Jan 19, 2012

Butter 101

I've decided to devote this next blog entry to the King of all Fats, butter.  Nothing quite compares to butter's smooth, velvety flavor and texture, or in culinary terminology its 'mouthfeel' ooh la-la.  The addition of butter is what makes pies flaky, cookies crisp, and well, it just makes everything taste richer. 

And really, it has that effect on all off us. Don't lie.

Hell, Paula Deen is so in love with butter she's created a lip balm flavored after it.


I'm sure many of you out there think 'who needs butter, margarine (which is made from soybean oil) works fine and it's cheaper.' Sure it does the job and is considerably less expensive and not to mention its added health benefits (lower in fat AND zero cholesterol).  BUT if you ever had to wipe your lips after eating a cookie baked with margarine because they are greasy like you kissed an Italian, then margarine is usually your culprit.  (It's okay, I'm Italian I can say that).
But manufactures swear it's tastes like butter...uh huh, oh yeh. 

Let's make some Butta
Briefly we'll discuss the manufacturing of butter; unless you live on a farm you can skip this part.  To begin with, farm-fresh milk is transported into the manufacturing plant and then separated via centrifugal force.  This repetitive action aids in allowing the cream to raise the top of the surface.  The cream is then skimmed off to be pasteurized, removing any harmful bacteria that could be lurking.  It is then left to cool until it reaches 60° Fahrenheit (16° C).  At this point depending on the manufacturer, yellow coloring can sometimes be added.  Next, they get a churnin'. 

No, not like this. 

Big time, like this.   
Industrial churning is done on a massive size scale.  Batches can be anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 pounds!  Holy pie crust.  Initially, churning produces whipped cream.  Churn churn churn some more you've got buttermilk.  Keep churnin' and eventually butter granules will start to form.  The butter crumbles are then rinsed with cool water and salted if desired.  The butter must still be churned further at this point to remove any excess water from the mixture.  Once it's reached the desired consistency it's sent off to distributors for packaging. 

Voila, smooth as butta.

Not only does butter provide a taste that can't be compared but it has a dual purpose with regards to baking.  Butter offers structure and volume to baked goods.  This typically happens during the creaming process. 

Generally the first step in any recipe that calls for butter and sugar is to cream them together until 'fluffy.'  Well I must say before starting this blog I thought that step lasted 30 seconds or so, or at least until they looked well incorporated.  Oh no no.  You must beat the butter and sugar for a minimum 4 to 6 minutes, wowza.  The time is needed so the sugar will dissolve into the fat and create gaps (air bubbles) into the binding proteins of the butter. These bubbles are what help the cake lift and rise, creating volume.  The baking powder and soda cannot do this alone; they simply enlarge the existing bubbles created during the creaming process.  Cool, I know.
Having the correct temperature butter is crucial to the success of your baked goods.   Using butter at a very cold temperature can be difficult to work with.  Too warm of a temperature and you'll be unable to cream it properly; losing the air bubbles = losing the volume.  Additionally, if you put cookies into a hot oven that are prepared with butter that is too warm they will spread quickly, causing them to become flat.  Always always always refrigerate your dough for a good 30 minutes to 1 hour before putting into the oven.  Likewise, in between batches keep your dough chillin' in the fridge.

Ideal temperature for working with butter (in Fahrenheit):
80 degrees: too hot

50 degrees: too cold
68-72 degree: BINGO!  This is just perfect.  Goldilocks approved.

However keep in mind when preparing delicate crusts for pies, tarts, puff pastry, etc. butter should be very cold.  Basically use it straight out of the fridge.  When baking crusts you want to see those lovely little butter nuggets throughout your dough.  Once in the oven, those cold little bits melt slowly in between the dough creating air pockets.  Air pockets = the flakiness that can be heard when breaking through the crust with your fork (aka lovely little slivers of heaven).     
For most other recipes, butter is to be used at room temperature.  What a nasty little phrase.  Well…room temperature winter, or room temperature summer?  Room temperature with the air conditioning/heater off or on.  I have spoiled countless bowls of frosting due to 'room temperature.'  In Dubai, that can mean something like 80 degrees in the summer.  So forget room temperature, give your butter a little squeeze (go on show it some love).  If the butter gives slightly when you apply pressure (but not mushy) it's ready to go. 

In the US, butter is given a Grade from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) which you've probably seen printed on the box: 

This grade informs the consumer on the quality, taste, and texture of the butter.  The grades range from AA, A, and B.  I've never seen B before.  Maybe it's the stuff they sell at the 99 cent store?
Below are the specifications determined by the USDA:

U.S. Grade AA Butter:   Based on aroma, texture, and flavor. 
  • Delicate, sweet flavor, with a fine, highly pleasing aroma
  • Made from high-quality fresh, sweet cream
  • Smooth, creamy texture with good 'spreadability'
U.S. Grade A Butter: Graded with a score of at least 92 out of 100. Very similar to AA.

  • Pleasing flavor
  • Made from fresh cream
  • Fairly smooth texture
  • Rates close to top grade
U.S. Grade B Butter: Graded with a score of at least 90 out of 100. Typically not used for baking but rather manufacturing.
  • May have slightly acid flavor
  • Readily acceptable to many consumers


Butter is a greedy fat and likes to absorb the odors around it.  Be sure to wrap tightly in plastic wrap and keep in the butter bin in your fridge…if you've got one.  You can also easily store them in zip lock bags.  Just make sure it's zipped.  Husband, this means you.
You can also freeze butter for up to six months.  However it should be used immediately after thawing.





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