Butter.

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.

Just imagine this with deliciously melting hydrogenated fat...

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…

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10 Comments

Filed under Baking, Musings, Recipes, Savoury, Sweet

10 responses to “Butter.

  1. jenny B

    Oh boy!!finally! there MUST be something in the air because ‘The king has got no clothes on”is going on all over the place!!People are “suddenly” finding out the truth about stuff from the bankers to the butter!!yeah!I have refused to eat the muck they call margarine!to PROVE to friends it was indeed only”one molecule short of petrol” I left a tub of Flora on my garage floor,in summer,for a month….not a THING would touch it(this was five yrs ago)Not a moth,not a fly,not a mouse(of which there were a few).If that does not put you off the stuff nothing will…oh yes I am a “salty butter” fan but for me its glorious Belgian gold the stuff they put in their fantastic chocolates…

  2. Tonia Wight

    Oh how I miss butter! I am married to a dairy intolerant chap which means all food in the house (except milk for my morning coffee) is free from dairy. A couple of weeks ago I made some cupcakes for a friends hen-party though with *real* butter both in the cakes and for the icing, and oh my, how I miss this wonderful ingredient in my life! It tastes infinitely better than any substitute!

    • Liz

      Surely he’s an adult and you can have butter in the fridge for your own use!! Do you need to deny yourself just because someone else is dairy intolerant? I had a large family and needed to cater for everyone’s needs. I couldn’t be without butter, salted please, it’s so natural and the taste to me is better than chocolate… On a chunk of good bread! I agree with the author of the article…Do yourselves a favour and use butter instead of the carcinogenic spreads, with hydrogenated fats. You’ll find that your cholestrerol level stays just as low if the rest of your diet is good.

      • Tonia Wight

        Hi Liz,
        I’m afraid it is a practical matter. Firstly, keeping possible contamination down to a minimum is a must, although his tolerance is getting higher… but the side effects of a ‘mistake’ are not nice. Secondly, its using it up. As it is just the two of us, unless there is a specific use for it I take forever to use a block of butter up and it seems a waste. But I do agree that butter on toast is wonderful! I’m less convinced of the danger of other spreads, although in general I believe the less processed the better, so in that sense butter has to be better.

  3. I am 100% with you on this. We are lucky enough to have Kerrygold here in Ireland. It is a huge export to Germany too. On our regular trips to France we spoil ourselves with the Normandy butter with huge chunks of salt embedded. It is wonderful on a baguette. Thanks be to goodness we only go to France for a couple of weeks at a time.
    On a related note, I abhor the lunchtime question in the sandwich bar “butter or mayo?” If one goes for mayo, one gets more oil based fat than there is in a pound of butter. If you go for butter, one ends up with a thick layer of slopped on butter substitute. Poor choice for the buter lover.

  4. Roger's Mum

    Once again I find myself in agreement with you, Truefoodie. There is nothing to surpass the taste of good quality salted butter, preferably with crystals, on freshly baked crusty bread. I lived in Belgium many years ago and one of my biggest treats was buying home-made butter from a small dairy farm just over the border in France. The mere unwrapping of the greaseproof paper in which it was wrapped was almost exciting and I am ashamed to say I used to eat chunks of it like cheese. Maybe I should have my collesterol checked!

  5. Since going freelance I have a habit of coming home from the school run and having toast with tons of butter on it. I absolutely love it. Marg just isn’t the same.

    I used to make my mum’s Madeira cake with her recipe and she always said the trick was to mix the marg and butter well to get a good texture, but since being advised not to bake with marg EVER! (thanks TF & Jane) I have to admit the cake tastes much better. I haven’t used it since.

    When I bake I only use unsalted President butter (as it’s the easiest to get hold of) and tastes delish (and the salted version is what I put on my toast) Buttercream made from anything else just tastes cheap!

  6. Lyndsay

    I know you will roll your eyes, but I can’t tell the difference if it’s on my toast. However, I don’t think I fancy eating biscuits and treats made with marg. And I can’t understand why someone would worry about fat content when they’re eating a cake anyway!

  7. Kate

    I reckon it’s what you grow up with. For some reason I have lived on Flora on my toast my whole life and don’t share the love affair with butter – sorry Truefoodie. I do however subscribe to it being essential for baking wonderful teatime treats 🙂

  8. Maureen

    I’m with you on this one TF. I can’t stand marg. Aware of the fat issues, I try to just eat butter when something needs it and I’ll actually taste it. If I’m making sandwiches I tend not to butter the bread but just use a little salad dressing or moist filling to keep it from being too dry.

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