Reader Jo writes:
Hey Joe! Is diacetyl one of the “natural butter flavors” that I so often see on butter packages?
Indeed it is, Jo. Many American mass-market butters, especially unsalted butters, contain “natural flavors.” The most common are diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone and others. In other words, the typical brew of compounds that fermenting bacteria create as they digest sugars.
It all sounds like stuff that runs off a parking lot in a rain storm, but in fact these naturally-occurring chemicals are what give fermented foods – from beer to bread to yogurt and pickles – their flavor. Depending on the proportion in which they’re delivered, they can taste tangy, flowery, bitter, gamey or…buttery.
The question is: are they really necessary? Many butter makers think they are, at least in their unsalted products, which often don’t taste like much (see below posts on butter flavor). So manufacturers add these flavorings, which are often packaged together in a product called “starter distillate” (basically a reduced bread starter minus the live microbes, water and flour). They give mass produced American butters a flavor that’s roughly analogous to a European cultured butter, (a butter made with cream that’s been allowed to ferment a bit).
Of course the next logical question is: why don’t the butter manufacturers just make a cultured butter to begin with and skip the additive? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, because “sweet cream” butter – butter made with nothing but fresh, unsoured cream – has always been considered a premium product in the States. Second, that being the case, the infrastructure at major dairies is set up to produce it. Salted sweet cream butter accounts for over 85% of the butter sold in America, and most people are happy with it. The rest of us buy the unsalted stuff. In an effort to make it competitive in flavor with more expensive specialty or imported butters, manufacturers spike it with this starter culture distillate.
Do I like it? Good question. I buy decent quality (Land O’ Lakes) unsalted butter for day-to-day use around the house. It has starter distillate in it, and I’m fine with it. For pastry making I generally pay up for the imported cultured stuff, which can easily run me double the price. Each has its use, and each has a mixture of diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone, etc. in it…some inherent to the product, some added.
Now, there are plenty of epicures out there who will righteously pound the table with outrage over “additives” in their butter. To them I would say: why not stifle the indignation for a moment and go find out what the additive is, how much of it there is, where it comes from and what its function is? A lot of people know what quality food is. Far fewer know and understand the tools and technologies that safe, consistent, high quality food possible.
Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed. Thank you.