Butter, and Better Butter

Reader Kempy writes:

It seems to us that there is a big difference in really good butter and ones that are not always cheaper but seem very watery. Are there laws on the amount of water in butter, or ranges of the amount of water that would allow us to know if we are getting good butter?

Hey Kempy! There definitely are laws regulating water content in butter. American butters can contain no more than 16% water and must be at least 80% milk fat (the rest is protein, lactose and, perhaps, salt). However it’s not so much the water content that’s important as the fat content. Higher quality butters will have more, and even a percentage point or two makes a big difference. French butters, for example, must be 82% fat by law, with some going as high as 85%. Of course French butter is also cultured, which means it tastes a cheesy/tangy as well. You can often check fat content on labels, so let that be your guide.

However it’s also important to note that there are other factors that govern the consistency of butter. Lower quality butters can have a grainy consistency and a greasy look or mouthfeel. That’s partly the result of the diet of the cows. Pasture-fed cows in general produce softer butters while cows that are fed hay or grain produce harder butters, since their diet is lower in polyunsaturated fats.

However the handling of the cream also plays a big part in the final texture. All cream that goes into commercial butter is pasteurized, then cooled to concentrate the butterfat. In general low-temperature pasteurizing followed by a gentle cooling and “aging” for at least eight hours creates a finer texture. High-temperature pasteurization and minimal aging tends to make a grainy butter that also has a “cooked” flavor. So you see there are a lot of variables in the butter-making process. Cut corners in any of them and the impact on the final product can be significant. Hope this isn’t too much information! 😉

8 thoughts on “Butter, and Better Butter”

    1. My go-to butter is Land O’Lakes and I like Plugra for laminated pastry. Lurpak is probably my favorite, but I can’t seem to find that around here anymore!

      Thanks Rachel!

      – Joe

      1. Whole Foods. It’s like Jeopardy. When you don’t know a Jeopardy answer just say the Chinese. When it comes to food, Whole Foods.

        But, seriously, the Whole Foods out here in Los Angeles carries Lurpak as well as a number of French and English cultured butters.

  1. Interesting. I just looked up the butter I use (Mainland, a Fonterra brand) and it is 82.9% for unsalted and 81.4 for salted. Sodium = 0.6% so chloride must be about 1% (by weight, worked out using atomic weights).

    1. I know Mainland well! It’s only just coming available here in the States, but…I know Fonterra! 😉

      It’s good butter.

      – Joe

      1. As you probably know, just about all of our dairy comes via Fonterra. There are several brands, but they’re basically all the same stuff, so it’s good to be able to compare with other places where things are actually different. I use Mainland because it’s foil wrapped (and also because Mainland refers to the South Island where I live). Paper wrapped butter sometimes gets a funny taste from, I think, the light. Some shops are much more prone to it than others so I’m pretty sure it’s how the butter is stored. I used to burrow down and grab a pound from inside the stack, but since foil wrapping has arrived the funny flavours have gone.

  2. I only just discovered the joy of cultured butter and that’s all I use now when I want to actually taste the butter. This week, however, I am at my sister’s and she volunteered for an event where she made 200 butter cookies so she bought her butter at Costco’s. As we were beating the butter to lightness, we both noticed how “buttery” it smelled – I had an “a-ha!” moment and realized it smelled like movie-theatre popcorn butter! We debated for a bit about why it would smell so buttery until I pulled the package out of the trash to check the ingredients. Lo and behold! Natural Flavorings! She also had another super-market brand and it, too, had Natural Flavorings on the list! Really? In butter? Is the cream so flat that we have to enhance the flavor of butter, too? I can’t believe that is what the American people are demanding these days…Where and what does this so-called Natural Flavoring of butter come from?

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