Hedy Goldsmith knows good butter. You might know the lady. She's the executive pastry chef of the Genuine Hospitality Group and a finalist for this year's James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef, so when she says, "It's all about the butter," you better listen.
But excellent butter can be hard to find. The next time you swing by that aisle in the grocery store, slow down and take a look at the options. European-style? Cultured? Sweet cream? Don't be intimidated, because with some pointers from Goldsmith and a little know-how, selecting excellent butter can be easier than you think.
Butter is made up of butterfat, water, and a small amount of milk solids. When selecting butter for Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Goldsmith looks for European-style butters with 83 percent butterfat. "High-quality butter has less water and more fat, which yields a flakier crust and a more tender cake," she explains. The percentages of butterfat and water are regulated by law so you don't get stuck with a watered-down product. American law requires butter to contain a minimum of 80 percent butterfat, while the minimum for French unsalted butter is 82 percent. This explains the rich texture of the European-style.
But excellent butter has more than just increased butterfat. It also has added natural cultures. These cultures add a slight tang that contrast most American butters, which are labeled as sweet cream. What great chefs know is that the acid from cultures has magical, ethereal effects on pastries, because the acid tenderizes doughs and adds complex flavor. Goldsmith says, "Butter happens to be the most important ingredient, especially in pie and tart dough."
Although butterfat and cultures affect a pastry's texture, the cream used to make the butter also affects the taste. This taste is dependent on environmental factors and the cow's feed, kind of like terroir for wine, but in terms of cream. Look for butter made with organic cream or from grass-fed cows.
Now that you know how to select butter like a great chef, you might notice that cultured European-style butter from great cream costs about the same as a steak. But before you freak out, remember that this pricey butter has a lot more flavor and a velvety, melt-in-your-mouth feel that doubles any plain, boring butter. Goldsmith says it's worth the price, "I always buy the best butter I can find. It's that important to me, [and] let's face it -- buying high-quality butter will be more expensive. I don't compromise quality at home or at work."
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So how much will a package of butter set you back? High-quality butters, such as Straus Family Creamery's Organic European-style Sweet Butter, at 85 percent butterfat, costs $7.49 for one pound at Whole Foods. Organic Valley's unsalted, European-style cultured butter, at 84 percent butterfat, runs $4.49 for eight ounces.
Yes, excellent butter is pricey and selecting it requires a little know-how, but one bite of toasted bread with a slab of excellent butter and you will never go back to the plain stuff. It might cost you as much as a steak, but if Hedy Goldsmith says it's all about the butter, it most definitely is.