When asked, “What are the secrets of good cooking?”
Escoffier replied, “There are three: butter, butter and butter.”
You may have noticed that a lot of recipes mention “European-style” butter. This means, at least in theory, it conforms with European standards for butterfat—82% higher than the normal 80% in the United States and Canada as well as some butters in the UK. Anything in butter that is not fat is water or left-over milk proteins. The higher percentage of butterfat in European-style butter means a richer taste, softer texture, and faster melt-ability.
Many of these European butters, especially French butter, will also have a slightly tangy flavor due to the cream being cultured (fermented) before it is churned. The process resembles that used to make crème fraîche. This culturing or “souring” produces a fuller flavor and aroma and it’s often the lingering taste that dominates people’s food memories of France.
European-style butter is expensive, so use it in dishes where you want the butter flavor to stand out, such as in butter sauces, shortbread cookies, or slathered on morning toast. The investment will pay off. For brownies, chocolate chip cookies, or buttering the gratin dish, everyday grocery store butter works just fine.
In your local supermarket there will be multiple brands and types of European-style butters. Read labels carefully. Then, conduct a taste test. It may take a little trial and error to find your favorite style or brand, but the research will be delicious! The following are some of the French European-style butters you may come across.
Which butter to choose?
- Raw cream butter: Made by hand from raw, untreated cream on farms or semi-industrialized artisanal dairies. It has a minimum of 82% butterfat. Highly perishable, it is hard to find outside of France.
- Artisan butter: Traditional, rustic butter often tied to a specific place and a darling of the butter world. Made from naturally fermented cream from raw or pasteurized, carefully selected or organic milk. Often handmade in small-scale operations, this quality-churned butter sports the label beurre de baratte à l’ancienne. After churning, the butter is removed from the tub, washed and kneaded, then wrapped.
- Salted butter: Can have less fat than unsalted butter, with a minimum of 80%. Industrial brands blend in fine salt and maintain a smooth texture. Artisanal versions may use cristaux de sel de mer, large sea salt crystals, or the more mineral tasting fleur de sel, sea salt flakes, give the butter a distinct crunch.
- AOC/AOP French certified butters: Made from the milk of pasture-fed cows from strict geographical designations. The resulting cream is pasteurized, seeded with a lactic starter culture, and allowed to mature for at least 15 hours. It is then slowly churned in small batches and finished off by hand. Like other products awarded this certification, these three butters express a sense of place that comes from the soil, climate, traditions, and local influences of their region.
- Charentes-Poitou (AOC/AOP Charante-Poitou beurre) is the best-known AOC butter. Its fine yet elastic texture and full melt-in-your mouth flavor make it a favorite among pastry chefs worldwide.
- Isigny sur Mer (AOC/AOP d’Isigny beurre) in Normandy, has known fame since the 16th century. The milk for this butter comes from cows grazing in sea-sprayed pastures of grass rich in iodine and beta-carotene. The resulting butter is sunny yellow, creamy and smooth, and tastes like hazelnuts.
- Butter from Bresse(AOC/AOP de Bresse) has only recently joined this elite group. This butter, with its pale-yellow color which turns darker in the spring and fall, is light and refreshing, has notes of walnut and hazelnut, and lingers on the taste buds.
- Organic butter: Made from organic milk, which means the cows must have a diet of organic feed, never have received growth hormones, nor have received antibiotics.
- Industrial butter: Everyday butter made industrially in factories where hygiene and bacterial acidifying are strictly controlled. Factories pasteurize the creams and blend them to create a final product of uniform consistency. Then they reintroduce fermenting cultures into the cream during churning to speed up the fermentation process. The result is then pressed, packaged, and left to rest in cold storage where it “ripens” and develops some personality.
French butter is usually sold in packs of 125 g, 250 g or 500 g, wrapped in paper if a luxury or artisanal brand or in foil if a commercial brand. Some foil-wrapped bars have the grams marked off in 25 g increments on the inside of the wrapper.
Asperge au sauce mousseline
Asparagus with Mousseline sauce
One of my favorite butter sauces is a classic Hollandaise “lightened” up with whipped fresh cream. Silky and smooth, it’s decadent and rich, but never fails to please.
French butter sauces can seem intimidating. The methodology appears complex and recipes generally call for clarified butter. However, the key to success is simple: constant whisking over a pot of barely simmering water. This recipe also eliminates the step for clarifying butter by using whole melted butter, which we think makes for a more flavorful sauce. We recommend serving it with asparagus—green or white—or with eggs, any steamed vegetable, or just some crusty bread.
3 pounds (1.5 kg) fine green asparagus spears, rinsed and bottoms trimmed
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
8 ounces (2 sticks/226 g) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
Fine sea salt
3/4 cup (150 ml) heavy cream, chilled
- In a large, metal bowl, whisk together the yolks and water until light and frothy. Set the bowl over a saucepan of not-quite-simmering water, making sure the bottom doesn’t touch it. Whisk vigorously, turning the bowl as you go. After 3–4 minutes, the yolks should be foamy and thick, and the whisk should leave a trace in the mixture. Remove the bowl from heat.
- Very slowly whisk in a few tablespoons of melted butter in a slow stream. When blended, continue with the remaining butter, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thick and smooth. (At this point, you can switch to a hand-held mixer.) Then, whisk in the lemon juice and salt to taste. Set aside to cool.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous teaspoon of salt and the asparagus. Return to a boil and cook until the asparagus is just tender, 3–5 minutes. Drain the asparagus and spread the spears out on paper towel or a kitchen cloth and pat lightly to remove excess moisture.
- When ready to serve, whisk the heavy cream until light and fluffy and fold into the cooled Hollandaise.
- Place asparagus on a platter or individual plates and spoon the mousseline sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
Charlotte Puckette is a Grand Diplôme graduate of Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, co-author of The Ethnic Paris Cookbook, as well as a private chef, caterer, cooking instructor, food consultant, and hostess.