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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.