As nearly every good cook knows, there are times when butter is the only ingredient that will do. Think about rich, chewy cookies, smooth, satiny sauces, and flaky pie crusts. Without butter, these would not be nearly as delicious.
Of course, butter should not be eaten with abandon. Each teaspoon contains about 35 calories and four grams of fat. But, unlike margarine, it contains virtually no trans fatty acids, which contribute to increased levels of LDL cholesterol.
Many of us have switched to olive oil to flavor foods, and this is a good thing. Olive oil is a healthful fat — but it does not work in baking or sauce-making the way butter does. Nor is olive oil a good match for most sweet dishes.
As Julia Child is reported to have said: “With enough butter, anything is good.” The woman who taught several generations of Americans how to cook also chided us not to be afraid of butter.
Wise counsel from a wise woman.
As are all fats, butter is a flavor carrier. Onions sautéed in butter perfume the entire dish, and by the same token, chocolate and butter is a match made in heaven. As nothing else does, butter transports flavors throughout a dish and adds its own imprint.
Slightly softened butter, with its low melting point, insures cookies will be crisp on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Cold butter worked into pastry dough traps air pockets in the baked pastry to create glorious flakiness. Cold, hard butter whisked into sauces leaves them smooth as silk.
Although butter can be made from the milk of other beasts, cow’s milk produces the world’s favorite. Most people think cow’s milk butter is the sweetest and most versatile and even today it’s made exactly how it has been for centuries, albeit with more sophisticated and efficient equipment.
Fresh cream is churned until the fats separate from the liquid (called buttermilk). In general, European-style butter has a slightly higher fat content than American butter, which might contain more moisture. European-style butters are sold in most supermarkets nowadays and while they are fun to try, American butter is very good, too.
Butter should be stored in its packaging in a cold part of the refrigerator, away from foods with strong odors. If it’s salted, it will keep in the refrigerator for about two months; if unsalted for about two weeks.
Butter freezes beautifully, which is good news for home cooks who try not to eat a lot of butter but want to have it on hand for baking and other culinary needs. Salted butter lasts in the freezer for up to nine months and unsalted for about five months.
Most bakers favor unsalted butter because its palate is cleaner. They prefer to add exactly how much salt they want, rather than factoring in the salt in the butter. Otherwise, it’s a matter of taste which you choose.
Take it from Julia: don’t be fearful of butter. Eat it in moderation and use it when it’s going to make a significant difference in your cooking. You won’t be disappointed!