Reader Rosanne has an interesting question:
I only just discovered the joy of cultured butter and that’s all I use now when I want to actually taste the butter. This week, however, I am at my sister’s and she volunteered for an event where she made 200 butter cookies so she bought her butter at Costco’s. As we were beating the butter to lightness, we both noticed how “buttery” it smelled – I had an “a-ha!” moment and realized it smelled like movie-theatre popcorn butter! We debated for a bit about why it would smell so buttery until I pulled the package out of the trash to check the ingredients. Lo and behold! Natural Flavorings! She also had another super-market brand and it, too, had Natural Flavorings on the list! Really? In butter? Is the cream so flat that we have to enhance the flavor of butter, too? I can’t believe that is what the American people are demanding these days…Where and what does this so-called Natural Flavoring of butter come from?
Great nose, Rosanne! You did indeed crack something: many American mass-market butters, especially unsalted butters, contain “natural flavors.” What are these mysterious things? They actually aren’t very mysterious at all, at least if you’re into fermentation: diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone and others. The typical brew of compounds that bacteria such as Streptococcus lactis, Streptococcus cremoris, Streptococcus lactis diacetylactis and Leuconostoc citrovorum create as they digest sugars.
It all sounds like stuff that runs off a parking lot in a rain storm, but in fact these naturally-occurring chemicals are what give fermented foods – from beer to bread to yogurt and pickles – their flavor. Depending on the proportion in which they’re delivered, they can taste tangy, flowery, bitter, gamey or…buttery.
So the real question is not “are they bad for me” but “are they really necessary?” Apparently many butter makers think they are, at least in their unsalted products, which don’t taste like much, at least as far as many consumers are concerned. So they add these compounds, which are often packaged together in a product called “starter distillate”, basically the stuff you find in a bread starter minus the live microbes, water and flour. They give mass produced American butters a flavor that’s roughly analogous to a European cultured butter, (a butter made with cream that’s been allowed to sour – ferment – a bit).
I already know the next question, and it makes sense: why not just make a cultured butter to begin with and skip the additive? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, because “sweet cream” butter – butter made with nothing but fresh, unsoured cream – has always been considered a premium product in the States. Second, that being the case, the infrastructure at major dairies is set up to produce it. Salted sweet cream butter accounts for over 85% of the butter sold in America, and most people are happy with it. The rest of us buy the unsalted stuff. In an effort to make it competitive in flavor with more expensive specialty or imported butters, manufacturers spike it with this starter culture distillate.
Do I like it? Good question. I buy decent quality (Land O’ Lakes) unsalted butter for day-to-day use around the house. It has starter distillate in it, and I’m fine with it for about $5 a pound. For pastry making I generally pay up for the imported cultured stuff, which can easily run me double the price. Each has its use, and each has a mixture of diacetyl, acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone, etc. in it…some inherent and some added.
Now, you can find plenty of food blogs out there whose owners are righteously pounding the table with outrage over “additives” in their butter. To them I would say: why not stifle the indignation for a bit and go find out what the additive is, how much of it there is, where it comes from and what its function is? We foodies pride ourselves on our “knowledge of the food we eat”, but very often the desire for knowledge only goes so far. Knowing and understanding the tools and technologies that go into our food system is just as important as knowing what’s good and what’s not. But that’s an old drum here at joepastry.com. I won’t beat it anymore today!
Thanks, Rosanne for asking a great question and providing a platform for me to express a little indignation of my own. It’s gonna be a good day, I can tell!