French butter’s higher butter fat lends to its unique flavor characteristics.
Do the French really do butter better? For those looking at the amount of butterfat, this may be the case, as it’s the acidity and the butterfat content that is the biggest distinction between French and American butters.
The most obvious technical difference is the amount of butterfat in each. By law, American butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat; the minimum for French is higher at 82 percent. For salted, it is slightly less for the French version, as 80 percent is permitted, with 2 percent salt.
Although a paltry 2 percent may not seem like much, as anyone in the dairy industry will tell you, minute variables make all the difference in the flavor And it should be noted that higher butterfat is not synonymous with ‘better’, as you can still find incredibly bland butters with high butterfat content.
Butter is my favorite type of fat. Fat gets many a negative connotation and is blamed for health issues and obesity; however, is fat really a bad thing? If animal protein and fat consumption characterize a longstanding commonality between a number of different cultures, can it really be so bad for you?
There is a short and a long answer to this. My short answer is that butter is great, and I don’t care nor want to know if it is bad for me as I love it too much. A more mature answer, however, is that it really does all depend on your personal genetic makeup. Too much of anything is never ideal and moderation is key, yet certain people are almost immune to natural saturated fats affecting their LDL cholesterol, whereas others are more susceptible to dietary changes.
How is Butter Made?
In theory, butter is a very simple invention. To make butter, you are essentially altering the state of cream (milk fat) to turn it into a solid entity. In the simplest sense, you can make butter by shaking a jar half filled with cream until it starts to separate into little yellow bits of a substance already resembling butter and a milky liquid. In theory, it is as easy as this. You will be able to separate those two elements, salt, knead and shape the solids, and there you have it. You can then use the remaining buttermilk for a variety of different recipes. However, there are, as with cheesemaking, minute variables that make all the difference between a regular butter and an exceptional butter.
Cultured vs Sweet Cream
For a long time, prior to refrigeration and industrial production, cultured butter was the main, if not the only, style of butter in the world. Cultured butter is the natural result of letting raw milk rest, the cream rising organically to the surface and being skimmed off to make butter. There are partnerships in cheese, such as factories that produce both butter and cheeses like Emmental, which are made with skimmed milk. So what makes it cultured? In this instance, when the raw milk is resting, lactic acid bacteria that exists naturally in dairy environments penetrates the cream and, in turn, ‘cultures’ it.
You can make cultured butter from pasteurized cream also, however, as the ambient microflora has been killed off during pasteurization, you need to add this back in to ripened cream. A further stage is commonly used, but not essential, known as tempering. Tempered creams are characteristically smoother in texture, as the tempering agitates and moves the crystallisation in the fat molecules. These days, for larger production, cream is forcedly separated out from the milk by centrifuge and, in most cases, pasteurized.
Sweet butter is made from butter that is fresh and sweet tasting, hence the name. It is uncultured, not tart and not aged, resulting in a light, uncomplicated flavor that doesn’t involve much thinking.
Salted vs Unsalted Butter
Salted butter is typically smooth in texture with no prevalent salt crystals. Butter judges in the past would, in fact, count any crystallisation or granular textures as a fault. This has now changed, and a new wave of ‘crunchy, crystally’ salt is now very popular and a whole category of its own.
Sea salt is generally used for French butters available in the U.S. In cooking and baking, unsalted butter is generally used, whereas salted butter is more commonly used as a table butter.
The natural color of butter depends on the amount of ‘green’ feed in the animal’s diet (this being grass, silage, alfalfa, etc.) The green color from these feeds translates into a deeper yellow hue in the butter, which comes from the beta carotene in the plants themselves. Spring grass is more tender and easier for the animals to break down, so you will see a richer golden color. Towards the latter part of the season in late summer, the tougher grass is harder to break down digestively, resulting in a paler butter.
Annatto is an ingredient that doesn’t have to be stated on labels, so it is sometimes hard to distinguish imitations from the real deal. Knowing the source of the butter is always the most reliable way of determining whether it is truly grass fed or not. Cows only need to have grazed on pasture for a bare minimum to be called ‘grass fed’ butter with the rest being supplemented with grain and other fodder.
There are many French butter brands available in the U.S. Here is an extensive, but not finite, list for you to look out for.
Beurre D’Echiré PDO
Beurre D’Echiré is from the Deux Sevres in Poitou-Charentes, Western France. The Coopérative laitière de la Sévre is made up of 120 goat and cow farms. All the milk is collected from within a 18-mile radius of their two sites: the butter dairy at Echiré and the cheese factory at Celles-sur-Belle.
Beurre D’Echiré has a flavor of crème fraîche acidities and whole cream. It has a good spreadability and slow melt, which epitomises the differences between French and American butters. Beurre d’Echiré uses a minimum of 84 percent butterfat in the same style as it was over 100 years ago. It is so reflective of its terroir that it holds an appellation status, as does Isigny. The region is made of predominantly Jurassic limestone earth, covered by red clay silts, which encourages the growth of crops such as alfalfa, which in turn contribute to food self-sufficiency for farmers as well as being essential for high-quality milk.
Isigny Butters are from Normandy in Northern France from the Cotentin peninsular to the Bessin area. Like Beurre D’Echiré, the terroir is a vital part of its flavor and complexity. The region has a warm, temperate climate by the sea and the pastures for grazing are packed with salts and minerals, which come through in the final product. It is matured slowly in “the old-fashioned way”, allowing the cream to develop its full flavor and organoleptic qualities. The cream, along with its lactic cultures, rests for up to 18 hours, before being churned, stirred, rinsed and salted. Isigny Camembert is also very special, and a lot of this is owing to the lush, Norman marshlands imparting mineral and seaside flavors into the cheese.
President butter is a larger scale producer owned by Lactalis. Its butter and cheeses are sold internationally throughout 160 different countries, and it has been in existence for over 50 years. Made in France from cultured cream, it uses milk from grass-fed cows in a region known for its rich soil and lush pastures. It has a distinctive, pleasant tang and slight nuttiness in flavor.
Rodolphe le Meunier
Rodolpe le Meunier, a Meilleur Ouvrier de France since 2007, is known for his cheeses as well as butter. The grandson of a goat farmer and cheesemaker, he was destined to join the dairy world. Based in La-Croix-en-Touraine the Loire, his cultured butters are made using milk from specially selected farms around France. His butter or ‘beurre de baratte’ is made in a wooden butter churn using pasteurized cream, then hand molded in a traditional method.
Butter is essential to many recipes including baking, Viennoisserie and sauces. It is found in abundance in French cooking, adding to its style and richesse. Making your own sauces at home gives a completely different flavor profile compared to store bought, and once you have mastered it, you will never look back.