Buying Good Butter: The Poke Test

Frequent reader and question-asker Sally C. from Tip of the Iceberg writes:

All right – I’m sitting here, holding my FASTCO Creamery Butter (a Fareway brand) and trying to find the percent of butterfat that you keep going on about. Where on the package should I look to find that? There is a USDA grading of AA on the package. Does that mean something?

I’m convinced that the butter I used for baking my cookies this Christmas was the reason why some of them turned out badly (the first batch tasted “greasy”).

But, here’s the thing. Where I live I have TWO choices in buying butter: FASTCO or Land O’ Lakes. That’s it. Should I buy Land O’ Lakes just because it’s, I don’t know, *famous*, or something? I know that a lot of your generic or “house brands” are almost the same as the “well known” brands just with a different label. Is that not true with butter?

I’ll tell you what – if I screwed up a batch of cookies with $5/lb. butter I’d shoot myself! That’s one of the reasons our mothers started using margerine – the cost. Aside from professional bakers I simply cannot see spending that type of money just to bake a pie. Of course, I’m Scots/Irish.

You won’t find the butterfat percentage on butter packages. That’s because USDA regulations stipulate that all butter must contain at least 80% milk fat and be no more than 18% water (so it’s a foregone conclusion, commercially speaking). While those are fairly tight strictures, there’s still more variation in butter than you might think. That’s why, if you can’t find or afford European or Euro-style butter for pastry making, the best way to evaluate premium butters is by administering the “poke test”. Pull out a stick of cold butter from the box and give it a poke with your finger or thumb. The relative firmness will give you an indication of how much fat it contains. The firmer the butter, the higher the fat and the better for baking.

The grading system you mentioned refers more to eating quality than composition. In the world of government grading, “AA” is the highest, signifying that the butter you’re in possession of is made from sweet cream, is sweet smelling and tasting, and has a smooth consistency. Grade A is still pretty good, made from sweet cream, though not quite as good from a texture standpoint. Grade B is still considered “acceptable” though it isn’t a sweet cream butter (that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but more on that later today).

As far as those “greasy” cookies go, it’s hard to say what might have caused that, save to say that while you may know roughly how much dairy fat you’re getting in a pound of butter, you never know what that fat might be composed of. I know what some of you might be thinking: Huh? It’s fat! What else is there to know? But while butterfat seems to be a fairly uniform substance, it is in fact composed of many different kinds of fatty acid molecules. The proportion of those fatty acids can vary significantly depending on the diet of the cows that gave the milk. So, while I can’t say in particular what might have happened to your cookies, I can say it is very possible that the problem was the butter. The particular mix of fatty acids in the batch might simply have been poorly suited to cookies.

Big name brands like Land O’ Lakes tend to do a better job than generic brands of keeping the composition of their butter consistent. So if the baking project is important, I’d recommend paying up for it. In fact my general counsel is to bake only with the very best butter you can afford…but then of course, I’m a nut.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *