Butter Me Up
The “b” word is back, so you might as well enjoy it.
By Leslie Bilderback 11/08/2012
Perhaps you’ve noticed a culinary trend in which bad-boy foods are touted as the epitome of culinary cool. Our devil-may-care culture is embracing foods widely known to be unhealthy and raising them to hipster heights. Bacon, for instance, has apparently hired a publicist, because it is popping up on everything from cupcakes to Band-Aids. No self-respecting gourmet donut shop is worth its salt without the ubiquitous maple-bacon flavor, adding insult to injury. Butter is getting into the act, too. Embracing the mantra “It’s so bad it’s good,” foods made with “real butter” are all the rage. You know when a food finds its way to the “totally fried” booth at the county fair, its time has come. Who could resist an order of deep-fried butter? (Oh yeah… I can.)
Despite being championed by Julia Child (and every chef I have ever known), butter is still considered a naughty ingredient. A saturated fat, butter has long been vilified by modern science and blamed for decades of clogged arteries and high cholesterol, even though fats in any form are equally to blame. Saturated fat is animal-based and solid at room temperature (think butter, lard and that juicy hunk of fat on the edge of your steak). This gave rise to the swift acceptance of the dreaded margarine.
In the 1860s, a challenge by Napoleon III to develop a butter substitute for his troops spawned a wave of experimentation with beef fats, the hardening of liquid oils and the development of oleomargarine. Early forms were made with the combination of whale and plant oils. Crisco, first cleverly marketed in 1911 with recipe books, was the first made exclusively from plant oil. The rationing of animal fats during World War II increased the popularity of hydrogenated vegetable fats (unsaturated liquid plant oils made thicker by delicious hydrogen) and quickly turned butter into a splurge item. Housewives kneaded yellow food color into white oleomargarine and passed it off as butter, the difference in flavor apparently negligible to the mid-century palate. After the war, margarine was promoted as a healthier alternative to increase sales. Today, despite a better understanding of the health “benefits” of margarine and the dangers of trans-fat, margarine is still considered the frugal choice. (We’ll happily spend a fortune on phones that can play Angry Birds, but we won’t spend an extra buck for real butter.)
The mass production of food quickly jumped on the hydrogenated bandwagon because it was cheaper than butter, and most prepared foods today are still made with these artificial fats. You easily detect these fats when you eat them (which is why foods with real butter are so much better), because animal fats have a lower melting point than plant fats. Butter melts in your mouth, at body temperature, but margarine, which needs significantly more heat than your palate can generate, leaves a film in your mouth even after it’s eaten. The tell-tale aftertaste and feel is far from pleasant. Thus, I have set out on a one-woman mission to bring back butter, not as the latest “it” food, but in its natural role as a superior ingredient.
Butter has many incarnations in culinary art. For the professional chef the unequivocal choice is unsalted. It is my job to salt a dish, not the Land o’ Lakes guy. That's only one of many variations among butters. European butter is typically made with less water, making it richer than most American brands. I tend to reserve it for the table or for recipes that are butter-focused, like hollandaise, or puff pastry, where the butter flavor will be noticed and impact the final outcome of a dish.
Wonderful butter has a plethora of uses. Clarified butter, also called drawn butter, is made using a classic chef’s technique of slowly melting butter, then removing its salty foam and milk solids. The pure butterfat allows the butter flavor to be present in high-heat sautéing and frying, eliminating the brown or burnt solids. Browned butter, or beurre noisette in the classical nomenclature, is the opposite of clarified butter. Here the solids are encouraged to brown, adding a nutty flavor to everything from blanched vegetables to pastry custards. Ghee is the staple fat of Indian cuisine and is essentially clarified butter that has been cooked a little longer and allowed to develop a nutty flavor from the browned solids before it is strained.
Compound butters are a nifty trick. They sound super-snooty, but are ridiculously easy to make. Assorted herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and aromatics are whipped into softened butter, which is then rolled into a log, like refrigerator cookie dough. Once chilled, butter coins are sliced off the log and used to dress up a piece of meat, fish, veggies or whatever.
With all that butter has to offer, the most intriguing aspect, in my mind, is its carvability. The first documented lard-tastic renderings appeared in the Renaissance as an edible tableau on the table of Pope Pius V, with butter sculptures of elephants, camels and lions. The first butter sculpture presented as public art was a bas-relief woman’s portrait made for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 by dairy farm woman Caroline Brooks. Her creations were so successful that she left the dairy business to study sculpture in France and Italy. When refrigeration became widespread, butter carving was harnessed as a marketing tool. Forced to compete with the new artificial butter (margarine), the Beatrice Creamery Company commissioned a butter cow from sculptor John K. Daniels for the 1911 Iowa State Fair. It was such a hit that the butter cow tradition spread (not a pun) throughout the Midwest, and the official Iowa State Fair Butter Sculptor became a coveted position. Norma “Duffy” Lyon was the first woman with the title and held the post from 1960 to 2005. She was known affectionately as the “Butter Cow Lady,” although her most notable piece was the butter Last Supper, re-created in the recent movie Butter. In Minnesota they forgo the butter cow in favor of butter teenagers. Contenders for the title of Dairy Princess are each painstakingly carved in butter, giving new meaning to the phrase “butter her up.” The lucky girls get to take themselves home afterwards.
In the age of Cupcake Wars and Food Network Challenge, I am shocked that we have yet to see competitive butter carving on the national stage. How about America’s Butter-Cow Wars, or Butter-Cow Rodeo Challenge? We can ask the American Heart Association to be the sponsor.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.