Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the butter wars

Some of us prefer good wine, others olive oils and aged vinegars. I, on the other hand, will splurge on good dairy products at the drop of a hat. My love of dairy probably stems from the fact that I had none growing up. A great many Chinese are lactose-intolerant, and the rest do not have a taste for milk or cheese.

The first time I tasted butter was an epiphanic moment. I was seven years old, and ready for a snack. I laid out a mini smörgåsbord of 2 sticks of butter, a loaf of Wonder bread, and a carton of Tropicana orange juice, a veritable cornucopia of everything I considered to be American food. With a trusty butter knife in hand, I set out to work. What ensued was a wild mess of a culinary orgy. I won't go into details, save for the fact that my dad came home to find me sprawled out on the floor with crumbs and a butter wrapper stuck to my face. So begins the love affair.

Since I do so much baking and cooking, I go through at least a couple of pounds a week, in addition to the amount I use on my toast and rolls. I use commercial grade butter every now and then (the generic brand from Giant is the best), but in comparison, there is a handful of small-dairy crafted butters from local sources that are readily available at specialty markets across Baltimore. I really believe in supporting small, sustainable farms and dairies, especially local ones, and truly these butters, because of their higher butterfat content, taste worlds better than any 1-pound block you'd find at the store.

The richness of the butter from these small dairies is largely due to the cows' diets of fresh grasses, and exposure to clean air and water. Because of this, butters from different farms will taste slightly different, showing off the flavors of each terroir, just like the grapes and climate that attribute to wine-making. The butter from one farm will also change from season to season. For instance, the butter will be more yellow and slightly more unctuous from a late-summer batch than from say, an early spring batch. Many dairies also prefer to culture their cream before turning it into butter, which produces a rich and tangy flavor, in comparison to the sweet cream butter you'd normally get.

I've taste-tested several butters from small creameries (one from Maryland) across the mid-Atlantic and New England regions. (All are from antibiotic and hormone-free milk.) There are certainly many more than this, but these are readily available here in the Baltimore area for purchase. The results are listed below, along with taste descriptions, cost, and local purveyor information.


Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Cultured Butter (Websterville, Vermont)

A co-op of several farms supply the milk for this delicious cultured butter, with one of the highest fat contents I've seen, of 86% fat. Easily my favorite butter of all time, it is extremely creamy, with a full and rich flavor. Absolutely delicious with sourdough breads. Extremely velvety and pliable. Terrific table butter, and excellent for baking/cooking as well.

Flavors: Unsalted, Lightly Salted, Sea Salt Crystals
Packaging: 8-oz. rolls
Unit Price (per ounce): $0.49
Source: Atwater's at Belvedere Square (also available at Wegman's for more $$)
Website: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company


Trickling Springs Creamery Butter
(Chambersburg, Pennsylvania)

A very strong cream taste with very little tang, with a mild depth of flavor. I have used this butter in baking cakes and making buttercreams with terrific results. The texture is more flaky than creamy, and pale in coloration.

Flavors: Unsalted, Salted
Packaging: 1-lb. tubs and 20-lb. containers (for commercial use)
Unit Price (per ounce): $0.36
Source: Atwater's at Belvedere Square
Website: Trickling Springs Creamery


South Mountain Creamery
Butter (Middletown, Maryland)

A very smooth butter, with a strong, lingering aftertaste. I bought a container in August last year, and it was a bright yellow color with a deep, lasting aroma, that wasn't altogether pleasant. Very heavy on the tongue and overpowering. However, it may taste slightly different during other seasons. Still good, and with a high fat content. I would use this more in cooking than as a table butter.

Flavors: Unsalted, Salted, Brown Sugar & Cinnamon, Dill & Garlic
Packaging: 1-lb. containers (unsalted and salted); 8-oz. containers (brown sugar and dill/garlic)
Unit Price (per ounce): $0.30 (salted and unsalted), $0.37 (brown sugar and dill/garlic)
Source: Waverly Farmers Market, Mill Valley Garden Center (2800 Sisson St.)
Website: South Mountain Creamery


Mendon Creamery Butter
(Mendon, Massachusetts)


With at least 80% milkfat content, this butter is smooth and surprisingly light on the palate, but not extremely rich. Mild. The unsalted version has little depth of flavor, but tastes like good sweet cream. The Maple Cream flavor is my favorite, with a subtly sweet maple base, accented with sea salt crystals. Very pliable in texture, with a pale yellow color. Excellent table butter, with creative array of flavors.

Flavors: Unsalted, Salted, Maple Cream, Roasted Garlic, Cinnamon Sugar, Lemon Herb, Chocolate
Packaging: 8-oz. paper tubs
Unit Price (per ounce): $0.62
Source: Atwater's at Belvedere Square (also available at Wegman's for more $$)

11 comments:

roopa said...

You and me both. I used to eat butter from the stick when I was little. Sometimes my mom used to find teeny teeth marks in the stick in the fridge. Yeah. That was me.

I love good creamery-fresh butter - it is unbelievable what a difference it makes in baked goods (especially simples ones like shortbread), and it is also amazing how different they can taste. I love when you can taste a hint of the grassiness!

Rachel said...

Gosh, I really want to run out and buy some good butter! Cultured butters are the best.

Erin said...

This was an amazing post. I really did not know about the wide variety of butters out there. This will definitely be something I'll look into the next time I'm in a specialty shop. Do you know if any of the dairies at Baltimore's farmer's markets have butter?

xiao zhu said...

Erin, as far as I know, you can find South Mountain creamery butter at the Waverly/32nd St. market on Saturday mornings. I don't believe any local dairies come to the big farmer's market under the JFX. I've always looked for milk and butter there, but have only come across eggs. :(

Pigtown-Design said...

ROOOPA!!!! How hilarious! I became addicted to Kerrygold butter when I lived in Wales. There were also a few local butters that were spectacular, you could almost taste the grass....

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