Butter from Europe (and specifically from France) has a reputation for quality that drives many chefs to purchase it. But what does science tell us about making pastry with European butter versus American? Are there reasons or specific circumstances when U.S. chefs should look across the pond for their dairy?
Butter can have a nationality. French butter, American butter, Moroccan butter — each one of these is going to be slightly different because of the the method used to produce it. So when we talk about European butter, we’re really talking about a style in which butter is produced throughout Europe.
European-style butter refers to a cultured butter that has been churned longer to achieve at least 82 percent butterfat. Traditionally the butter is allowed to ferment to achieve a light sour taste, but you’re more likely to find butter made with added cultures. Either way, you still end up with a tangy butter.
Overall, European-style butters are favored for their rich taste — a direct result of the higher butterfat content. More butterfat also means a softer texture, faster melt, and often, a saturated yellow hue. With less water, European-style butters are often the preferred butter for baking — especially when the flavor of butter is just as important as its function.
To answer these questions, it’s helpful to understand how butter is made and what happens when it is cooked in pastry.
Not all butters are the same. In America, butter must be made with at least 80 percent butter fat, according to Joanna Shawn Brigid O’Leary, PhD, a culinary consultant and food critic. (It will also contain 16 to 18 percent water and 2 to 4 percent other ingredients, such as salt.) European butters must have a minimum of 82 percent butter fat. These numbers are minimums, so it’s possible to find American made products with a higher percentage of butter fat. However, many chefs reach for French or other European butters when they need that higher fat content because they know the product will deliver. There are a few other differences. “Most European butters are usually cultured as well, which gives them a pleasant tang,” says Baldwin. Farmers in Europe are more likely to raise their cows on pastures (not in feedlots with a diet of corn) and less likely to use additives. These variables can have a major impact on the terroir or sense of place that contributes to the taste of the butter, O’Leary says. So, is it better to use European or American butter in pastry? The answer depends on the baker’s goal. If you want a rich, buttery flavor, a higher fat content butter is best, which means a French or European product may be the right choice. The fat is where the flavor resides, so more fat means more flavor. In addition, when butter is blended with other ingredients, it creates small pockets in the pastry. “The butter has a tendency to stay in those pockets, not distribute throughout the food,” says O’Leary. “The taste becomes more magnified because when you have higher butter fat, you have more pockets.” Things like butter cookies or kouign-amann, which take most of their flavor characteristics from butter, are ideal candidates for European butter, Baldwin says. She adds, “Any type of recipe that depends on the fat in butter for either leavening or shortness will do best with a high fat butter. Things that fall into these categories are laminated doughs, such as puff pastry, croissant and Danish; pie doughs and other flaky cut-in butter preparations; and creamed butter cakes and cookies.” Butter’s molecular structure means it lends a smoother mouthfeel to baked goods. Butter is a saturated fat, which means there are single bonds between the carbons in its chemical structure rather than double bonds, says O’Leary. Whereas the double bonds found in unsaturated fats like oils cause them to be liquid at room temperature, the single bonds mean butter is solid. That’s also what gives butter its rich, robust flavor.
Welcome to 21st-century nutrition! Numerous high-quality studies are finally setting the record straight on the health benefits of butter and animal fat.
In fact, whole animal foods like butter are among the healthiest foods in the world. Butter is nutrient-dense, highly-satiating (nixes food cravings), and loaded with vitamins and minerals that you just can’t get from plant sources.
And in case you haven’t heard, vegetable oils– the junk that was supposed to replace butter as a “heart healthy” alternative–are among the most deadly and dangerous “foods” ever invented.
Interested in knowing more about your general health, join one of our online cooking, baking or nutrition programs today!
Cheers, and have a great weekend!