Butter has long been known for its qualities in baking. When it comes to baking, there is no fat as flavorful, rich and satisfying. There is no other fat that can duplicate its properties when baking.
Butter is literally made from the cream that rises to the top of milk. It has been around from the beginning of recorded history. It’s story goes back about 4000 years ago when a nomad tied a bag of cream to this horse. After a day of riding, the cream had been jostled all day and when he opened the bag – low and behold – butter!
Butter is made by beating or churning cream until the it separates into a semisolid and a liquid. If you care to experiment, it can be made at home by whipping 40% or heavy cream until the cream separates and it turns into a solid and a watery component. I was renowned at one position for having turned 16 quarts of cream into butter by simply forgetting it while it was whipping. It became known as “Helen’s Butter”. While the chef was initially, shall we say irritated, the good news was, we used every bit of it! So all turned out well and I was back in his good graces. In fact, he loved telling the story!
Butter can be made from many milks besides cows including goat, sheep, water buffalo, and camels – any type of milk. Made from a single ingredient, cream, the amount of fat can be altered, but on August 31, 1989 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established standards for grades based on flavor, body, texture, color and salt (if present). It must be at least 80 percent milk fat with the remaining 20 percent water and milk solids. The grades are based on a score of 100 with AA being the finest at 93, A at 92 and B at 90. AA and A are the most commonly available.
Butter may be colored with annatto and can be salted or not salted, which is often referred to as sweet or sweet cream butter as opposed to salted butter. Salt is used as a preservative. Salted butter will stay fresher longer than unsalted butter in the refrigerator. If buying unsalted butter in large amounts it is safer to freeze it if it is not being within two weeks to preserve its flavor.
While salted butter is preferred by many for spreading on bread or for cooking, unsalted is the first choice for bakers. The amount of salt can vary so it is difficult to tell how much salt to use in recipes. Unsalted butter also has a clean taste.
Other types include whipped, which is simply regular butter that has been whipped to incorporate air into it. That should never be used. Light butter is lower in calories but some of the fat has been replaced with water, so that isn’t going to work either.
Butter substitutes should never be used. They are often made with buttermilk which isn’t cream.
Butter absorbs the flavors around it so it should be stored tightly wrapped. For baking and pastry purposes I use the unsalted variety. There are also butters which have a higher milk fat percentage. They are often referred to as European since they originally came from there. My recipes use butter made in America.
When it comes to baking, temperature is very important. For creaming, if it is too cold, it won’t combine with the sugar to incorporate air. If it is too soft or, heaven forbid, melted, it can’t hold the air. Some books have suggested that 65 degrees as the ideal temperature for creaming. I have found that it is too cold at that temperature and it has a sandy texture without much air. I prefer mine closer to 72 to 75 degrees. At that temperature, it mixes well and can incorporate air.
I usually forget to pull my butter out ahead of time, so see softening butter to solve this problem. Whatever you do, don’t microwave it. It usually melts in the center which is not what you want. You are after a uniformly softend butter.
Some recipes call for melted butter. Melt it either in the microwave or over direct heat. Just don’t burn it. Cutting it in small pieces before heating will insure it melts equally to prevent the watery part from burning or evaporating.
Brown butter is used as a flavoring agent. It is made by heating it until it comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the milk solids, which will drop to the bottom of the pan, turn a golden brown. Care must be taken as the solids go from golden to burned quickly. This makes a great buttercream.
On occasion, I will combine butter with a plastic shortening, such as crisco for my American style cookies. The advantage of doing this is two-fold. The taste of butter dominates since shortenings have no flavor (unless it is added such as butter flavored shortenings which don’t taste like butter anyway) and by combining the two it prevents the cookies from spreading too much as they would if only butter were used.
Compound butters have added ingredients. They are often used in cooking but can be a marvelous accompaniment to biscuits and breads. A dilled or herb butter, a lemon or orange butter can be a great spread to spark up a meal.
There is a fantastic article on David Lebovitz’s blog which you might enjoy. It talks about the butter museum and the history of butter in Ireland. http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2010/09/how-to-make-irish-butter/
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