On the table this week: butter, and plenty of it. The Splendid Table's Lynne Rosetto Kasper is here to convince us that, when it comes to butter, different really can be better.
Crann: Your thesis is that butter is one of those foods where choosing carefully can really make a difference in terms of taste. What makes a really good butter?
Rosetto Kasper: Well, first of all it's great cream, really great cream. And this is where if the cream tastes good, there's a really good chance that the butter will taste good. And the other thing is that some butters will change from season to season, depending on what the cows are eating. In the winter they're usually on dry feed, they're not out in the pasture, so all the dairy products are going to taste a little bit different.
And so what makes a great butter is it has to be fresh, it's made with high-quality cream, and it might be cultured, and that means something like buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt - a little of that might be added to the cream, it will be left to sit for 24 hours or longer. And the cream will naturally thicken. This is like making creme fraise, or naturally soured cream. And what will happen then is you'll get a deeper, more complex flavor, if everything is working the way it should.
The other difference is, from one butter to another, is how much fat versus how much water.
Crann: Now do you always look for the butter with more fat, is it just going to be creamier and more delicious?
Rosetto Kasper: This is fascinating. In baking, some people say that more moisture is bad. You want as much fat, as little moisture so that there's no chance of tough pie crusts or whatever. Other people say the moisture creates steam, so that if you want a flaky pie crust where you want the big chunks of butter in it, so that when it bakes it flakes, you want a butter that has more moisture, because the steam will make those flakes go. And if you're baking a cake, you want butter with a bit more moisture because the steam will make the cake lighter.
But here's the deal, as far as I'm concerned. If a butter tastes great, that's what I'm going to bake with and that's what I'm going to use in cooking.
And one last thing - because we're in the season where we want warming things and richer things...
Crann: Comfort, yeah...
Rosetto Kasper: ...a tablespoon of this in a sauce, in a soup, in a stew that serves 6 people, you add at the last moment. A good butter, you don't need more than that. Because it will just bring such incredible flavor, especially if you add it right before serving and don't allow it to melt all the way. So I'm not talking about adding an entire pound of butter to make a dish. And that's where it's worth spending the money for the better butter.
Crann: Because you're only going to use a bit of it.
Rosetto Kasper: A little tiny bit and it will be fabulous.
Crann: Alright. Let's taste the butter. You've brought 3 butters in and they're all regional. I don't even know which butters they are and you don't know which are which.
Rosetto Kasper: These are regional. One's from Wisconsin, the other two are from Minnesota.
Crann: Let's start with number 1. We're going to try it on its own and with a little bread. Why do we do that?
Rosetto Kasper: Because so many of us eat the butter with bread and it's going to taste a little different. But let's start with tasting it on its own. A little bit on the end of the knife.
Crann: This doesn't look extraordinary. Pale yellow, it looks like butter.
Rosetto Kasper: Let it melt like chocolate on your tongue. It's so nice. It has a bit of salty taste, even though all of these are unsalted butter. But it has, it reminds me of the pasture. What do you think?
Crann: I taste a little bit almost of white chocolate, at the beginning. But then it doesn't get sweet. Richness.
Rosetto Kasper: It's nice.
Crann: Rich and thick.
Rosetto Kasper: It leaves a lovely flavor on your tongue. Now let's try it on the bread. (pause)
Rosetto Kasper: Stands up to the bread.
Crann: It does. You can still taste the butter on its own.
Rosetto Kasper: A weak-kneed butter will just taste fatty on bread.
Crann: This gets better on the bread.
Rosetto Kasper: It really does, and that's a sourdough, which has a strong flavor on its own. OK, butter No. 2. I'm going to take a bit to taste. Again, similar color, pale yellow. In the summer, especially with artisan butters, you might see the butter color change. Because they cows are eating flowers and greens.
Crann: This (No. 2) tastes more like the butter I grew up with. I would say this tastes like regular butter you get at the supermarket. Nothing wrong with it.
Rosetto Kasper: I agree with you. Nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have the sort of pizzazz and interest of the other butter. OK, let's see how it tastes on bread.
Crann: Right, no pizzazz. You want pizzazz in your butter?
Rosetto Kasper: Well you know that's another thing. When you're using the butter in something where there's so much else in the recipe, that you're not going the taste the butter as much, it's not adding a great deal, that's a place to save money.
Crann: Works fine on the bread, but it doesn't stand out as much as the last one.
Rosetto Kasper: I agree, I agree. It's very nice, sort of sweet, tastes creamy.
Crann: Like butter.
Rosetto Kasper: No. 3? OK. Now again, these are all more or less the same color.
Crann: Although this one seems to have a little more body.
Rosetto Kasper: Yes. Ooh. There's a tang. This may be a cultured butter, don't you think?
Rosetto Kasper: It adds a complexity to it.
Crann: Almost like sourdough in a bread. But not quite as strong.
Rosetto Kasper: That tart, sort of nice tang. Ahh.
Crann: Very smooth and subtle. It doesn't have a fatty taste.
Rosetto Kasper: Very classy butter. Wouldn't this be nice, just a pat of it on a big fish. You know, something very delicate.
Crann: Yes. Let me try it on the bread.
Rosetto Kasper: You know it's interesting, the bread is sourdough. And we all experience taste differently. For me, the distinctive taste of the butter disappears into this sourdough.
Crann: I would definitely agree with that. But these differences we're talking about are all very subtle.
Crann: So we think they rank 1, 3 then 2.
Rosetto Kasper: That's how I would rank them.
Crann: #1 still has the most grassy, pasture, taste to it.
Rosetto Kasper: Like a real cow living on real grass. Should we find out which butter is which?
Crann: No. 1 is Rochdale.
Rosetto Kasper: That's interesting. This is a new co-op of many farmers and cooperatives around the area (from Wisconsin). They're producing cheese, they're producing butter. It's hand-rolled butter. It looks like a big sausage.
Crann: No. 3 is Hope.
Rosetto Kasper: Oh. Hope has made a great name for itself and it's a favorite among chefs. And that's from Hope Creamery.
Crann: That's here in Minnesota?
Rosetto Kasper: Yes, it's a hundred year old creamery and it's made a great revival over the past decade.
Crann: And No. 2 is Land O'Lakes. Good old Land O'Lakes.
Rosetto Kasper: Right. And do you know that's one of the largest dairy cooperatives in the United States, and largest producers of butter? So I would imagine, from the price point of view, that the least expensive (of these 3) is Land O'Lakes. And that's a good basic butter.
Crann: Can't go wrong. It seems like here in Minnesota we have an embarrassment of riches, when it comes to butter.
Rosetto Kasper: I think we do. And if you go into some of our stores you'll find many more that are made in the area, and then you'll find a ton of imports, from France, England, Ireland, and etcetera. So we're just sampling a handful. I think it's kind of fun to get a bunch of friends together to do a butter tasting. And then butter poach something in it. Like a whole chicken.