What is it with Continentals and fat?

Reader Nate asks:

Why do sweet cream butter and cultured butter seem to have different fat content? Aren’t they’re using the same technique or is there some scientific explantion for this?

I like that question, Nate! The answer is that it’s mostly an aesthetic, but there are some functional reason for the difference, at least in the pastry world. In general European butters are about 2% higher in fat that American butters. The funny thing is that here in the states European “style” butters often have 7% or 8% more fat than typical American butters. Evidently they’re cashing in on the fact that most Americans think that Continentals are in love with fat. That’s not an entirely unfounded assumption.

Functionally, if they’re made right, butters with higher fat content are firmer than those made with less. That stands to reason since the remainder is water with a small amount of protein (about 1.5%) mixed in. More water = a softer consistency.

Firm butters are preferred in the world of pastry making, especially where laminated doughs like puff pastry, croissant dough and Danish dough are concerned. Firm butter not only makes the rolling and folding process easier, it helps the pastries rise higher in the oven because there’s less moisture to weigh down the delicate layers. Indeed some “dry butters” can have as little as 1% water.

But there’s no technical reason why a cultured butter has to be higher in fat. Hope that helps, Nate!

11 thoughts on “What is it with Continentals and fat?”

  1. I suppose just as a matter of taste, the acidity of a cultured butter might help balance the added richness of the higher fat content. Sweet butter might taste too “buttery” for certain applications if the fat content is really high. While I’m sure I could deal with extra richness in my everyday butter, my husband already finds my current buttercreams and sablés overly so. (His other charming qualities make up for such an astonishing lack of taste.)

    1. I promise not to tell him you said that, Catherine!

      Very good comment…thanks!

      – Joe

  2. If someone wanted to experiment is there an easy way to extract water from butter to make it dryer? I could see a little melting and skimming but don’t know if after rehardening what remained would still work for mille-feuille

      1. Hmmmmmm, squeezing butter in a cloth towel. No, I don’t think I’ll try that. But thanks for the link, its an interesting concept

  3. Just curious – do you have any regulations regarding what can be labeled as butter according to fat content? In European Union only products with 82% or more fat is legally butter, anything else must be labeled as “butter product”. Makes sense, as many manufacturers have been replacing butterfat with vegetable fat while still labeling product as butter to appeal customers. Anyway, now they reduce packaging size from 200 grams to 180 or even 170 so the price per item stays the same… really annoying when you need 100 grams of butter per recipe and remaining butter is not enough for next project!

    1. Hey Antuanete!

      Our butter must be 80% fat by law. Not much different!

      Since meat prices have been going up here, butchers have been doing the same with packages of ground beef, pork and lamb. The price is the same but instead of a pound and half you get a pound. It wreaks havoc on my meatball recipe!

      – Joe

    2. Antuanete, I beg to differ. In the EU legislation the minimum fat content for products that can be called “butter” is 80%, not 82%.

      Also as an example, here in Finland, which is part of the EU, our biggest dairy brand’s best selling butters are all 80% fat.
      Only their organically produced version is 82%. I just checked today when I was shopping. I have some in my fridge.

      It was also interesting to see that unsalted butter, or “sweet butter”, is double the price of the same product with 1.4% salt. (That’s the regular type that most Finns use for anything that calls for butter. There’s also a strongly salted version, 2.1%. I don’t know why.) I guess the price difference is because of shorter shelf life and smaller production volumes due to smaller demand, but I’m still kind of puzzled that it makes such a huge difference in price. Is it the same where you live? Is sweet butter a lot more expensive than regular butter? And how strongly salted is your regular butter?

      Joe, what is the salt content of the butter that you use in your recipes?

      1. Hello Nokanen!

        That’s very interesting. We have both salted and unsalted butter as well, though salted is by far the more common of the two. For that reason I’m sure, unsalted butter is a good deal more expensive than salted butter — about 1/3 more expensive than the regular salted product. It also has a much shorter shelf life as you point out.

        Thanks for the comment!

        – Joe

      2. Oh, and our salted butters are 1.5 – 1/7% salt. We have no heavily salted version as far as I know!

        – Joe

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