The mere mention of it strikes fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers. Never in the history of faddy eating advice has one innocent substance been so persecuted, and yet, never in the history of cookery has one substance been so vitally important. Imagine a dry, rasping slice of toast with no smear of melting gold; the springy chewiness of a plain sponge cake without a crown of sugared buttercream. Butter is the base of your sauces, the building block of bakery – it’s in every French dish you can think of. It commands respect.
Butter is made from churning cream until the fat globules separate from the buttermilk and form solid lumps. The lumps are then brought together, washed, squeezed to remove all remaining buttermilk, and shaped into pats. It’s actually incredibly easy to make your own butter – you basically just overwhip cream (and I think we can say we’ve all done that). Darina Allen did an excellent guide for the Guardian here.
A lot of snobbery persists about whether salted or unsalted butter is best – at Leiths we were told that those in the know would always choose unsalted. Well, for eating raw, I’m firmly in the salty camp…how frightfully non-u of me. I don’t think there are many tastes better than properly salted butter, particularly the stuff from Brittany that’s flecked with whole sea salt crystals. Unsalted butter is too much like raw fat for me – the salt lifts it, and enhances at the same time as curbing, its creaminess.
That said, I always have unsalted to hand for cooking – when it comes to seasoning I’m a bit of a control freak, and starting a dish using salted butter makes for an uneven flavour. Salted butter is meant to be used as the French intended it – on proper bread, and in generous amounts. Add a bunch of radishes and a crisp glass of white and we’re good to go.
Funnily enough, considering the French love affaire with butter, it was actually a Frenchman who invented the first margarine. In the 1860s Napoleon III offered a prize for the first person to invent a suitable butter substitute to feed to his troops fighting the Franco-Prussian war. The fabulously named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès responded by blending beef fat with milk and working the texture like butter. He wasn’t terribly successful though, and sold the patent to Jurgens (now Unilever) in 1871. After French and German scientists discovered how to hydrogenate vegetable oils (altering them so they behave like butter), the product we now know and loathe was born.
Thanks to sad cases like this chap, margarine now outsells butter in America (and is pretty close here), and many people mistakenly think that the saturated fat in butter is much more dangerous to your health than the hydrogenated fat in margarine. Sham science aside, I just don’t see how anyone with common sense can think that a natural product made entirely from cream can be more harmful than a laboratory product, stuffed full of chemicals, injected with air and artificially coloured. And despite loudly declaimed marketing slogans, it only resembles butter in the way that meat substitutes resemble a dry-hung steak. Not one bit.
When flicking through other people’s recipes I will automatically discard any that give you the option of using margarine instead of butter. Anybody who thinks that’s acceptable has no right calling themselves a cook, let alone telling other people how to do it. You can spot a cake made with marge a mile off – it leaves a greasy film on the inside of your mouth and has an insubstantial feel when you bite into it. Butter is the real deal – the only thing that will give you that moist, golden crumb and rounded flavour. And yes it is high in fat, but I’m not advocating you eat the whole block – or the whole cake. As with all things in life, it’s all about treating yourself. Have a scraping on your toast in the mornings, and save the heavily buttered croissants (which by the way, are almost all butter to begin with) for the weekend.
So this weekend, throw away the marge, invest in some proper Brittany butter and just go crazy. Life shouldn’t be about consistent self-denial. I mean, look at Gillian McKeith…