BWW Cooks: Understanding Your Butter

There's a lot of health discussion about the benefits of varying fats, and the drawbacks of others. The great grocery store debate is, of course, butter or margarine. If you search on line, the main articles you'll come upon first, if you use only the words "butter" or "margarine" or both, are health articles.

Let's be real. Butter has cholesterol in it. Yes. On the other hand, it has only one, natural and sometimes organic, ingredient - cream. When it has two, the other is salt, and if your health rule is never to buy anything containing ingredients you can't pronounce, butter wins easily. But... cholesterol! So there's margarine. Many are full of unpronounceable ingredients; many contain transfats, worse for you than cholesterol. (The FDA has now banned transfats, effective in three years, so it will be interesting to see how margarines transform and whether flavors and textures will change.)

This is a food column, not a health column. I'm not here to give you medical advice. If you don't know whether to use butter or margarine, you shouldn't be cooking - or eating - from the food point of view. In this world, there are only three reasons to use margarine instead: you're allergic to dairy products (and be sure your margarine does not contain whey or other dairy ingredients, as many do), you're vegan, or you keep kosher. If you bake, the appropriate substitute for butter is usually vegetable shortening - or if you don't keep vegetarian or kosher, don't care about cholesterol, and want perfect pie crusts, lard. Oh, you can use margarine, but your results will not be as good, under normal circumstances, as the others. (What will happen to many of the vegetable shortenings under the transfat rules is a good question, but expect to be learning more about coconut fats. Anticipate problems for those with tree nut allergies, as many have coconut problems.)

A side issue: margarine can be much cheaper than butter. That's understood, but try using a lower amount of butter, if possible, rather than a larger quantity of margarine, especially in finishing (on hot vegetables, or on breads). Experiment with flavored finishing oils as well. Your food will thank you. If you're using margarine for frying/sauteeing, use spray pan release instead of margarine, and lower the extraneous margarine flavors even more along with lowering cost.

A quick thought: the basic ingredients of modern margarine are the same as the basic ingredients of plastic. And the original ones, in the 1870's in France? Beef tallow and skim milk. When margarine came to America during World War Two rationing, cooks were suspicious, and rightly so. It's only been since the Great Cholesterol Scare a few decades back that people started treating margarine as if it were actually edible. Here's another thought: do a tasting. Take your favorite kind of butter (stick or tub) and your favorite kind of margarine. (If you have a truly favorite margarine, chances are you do not have a favorite butter, either of style - American or European, cow or goat, and so on - or type, stick, whipped or so on.) Take plain bread or a saltine and spread the same amount on each and eat them. If you're determined to go for the purest flavor, taste a curl of each without its being served on anything. If you do not find margarine heavier in feel and in taste, and less delicious overall, we should probably stop the conversation. You're possibly related to people who prefer chemical/corn syrup whipped toppings to whipped cream.

What butter should you buy? Real butter. If you find it too hard to spread on toast, don't get the canola-oil spreadable butter instead; keep a stick outside the refrigerator in a porcelain butter dish with a lid, in a cool spot. Or buy one of the butter crocks in which you pack soft butter in the upper part and invert it into a lower cup of water. They're more expensive but work better in warm climates to keep butter from melting in the dish. The melting point of butter is very low - around 90 degrees, so very hot weather makes the water bath a key trick for unrefrigerated butter. Butter is not mayonnaise; it does not require constant refrigeration. But don't buy butter mixed with anything but a little salt; don't buy butter mixed with extraneous fats or with fat substitutes like gelatin for "spreadables" or calorie reduction. They're lower quality, more expensive per unit, and some of them are not suitable for cooking or baking. If you need to save calories for finishing butter, use whipped butter. Per volume, the calorie count is substantially lower because of the incorporation of air, as with whipped cream, and the flavor is normally excellent because of the aeration. Whipped butter is best reserved for table use, and not for cooking or baking.

The huge butter-buying question is normally "salted or unsalted?" My mother would always have told you unsalted, but she was from an era in which salting butter was for preservation and not for taste. Now that butter always has suitable refrigeration, it's partly a matter of taste, and partly a matter of its use. For toast, choose whichever you like. For cooking vegetables, you may find that salted butter means that you can eliminate extra salt added when cooking them. That's a sodium savings for you. If you're baking, my mother was absolutely right. Most baking requires salf - but the minimal possible amount, for flavor and for texture. If there is salt in a recipe already, salted butter can affect taste and texture negatively because you're adding more, and there are chemical reactions involved. Unsalted butter is your best option for baking.

For baked potatoes, I like to use salted butter, in ridiculous quantities, and to skip salting the potato. I believe that there is no recommended serving of butter for a potato, noodles, or cinnamon toast, however, except "more." I don't recommend my own butter usage to lesser mortals or to those with cholesterol issues. (Okay, I'm on cholesterol medication myself, but as I now eat no red meat or poultry, I save all of my personal cholesterol indulgence for butter, cream, and cheese; I don't have to factor in bacon. I have never been happier.)

What brand of butter should you buy? That's entirely personal choice; I've found many store brand butters to be of the same good quality of most national dairy brands. Try different ones and compare flavor and prices at the same time of year. The flavor and richness of butter can be affected by cows' feed in different locations and at different times of year. If you're fortunate, you may be able to find excellent-quality local butters at farmers' markets. Be sure to try these. You may find you prefer one brand of butter for eating, for toast and the like, and another for cooking or for baking.

What about European cultured butter? Its butterfat content is higher, the cream is cultured - neither completely "fresh" nor soured, and its price is higher as well. It's up to you as to whether the flavor and fat content justify the price for whatever your use for it is. It's never wise to use an ingredient in cooking just to say you used it. If it makes a favorite recipe taste too heavy or gives too heavy a mouth feel, then the cultured butter isn't what you want. Choose the butter that works for your price point and your recipe.

And remember -- you can freeze butter, but it will quickly pick up flavors and lose quality, so buy in bulk only for things you're planning to make soon. Have fun with the results!

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From This Author Marakay Rogers