The Great Butter Tasting

by moderndomestic on June 27, 2010

Butter_1

When's the last time you tasted your butter? No. Seriously.

Now that I’m working as a professional baker (and just typing that totally makes me excited, by the way), I’ve started to pay a whole lot more attention to my ingredients. I had my first big ingredient revelation a couple of months ago when I tasted a buttercream I had made at home with that cheap Lucerne butter from Safeway. I’m used to tasting the buttercreams we make at Treet, which only use grass-fed dairy from Trickling Springs Creamery, and are absolutely delicious. But this one I made at home tasted boring and oily. It tasted cheap.  The recipes might have been similar, but the different butters yielded entirely different products.

Given this butter revelation, I was determined to figure out which type of butter to use for my own baked goods. So I did something that Theresa (Treet’s Owner and Pastry Chef) described doing in culinary school – I bought a bunch of butters from the grocery store and tasted them to figure out what I liked.

Now, perhaps it sounds weird to taste plain unsalted butter, straight from the package. But it was really surprising how different each one tasted – and it brought home for me that ingredients matter. If you don’t want to eat the stuff on your toast, then why would you want it in your cake?

And lest you think that I’m going to come to the conclusion that I have to spend oodles of money on high-fat premium butter brands – that was not my goal. I’ve tasted Plugrá and it’s delicious, but there’s no way I can afford it. No, my goal was to find a value – something that I liked, with a nice flavor profile, available in nearby grocery stores, and that I could also afford to use regularly.

Harris Teeter Unsalted Butter (usually $3-$5 pound)
Butter_3
The store-brand butter from Harris Teeter had a waxy texture, and fairly neutral flavor profile – when I first tasted it, I thought it tasted like water. The mouth feel was oily and smooth. The strongest flavor was cardboard, which is probably a flavor coming through from the packaging.

Lucerne (Safeway) Unsalted Butter (usually $3-$5 pound)
Butter_4
This tasted very similar to the Harris Teeter butter – in fact, it made me wonder if the stores buy their butter from the same supplier and just have different brands on the packaging. Again, the butter had a waxy texture, oily texture, and neutral to non-existant flavor profile. Mostly, it tasted like cardboard.

Keller’s Unsalted Butter (usually $4-$5 pound)
Butter_5
They have this brand in my Safeway, and I started buying it because I thought it might be a step up from the store-brand butter. And it was true – this butter has a creamier texture than the Safeway butter, and didn’t taste of cardboard. It was extremely neutral flavor-wise – like the other butters, it tasted like water. Considering the price difference, it didn’t taste all that much better than the store-brand butters.

KerryGold Unsalted Butter ($8-10 pound)
Butter_6
It sounds so obvious that I was going to wax on about the more expensive butter -but, seriously, have you tasted this stuff? The mouth feel is rich and creamy. I actually had a hard time identifying the other flavors in the butter (seriously, how do wine people do it?), but the stuff really blooms flavor-wise if you hold it in your mouth for awhile, and it definitely has a sweet finish. Unlike the other brands, that tasted like water, this stuff tastes like butter.

Land O’ Lakes Unsalted Butter ($4-5 pound)
Butter_2
This also had a richer, creamier texture than the store-brand butters, although it wasn’t as rich as the KerryGold. It definitely had a less complex (or “cleaner” depending on how you like your butter) flavor profile than the Kerry Gold, which, again, I couldn’t identify besides the “sweet” finish at the end. Of all the butters most like my ideal “butter” to me, probably because I grew up spreading Land O’ Lakes on my toast.

So what did I learn from my butter tasting experience? Well, I don’t want to use butter that tastes like cardboard, and I can’t really afford the KerryGold on a regular basis. So I’ll be using the Land O’Lakes, which is at the value point that makes sense for me. For a reasonable increase in price, I get a much better product, and that means better buttercreams from the ModernDomestic kitchen.

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July 28, 2010 at 11:25 pm

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Joellen June 27, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Very interesting post. I have to admit that I’ve been using Wegman’s brand butter (only $2 a pound!!!) lately, but grew up on Land O’Lakes. I’m going to share this with my mom. She’ll be intrigued.

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mary June 28, 2010 at 5:50 am

Great post. You convinced me, I’m going to switch to LOL based your recomendation. That means the LOL people should start advertisting on your blog!

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Amelia June 28, 2010 at 9:18 am

Oh man, I am so with you on KerryGold. It’s AMAZING. It’s really the only thing I buy now, although I agree with you about the price. If I did as much baking as you do, it wouldn’t be my choice. But just as a butter for eating on bread or beans or whatnot, I’m a KerryGold girl.

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Sangi June 28, 2010 at 9:26 am

Such a helpful post! Do you have any preferences for extracts?

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Oh, I do, but that’s a whole other post! Which is an excellent idea for a post!

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Maggie [The Freckled Citizen] June 28, 2010 at 10:49 am

I love this post and this concept for a blog series. Things like this drive me nuts! My mom, bless her heart, has never considered buying anything else but store-brand margarine for baking. Given that she’s so educated and passionate on so many other topics, I just don’t understand this! Cook with the best better you can comfortably afford. Cook with the best olive oil you can comfortably afford. On and on and on.

I have the Whole Foods 356 butter in my fridge… I’d love it if you compared it as well! I moved here from Dallas and fell hard for Central Market European-Style Butter. Just heaven… and I’m still searching for an affordable replacement. Not sure that 365 is it.

