Reader Will writes:
I read your posts on cultured butter with great interest since I’ve always heard about how far superior it is to conventional butter. But I couldn’t believe that it’s bacteria that I’ve been paying an extra three bucks a pound for. Is that really the only difference, and does the bacteria have an effect on the way cultured butter performs in recipes?
Thanks for the email, Will! The answer to the first question is yes, but don’t forget you’re also paying for shipping, since most cultured butters are imported from Europe. In fairness, though, there are other differences. Most cultured butters are higher in fat, which means lower in moisture, and that makes them better for laminated dough, since water is the enemy of crisp, clearly defined layers. There are flavor differences as well since cows in different countries are often different breeds and/or have different diets.
I accidentally answered part of the second question in that paragraph. However I’ll add that the reason many chefs prefer cultured butter these days is because of the acid it contains. Acid is a natural foil for fat, at least on the tongue. It “cuts” the fatty sensation you get when you take a bite of something rich, be it a steak, a sauce or a pastry. This is why people who eat a croissant made with cultured European butter often claim that it tastes leaner than one made with American sweet cream butter.
It’s all just perception of course, since the reality is you’re actually taking in more fat, since as I said, European butters tend to be richer. But ask any chef at any high-end restaurant and they’ll tell you: even though most of their customers claim not to like rich and fatty foods, nearly all of them actually do. Cultured butter allows a chef to work in a good deal of fat while giving the impression of leanness. So everybody wins. Sort of.