Celebrating a return to indulgence
By Sam Gugino
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Our affair with margarine is over. In our midlife crisis, we fell for its Calvin Klein svelte and thought it could make us live longer (it doesn't). But we never really loved margarine. Now we're going back to our first and only true love, Rubenesque butter. And with so many full-flavored artisanal and European butters now on the market, we have more ways to enjoy it than we did before.
"People are going back to fat. They're more indulgent," says Julie Ledvina, a spokesperson for Land O' Lakes, Inc., the nation's largest butter producer. "They're learning that taste is not there with the low-fat stuff." Consumption is definitely up, from 3.5 pounds per capita in 1989 to 4.8 pounds per capita in 1999, with further growth reported for this year.
The return to butter doesn't mean that we have to settle for any old supermarket spread, however. "Butter is food, not just grease. It should have character, intense flavor and texture and not just be something to lubricate toast," says Jonathan White of Egg Farm Dairy in Peekskill, N.Y., one of a handful of boutique dairies in the United States that make butter the way Kistler makes Chardonnay. White has watched his business grow steadily in recent years, as have the people who sell premium butters from Europe. "We've always had these butters, but respect for them is more prominent now," says Rob Wilson, national sales representative for The Cheese Works, Ltd., of Ringwood, N.J., which imports Occelli butter from Italy and Lurpak from Denmark, among others.
Butter is made by skimming the cream from milk, then cooling and churning that cream until the butterfat solids separate from the liquid. The liquid (buttermilk) is drained off, and the butter is washed in ice water to harden it and remove the curd. Salt may be added at this point, and the butter may be worked to expel more moisture and integrate the salt before packaging.
It's simple, and yet, like so many other simple foods, butter has suffered at the hands of mass production. Before World War II, butter was typically made by small dairies, which soured cream by exposing it to bacteria, much the same way a starter is added to dough for sourdough bread. This allowed tangy, nutty flavors to develop during up to 20 hours of fermentation, giving the cultured butter, as it was called, more complexity. The butterfat content was higher too, giving it better mouthfeel and a higher burning point.
Butter can easily absorb other flavors or become rancid, so store it in a sealed plastic bag. Put it in the cooler, middle-rear of the refrigerator, not on the door. Freezing (up to four months) can cause some separation of water, which can be a problem in pastry making. Buy premium butter from retailers who sell a lot of it because extended storage (not uncommon with European butters) can ruin it. In that case, you might as well eat margarine.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.
Egg Farm Dairy Peekskill, N.Y., (800) 273-2637 (for sales and retail outlets); www.creamery.com (sales only)
Murray's New York, (888) 692-4339; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tomales Bay Foods, Inc. Pt. Reyes, Calif., (415) 663-9335 (for Straus); www.Strausmilk.com (list of retail stores only)
Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. Websterville, Vt., (800) 884-6287 (for sales and retail outlets); www.vtbutterandcheeseco.com (for retail outlets only)
Zingerman's Ann Arbor, Mich., (888) 636-8162; www.zingermans.com