What distinguishes a “high quality” butter from regular butter?

OUTSTANDING question, reader Sarah. I thank you for it because it’s something every baker and/or shopper wonders. Just what makes this $18.99 per pound Beurre d’Échiré so much better than my local grocery’s generic $4.99 per pound butter? Is it that much better spread over toast? As I mentioned below, I’m a big believer in quality butter, but I don’t like to get too nuts because you never know when something like last week’s Napoleon fiasco is going to happen to you. Nine or ten bucks a pound is about as high as I go. That to me is the price point at which you really notice a difference in a laminated dough. Much beyond that, you’re talking about points of distinction in flavor and aroma that are mostly lost on me.

But to answer the question, the factors that distinguish one butter from another are texture, flavor, aroma and to a lesser extent moisture content (Euro butters have a bit more fat). In the US there are three grades of butter: Grade AA, Grade A and Grade B which is hard to find outside of industrial settings. Grade AA signifies that the butter is made from sweet cream, is sweet smelling and tasting, and has a smooth consistency. Grade A is still good, made from sweet cream, though it’s not quite as good in terms of its texture which can be slightly grainy. Grade B is still considered “acceptable” though it may have a lightly acidic flavor as a result of being made from slightly spoiled milk (note that an acid flavor is considered an asset where Euro-style butters are concerned, but American Grade B butters are very different from an overall texture and flavor standpoint).

Yet the American grading system is a rather crude instrument for trying to quantify the qualities that separate ordinary butters from extraordinary ones. To make an excellent butter you need excellent cream, and that generally comes from pasture-grazed cows. That begs the question what difference pasture-grazing makes. That’s a complex topic, but in brief it’s the varied diet of the pasture that not only imbues butter with richer flavors and aromas, but also determines the types of fatty acids that the butter contains. Those fatty acids impact the butter’s texture since some crystallize more easily than others, and their relative proportion determine how hard or soft a butter is. That’s not to downplay the level of craftsmanship that goes into butter making. The way cream is handled — how rapidly it’s cooled after it’s been been pasteurized — impacts texture, as does the degree to which the butter is kneaded as it’s being made.

So you see there are a lot things that can impact the price of a pound of butter. Cow diet, dairying equipment, speed of manufacture, the distance the butter has to travel to get to your local store. The costs can add up quickly. Whether all those costs translate into something you want to buy is largely dependent on what you personally prefer…and what you’re willing to pay.

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