Reader Kempy writes:
It seems to us that there is a big difference in really good butter and ones that are not always cheaper but seem very watery. Are there laws on the amount of water in butter, or ranges of the amount of water that would allow us to know if we are getting good butter?
Hey Kempy! There definitely are laws regulating water content in butter. American butters can contain no more than 16% water and must be at least 80% milk fat (the rest is protein, lactose and, perhaps, salt). However it’s not so much the water content that’s important as the fat content. Higher quality butters will have more, and even a percentage point or two makes a big difference. French butters, for example, must be 82% fat by law, with some going as high as 85%. Of course French butter is also cultured, which means it tastes a cheesy/tangy as well. You can often check fat content on labels, so let that be your guide.
However it’s also important to note that there are other factors that govern the consistency of butter. Lower quality butters can have a grainy consistency and a greasy look or mouthfeel. That’s partly the result of the diet of the cows. Pasture-fed cows in general produce softer butters while cows that are fed hay or grain produce harder butters, since their diet is lower in polyunsaturated fats.
However the handling of the cream also plays a big part in the final texture. All cream that goes into commercial butter is pasteurized, then cooled to concentrate the butterfat. In general low-temperature pasteurizing followed by a gentle cooling and “aging” for at least eight hours creates a finer texture. High-temperature pasteurization and minimal aging tends to make a grainy butter that also has a “cooked” flavor. So you see there are a lot of variables in the butter-making process. Cut corners in any of them and the impact on the final product can be significant. Hope this isn’t too much information!