Firm Butter, Greasy Butter

Got into an interesting conversation over the weekend about butter, and why inexpensive butter can make cookie dough greasy and hard to cut. It all has to do with melting points, which tend to be sharper with cheap butters that with higher quality butters. Allow me to explain. A melting point can be “sharp” or “broad”, a sharp melting point being defined as a rapid shift from solid to liquid. Cocoa butter is a great example of a substance with a sharp melting point. It’s solid as a rock at room temperature, then melts almost instantantly when it reaches 98 or so degrees Fahrenheit. Substances with a broad melting points, by contrast, change from one to the other more slowly.

The melting point of butter can be sharper or broader depending on its composition. If you were to zoom in and examine butter on a microscopic scale you’d find that it has quite a lot of variation in it. That is to say, it’s made up of many different types of lipid molecules — dozens of them, and each one has its own melting point. Some melt at relatively low temperatures (in the 60′s) and others at relatively high temperatures (in the upper 90′s). It’s this variation the keeps butter pliable at room temperature, not rock hard like cocoa butter, which contains just two main types of fats.

However depending on what the cow that gave the milk that made the butter ate, you can have very different combinations of fats. If the dairy cow ate a very limited diet, just a few fats will dominate the mix. If none of them have very high melt point the butter will tend to go liquid easily, the result being a greasy cookie dough that’s limp and falls apart when you try to cut it. However if the dairy cow was fed a highly varied diet — if for example it was grazed — then the butter will have a greater variety of fats, some of which will have higher melt points. That butter will tend to stay firmer longer and give you a more workable dough. Just another reason to buy decent quality butter. It need not be the best, mind you, just decent. Mid-tier will almost always deliver acceptable if not always sterling results in cookies.

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24 Responses to Firm Butter, Greasy Butter

  1. Jey says:

    Hi Joe,

    What are some things to look out for to determine the quality of butter (as in on the packaging and what not)?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Jey!

      That’s a great question and it’s a tough one to answer since there are often few clues to milk quality or grazing on packages. If there isn’t something about pasture fed cows somewhere I just judge by price point. I tend not to buy expensive Euro-style cultured butters unless the butter really will be the star of the show, as in laminated dough. A premium brand like Land O’Lakes — versus a store brand — is generally what I’m after.

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  2. Frankly says:

    Stupid question but its about butter so what the heck. One of the grandkids asked if it was possible to make butter from chocolate milk. I couldn’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work and was thinking of getting a pint of whipping cream and some cocoa mix to see what might happen. Do you have a guess?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Frankly! Yes it is indeed possible to make chocolate butter that way. You might need to gently heat the cream to fully dissolve the cocoa, then chill it again overnight. Let me know how it goes!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

      • Eva says:

        Can I just say… YUM! Chocolate Butter! Two of my favorite things all mixed into one!
        Eva

        • joepastry says:

          I bought some somewhere…years ago. I can’t remember where but I didn’t need much of an excuse to slather it on toast…with a light sprinkling of sugar of course!

          - Joe

          • Frankly says:

            When it was mentioned I immediately thought of some sort of baked dough dessert with a hunk of chocolate butter melting on it!

            So how about cheese from chocolate milk? I think the Ph change from adding chocolate might affect the outcome. I actually made cheese a couple of times (a cheddar) but found it not worth the effort. It takes 3 gallons of milk & a lot of putzing around to make a pound of cheese.

          • joepastry says:

            Hey Frankly!

            I honestly don’t know very much about cheese making other than the fresh cheeses on the blog. Cheese is acidic just like chocolate (un-Dutched chocolate of course), so I’m not sure that it would be a problem. I’ve seen chocolate cheese before so I know there’s some way to get there. Might be worth a shot if you’re ever up for trying it again!

            Cheers,

            - Joe

    • Jordan says:

      Growing up in the Soviet Union, chocolate butter was one of rare treat you could actually buy in a store without having to “know the right people”. No idea how it was made, but it was obviously done on industrial scale. We’d just smear it on a piece of French bread and have it with tea. OK, I am really craving it now!

      • joepastry says:

        Hey Jordan! Maybe I saw you there back in ’86. Quite a place, the old USSR. I was arrested there twice! Never saw any chocolate butter though, but perhaps it was a Russian shop in Chicago where I first found it. What city are you from?

        - Joe

        • Jordan says:

          Minsk, Belarus. Barely got out of there, after waiting for 10 years, in ’88. Never missed it for a second.

          • joepastry says:

            Honestly there’s not much to miss. I was a young student leftist in 1986 and thought a few months in the East Bloc and USSR would vindicate my starry-eyed ideas about socialism. It ended up doing quite the reverse. I kissed the ground when I landed in the States six months later.

            Nice to meet you, Jordan!

