The best French butter differs from American butter along a number of dimensions, including color, taste and texture.
“Part of it is the quality of the cream, and what the cows eat,” writes chef and author David Lebovitz on his seminal blog on French foods. “It’s also due to the fact that the butter is made from slightly-soured or cultured cream, which gives it a nutty, mellow tang and reacts differently when baked.”
Lebovitz has lived in Paris since 2004 and was trained in France. “It wasn’t until I moved to France and tasted the sunshine-yellow butter that’s easily available at most fromagers and even in the supermarket, that I noticed a remarkable difference,” he adds.
Although traveling to France to taste it in its “terroir” might be preferable, you don’t have to do so to taste the difference. Even if you are still skittish about traveling, the best French butters may be available at your local market or cheese store. You just have to look for them and read the labels.
The PDO French butter I recently tasted, Isigny, was richer and far more flavorful than the American-made “Land O Lakes Butter Spread with Olive Oil” that I have enjoyed on a piece of toast each morning.
To educate myself (and others who are interested) about French and other European butters, I interviewed Charles Duque, Director of the French Dairy Board, who seems to be a de facto ambassador of French butter.
What is French butter? What sets it apart from its American namesake?
Duque: French butter has a higher fat quantity than most other butters, leading it to be creamier, easier to spread, and more flavorful.
This is achieved by it being churned longer than American butter to reach at least 82% fat content (while USDA standards say American butter must contain just 80 percent butterfat), and those two percentage points make a big difference! This higher fat content means there is less water than in what we Americans call “regular” butter.
Overall, French butters are favored for their rich taste, a direct result of the higher butterfat content and the fact that they are often cultured. More butterfat also means a softer texture, faster melt, and often, a saturated yellow hue. When grazing, cows store the organic pigment called beta carotene, which is naturally present in grass and plants. The color gets carried into the fat of their milk, which explains the yellow color of real dairy butter.
Many European butters, especially French butter, will also have a slightly tangy flavor due to the cream being cultured (fermented) before it is churned. This culturing or “souring” produces a more robust flavor and aroma and it’s often the lingering delicious taste in French cuisine.
Are there other differences between French and American butter?
Duque: There are several distinctions: European butters are produced through a different production process than American butters. I already mentioned the difference in butterfat content due to the European butter being churned for a longer time and the culturing process that gives French butter its characteristic and sought-after tangy flavor. (American butter does not include any added cultures.)
Importantly, in France, butter is protected by the law. No preservatives are added, except salt for salted butter.
Is French butter too precious to use for cooking?
Duque: Absolutely not, rather it is great for cooking! European butter’s silky and supple texture and cooking stability make it a favorite among chefs.
It is the perfect baking ingredient since it melts faster because of its richer butterfat content. This characteristic facilitates the work of professional bakers by providing them with a butter that is more malleable to work with and that has a richer flavor.
French butters are especially preferred when the flavor of butter is just as important as its function. For example, if you are making flaky pie dough, the higher fat content will mean more flakiness. It is also ideal for pastries and croissants – as a matter of fact, the flavor of butter truly is the characteristic flavor of a good croissant!
Any time you’re using a pat of butter to finish off a dish—say, swirled into a creamy pasta, dropped onto mashed potatoes, or smeared on toast French butter—due to its divine flavor, French butter is ideal.
When a butter is labeled PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), what does that designation mean?
Duque: The PDO designation means that this butter can only be produced in a specific region; that its producer has to follow specific methods of production; and that it uses only local milk.
“With enough butter, anything is good.”—Julia Child
What are the different types of PDO French butter?
Duque: France produces three PDO French butters: Charente-Poitou butter, Isigny butter and Bresse butter.
PDO Charente-Poitou Butter
PDO Charente-Poitou Butter is the best-known. It’s fine yet elastic texture and full melt-in-your mouth flavor make it a favorite among pastry chefs. This butter comes exclusively from dairies in Aquitaine, in the center/west of France – departments of Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux Sèvres, Vendée and Vienne. After pasteurization, the cream may undergo a slow biological maturation process (minimum 12h). This maturation process, before the churning process, is specific to the PDO Charente-Poitou Butter. This butter has a distinct smoothness and a specific taste of nuts.
PDO Isigny Butter
The butter you said you tasted comes from dairy production in the southwest of Normandy around the French bay of Les Veys. This area is perfectly situated, close to the seaside and irrigated by five rivers. The milk for this butter comes from cows grazing on rich sea-sprayed pastures of grass high in iodine and beta-carotene. The resulting butter is sunny yellow, creamy, and smooth, and tastes like hazelnuts.
PSO Bresse Butter
The Bresse area, in the center/east of France, covers the French departments Ain, Saône-et-Loire up to the surroundings of Jura mountains. This area offers an exceptional diversity of flora. This mixed feeding for the cows gives this butter a nice golden yellow color. This color may vary according to the season. Traditional churning of Bresse butter gives it aeration and results in a very easy to spread butter, which offers tastes of grass, flowers and walnuts.
Is France the only European producer of PDO butter?
Duque: No, Belgium and Luxembourg also each have one PDO butter.
Is French butter widely available in the U.S.?
Duque: Yes! Many Butter of Europe brands are available in the US. I frequently find them at supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Morton Williams, or cheese shops such as Murray’s cheese, Ideal Cheese Shop, or The French Cheese Board.
Note: This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How to make compound butters
Want to kick your meal up a notch by making a compound French butter?
The French Dairy Board offers some ideas for making compound butters. It simply requires mixing softened butter with other ingredients to impart unique flavors.
Five easy steps to make a compound butter
- Of course, start with high-quality butter, the best French butter you can find. Make sure the butter is unsalted.
- If it isn’t a spreadable type, let the butter stand at room temperature for at least two hours so it softens.
- Mince or finely powder your ingredients. Add ingredients to taste; don’t worry about adding too much because butter is used sparingly.
- Roll the mixture in plastic wrap or wax paper to shape and preserve it
- Chill the butter for at least two hours before using it to make sure the flavor permeates the mixture. Pair the butter with breads or other foods.
Five compound butter recipes from the French Dairy Board
Of course, you can use your own creativity but here are five recommended recipes from the Dairy Board to get you started:
1- Maître d’Hôtel Butter – The French Touch
Add finely minced parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper to the softened butter. Perfect on a seared steak.
2- Garlic Chive Butter – The Crowd Pleaser
Adding a touch of chive to the garlic will give the butter a pleasant color. Place directly on a grilled steak or drop a pat or two into a still-steaming baked potato.
3- Jalapeno Lime Butter – Citrus, Spice, and Everything Nice
Use lemon for a touch more mouth-puckering flavor. Want to turn the heat up a bit? Experiment with other peppers like Habanero. Brush over grilled or boiled ears of corn or grilled shrimp.
4- Gorgonzola Honey Butter – Sweet, Savory, Scrumptious
Mix this salty, creamy soft cheese well with the floral sweetness of honey. Melt on pork loin or chop, or toss with your favorite pasta.
5- Vanilla Maple Butter – Savory, Make Room For Sweet
Mix your favorite maple syrup with fresh vanilla beans. Melt on pancakes, muffins, sweet potatoes, cornbread, even a simple piece of toast.
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