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Okay, like, I hate margarine. Now that I bake all the time when I eat something with margarine or crisco in it I want to gag – like, you can taste the oily texture on the back of your throat. But a little Crisco in your pie crust is okay, I think :-)

I never go to Whole Foods now that I no longer work across from one, but I think I remember tasting the 365 butter when I was prepping for this post (I just used it up before I actually wrote the post). I remember it being okay – like, pretty creamy, pretty neutral, etc. I also tried some of the Safeway Organics butter, and it was totally gross – like, it tasted like chemicals. You should do a tasting of the 365 stuff and tell me what you think!

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Nick (Macheesmo) June 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I really like Cabot butter. They do a nice job.

Kerrygold is really good stuff. 😉

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

You know, I’ve never tried Cabot. I’ll add it to my list!

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Bonnie June 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

And…Land O’Lakes often goes on sale for about $2.50/lb here in Oregon. I hardly ever pay full price for it.

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 4:05 pm

See, it’s never, or rarely, on sale here. Although Harris Teeter does carry it for less – more like $3.40/pound, so I’ll stock up when I go there. When it goes on sale I’ll literally buy five or six pounds of it at a time.

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Bri June 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I’ve always used Land O’Lakes, except sometimes I’ll use a higher end butter when I’m making a nicer cake or something. Always nice to have existing habits confirmed.

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 4:04 pm

We were also conditioned to like Land O’ Lakes since that what we grew up on. But when I’m at the store buying 10 pounds of butter (and, um, yes, this happens pretty frequently) it’s tempting to go with the cheaper stuff.

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Theresa June 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Have you ever tried Straus Organic European Style Unsalted Sweet Butter? Not a money saver, but definitely a toast saver 😉 Yummy! This is a great post and very informative!

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 8:11 pm

That sounds like a dangerous butter habit to form 😉

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Aimee June 28, 2010 at 9:11 pm

This is an awesome post. Another butter question == how do I know whether to buy the salted or unsalted and what to use for what?

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moderndomestic June 28, 2010 at 9:33 pm

So, I only buy unsalted butter for baking – it’s because you can better control the salt content if you just add it yourself. However, David Lebovitz and some other pastry chefs are proponents of using salted butter for baking – all you do is assume that 1 stick (1/2 cup or 4 oz) of butter contains approximately 1/4 tsp salt, and remove salt from your recipe accordingly. For me, this is a little too complicated, so I just buy the unsalted stuff and use it for everything.

However, if I were to buy unsalted butter, I’d use it for spreading on toast or steamed vegetables – anyplace where you’re using butter as a garnish and don’t want to bother adding salt too.

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Phil June 29, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Jenna, I can’t believe you missed Country Crock! I thought you were a reputable food blogger. Seriously though, I look forward to more posts on tastings of important ingredients. I wonder about some less obvious ones like flour. I like to think unbleached and unbromated flours are best, but am curious to see King Arthur vs. Pilsbury and the like.

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moderndomestic June 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I think with flour I’d actually have to use it in a baked good to see the difference – just because flours performance isn’t only about “taste” – it’s also about protein content, etc. But not a bad idea. And, like, some of my recipes call for bleached flours when you want a really, really fine product (like, say, a very light biscuit). I think people really want some more taste tests!

And congrats on your new job – have you started yet?

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Aimee June 29, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I found two types of butter in my fridge and tasted. land o lakes v. harris teeter. your descriptions are scary accurate and I couldn’t agree more about the superiority of the L of Ls. Thanks again for this thought-provoking post – I learned a lot!

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James June 30, 2010 at 7:05 am

I have always used Costco butter when baking, but now you have me interested in trying the various butters. I was just checking butter at the local Whole Foods last night and saw that the Kerry Gold was $5.50/lb…just over the price of the generic Everyday365 store brand. Harris Teeter seems to be vastly overpriced compared to Wegmans or Whole Foods.

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moderndomestic June 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Wait – is it $5.50 a pound, or $5.50 for 8 ounces? They only sell it in 8 ounce packages at my grocery store. If that’s the price at Whole Foods then that’s amazing.

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Joe July 6, 2010 at 10:25 am

So why didn’t you test Trickling Springs butter in your line up? While we’re not as cheap as LOL per lb., we are definitely less than the imported butter and we’re local! Thanks for the shout out & recommendation in the beginning. Good luck on your professional baking ventures, it sounds exciting.

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moderndomestic July 6, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Hey Joe – it’s because I wanted to test stuff available at my local stores (literally, the ones I walk to in Adams Morgan), and I don’t think it’s available at any of them! I’ve seen ya’ll in Whole Foods – do you sell in Harris Teeter? I LOVE your butter – it’s all we use at Treet, and it makes a huge difference in the product!

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hottoddie September 18, 2010 at 12:45 pm

One of the reasons the Kerrygold may taste more complex to you is because it is a “cultured” butter. Similar to cheeses and yogurts, the cream is cultured first before they make the butter. This culture adds a richness and complexity of flavors — thus the reason you’ll find Land O’ Lakes and other non-cultured butters to taste “cleaner”. Simply put, they ARE cleaner and less interesting, though sometimes that’s more appropriate for the recipe. But the Kerrygold cows are supposedly grassfed and that probably makes a huge difference too.

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moderndomestic September 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Okay, so that’s a good point – and we use grassfed dairy at Treet and it definitely has a different flavor (which I prefer to more “neutral” butter). Again, though, it’s a cost thing – like, how much will that butter affect the final quality of my product that it’s worth the extra cost? I guess it’s something I struggle with as a baker, trying to develop my own tastes and flavor preferences.

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