butters.
“However, when I compare the nutrition labels on these high-quality butter brands to lower-priced butter brands, this information is identical. For one serving of butter, all brands have the same number of calories and calories from fat, same number of fat grams, same amount of cholesterol, and their ingredient listing is identical.
“I would expect for the same amount of weight, that the higher-quality butter would have more fat, and then more calories in it. In talking with many professional bakers, they all use the lower-priced brands of butter in their baking, and none could really explain why higher- and lower-priced butters each had the same amounts of fat.
“My questions: 1) Are the higher-priced butters any better? 2) What exactly are the differences between high-priced and lower-priced butter (other than price)? 3) If there truly is more fat in the higher quality butters, how can the nutrition information be identical? 4) Is the price difference truly worth it in baking?
OK, people, straighten up in your chairs because butter class is now in session.
Let’s start with the basic chemistry that should answer Loudermilk’s questions 2 and 3.
In the U.S., by law, butter must be at least 80 percent milk fat. Most is between 80 and 82 percent, with the remaining 18 to 20 percent of the composition being roughly 16 to 18 percent water, and 1 to 2 percent milk solids.
Compare that with France, where the minimum milk fat level allowed by law is 82 percent and many butters are in the 84- to 85-percent range.
Of the products you mentioned, Kerrygold (which is Irish) and Plugra (which is made in the U.S., despite its French name), both makers say their unsalted butter is 82 percent milk fat, while the most popular national grocery store brand, Land O’ Lakes, is 80 percent.
What you need to keep in mind is that nutritional information per serving will be affected by the amount of fat, water and milk fat solids in the butter, not just the fat, and those three totals will differ from butter to butter, and even from batch to batch in some cases. While 2 percentage points of milk fat may make a difference in how a cookie turns out, there is little difference in how it breaks down nutritionally.
Ted Sowle, vice president of marketing for the Kansas City, Mo.-based Dairy Farmers of America, the cooperative that produces Plugra, noted that when rounding is taken into consideration, the nutritional values are virtually identical, which you also realized in your grocery store research. Sowle said getting Plugra to be exactly 82 percent milk fat requires a delicate balance and the company strives for consistent results.
So the first lesson is: Food science is not always exact and while every nuance can affect baking results, nutritionally there is little difference.
As to whether higher-priced butters are any better really depends on your definition of “better,” and we are really getting into a subjective area here.
Do they taste different? Sure. Is the taste better? That depends on what you like. There are plenty of factors that will affect the taste of butter: what type of cow’s milk was used to make it, what kind of diet the cow was fed, whether any flavorings were added to the butter, how it was stored, whether someone put it next to a cut onion in the refrigerator — the list is endless.
Sowle said the slow-churning process used to makes Plugra produces butter with less moisture and higher milk fat content, but also takes a lot longer than a traditional churning process. It costs more because it takes longer to produce.
A 2000 survey and independent laboratory testing conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle showed that a butter that sold for $3.39 per pound actually had more milk fat than brands that sold for $5 or $6 per pound, so cost isn’t always an accurate way to determine the quality.
Some European-style butters, particularly Danish ones, are cultured butters, meaning they are made from milk that has fermented or cultured before it was churned. They are prized for their rich flavor. You may be surprised to learn, however, that in taste tests done by America’s Test Kitchen, Lurpak Danish butter, which is upwards of $10 per pound, came out the favorite, but Land O’ Lakes, at roughly $4 per pound, was the runner-up.
Finally, is the price difference worth it in baking?
In general it is accepted among pastry professionals that a higher milk fat content in butter will produce flakier, more delicate pastry that browns perfectly. However, with butters that go very far over 82 or 83 percent milk fat, the results can be too far the other way: pastries that are dense and greasy.
Whether it’s worth it also depends largely on you, the results of your baking trials with each and how much money you have to spend on butter.
I always encourage home cooks to work with the best ingredients they can afford and that budget is different for all of us. For my part, I have baked successfully with not-so-fancy butter, with vegetable shortening, and — dare I even admit it — with margarine.
It seems to me that if you are going to spend a lot of money on butter, you would want to use it where you get the biggest impact from its more expensive taste — like spreading it on bread.
For me, the price difference isn’t worth it for baking, but I don’t have unlimited funds to spend on butter, so my opinion is influenced by my wallet. I’m sure an army of French pastry chefs are ready to challenge me on this one, but unless they want to step up to help pay my cell phone bill, I’ll continue to use the best quality that I can afford.
Because of the science behind your questions, I called the delightful Shirley Corriher, food scientist and author of the James Beard Award-winning Cookwise and Bakewise, to check my work.
Corriher, as always, raised a point I had not considered.
She noted that moisture is as vital in baking as fat, because it helps to produce the steam needed to make items bake, so she said not to discount a butter just because its moisture content may be slightly higher. We are only talking about 1 or 2 percentage points here.
She also said the biggest advantage one butter has over another is taste, and she suggests that you let that be your guide when purchasing butter for baking.
Wise advice from a wise woman.