            - Joe

  3. Bronwyn says:

    I thought butter was just butter until I went overseas. I.e. Yellow and delicious. Except when the cows were eating turnips of course, you used to get a slightly strange taste then – but that was when I was a child, I don’t think they put dairy cows in the turnip fields any longer.
    Butter in the US is awfully pale, which is a bit off-putting, and the butter I ate in Thailand was just horrible, didn’t want to properly melt in your mouth and had a slightly gritty texture. I guess the moral of the story is don’t eat butter in countries where they have more elephants than cattle.

    • joepastry says:

      Ha! Well you folks down in NZ are spoiled when it comes to butter. No wonder 30% of the all world’s butter exports originate there (Fonterra was once a client of mine, so I know the stats!). You’re right that butter in the States can be rather pale, especially in the winter when the cattle can’t graze as well. It will generally get the job done, however.

      Nice to hear from you, Bronwyn!

      - Joe

  4. Cactus says:

    So using cheap butter in Danish pastry, for example, will make it weep when I bake it?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Cactus!

      It can cause a soggier pastry, yes Cactus. That’s an excellent point to bring up. The extra firmness of good butter helps prevent the layers in a laminated pastry from collapsing before they can set up.

      Great question,

      - Joe

  5. Carla says:

    You are spot on. I didn’t believe it, so I made two recipes of croissants..one with store brand butter and one with premium Kerrygold butter. Every single person could tell the difference. The difference was dramatic!

    • joepastry says:

      Flavor, texture, flake, everything is better when you use a top quality butter in a laminated dough. I’m a big advocate of middling-quality ingredients when they’re part of a large ensemble, but whenever you’re making a single ingredient the center of attention — butter in a croissant, milk in a panna cotta, chocolate in a flourless — it pays to use the best you can lay your hands on.

      Thanks, Carla!

      - Joe

  6. Warren says:

    We notice the difference in the colour of the butter each year here. At the start of the season, usually about August following calving, butter from the dairy companies is pale yellow, then as the season gets into spring/summer, butter goes a deep yellow, then tapers off to the pale yellow similar to early season.

    Whether or not this is colour variation is homogenised out for export butter I do not know, but as far as the local market is concerned, every year the usual letters to the newspapers start about how butter is suddenly deeper in colour.

    There are a few barn housed dairy herds in New Zealand, but predominately, I would guess 95%, of the dairy herds are pasture fed, with supplementary feed at milking time.

    Where I am, we feed out 5kg of grain, 1 1/2 kilo of molasses at the start of the season, taper the molasses out and cut the grain back to 1 1/2 – 2 kg during peak grass season, then increase it back to the early figures at the end of the season, which is fast approaching. We aim for 5 – 6 kg of dry matter per cow from the pasture, given the rainfall we get here, about 3m – 5m per year, it takes a huge amount of grass to get to the dry matter level we need. It does grow quick though.

    Dairy farms here stop production for export and processing on 31st May, town supply farms continue producing for local consumption.

    Luckily we don’t have much variation in butter quality here, other than the gradual colour changes due to the amount of grazing available.

  7. Dani says:

    People tend to associate the color of butter with flavor, but I personally believe there is a partial sentimental, and dare I say ignorant, bias to that. Aside from the simple fact that input determines the output and grazing delivers far wider range of flavors than dry winter feed, the animal itself also needs those nutrients and different animals utilize them differently. One reason why goat butter is nearly white is because goats need large amounts of beta carotene and don’t excrete hardly any at all through their glands.Yet goat milk, contrary to popular belief, is very high in fat. To digress a little, deep orange yolks tend to elicit similar response, and while they do make prettier pastries, I don’t necessarily find they taste much better scrambled, it’s simply the corn feed. So color alone is not the most accurate sign to judge by.

    • joepastry says:

      Yes Dani my feeling is that you’re pretty right-on here. I know chicken farmers who feed their laying hens marigold petals to ensure the yolks have a deep yellow color. In the broad scheme of things the yolks probably scramble and taste the same as those with paler yolks. I expect you’re also quite correct about dairy cows: animals vary, diets can vary in the pasture as well as in the feeding shed, and either one can be manually manipulated. So color doesn’t absolutely translate to quality. I think you’re also correct that there are sentimental biases at work for a lot of consumers, though I do think that people also “eat with their eyes” and richer colors generally tend to have appeal. People will tend to gravitate in that direction for reasons that are both rational and irrational.

      Thanks for the great comment and perspective!

      - Joe

      - Joe

  8. Michelle says:

    I’m so glad I found this post. I have been doing a fair bit of experimenting in the kitchen so I was buying cheap butter. The ingredients were the same as Western Star (a mid range butter) as was the fat content. I noticed that they baked up differently though. It has been driving me nuts not knowing why that is. You’ve just answered it – thank you. :)

    • joepastry says:

      Very interesting, Michelle. You’re a very methodical baker…I like that!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

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