Sunday Session #2: Mother’s Day Butter Battle

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I recently posted about the science behind butter. If you missed that post, no worries! You can catch it again right here.

The reason why I wanted to post about the science behind butter was because I already had this fun project planned for a follow-up. Because cake. Seriously.

For this Sunday Session, I put my absolute-favorite-in-the-whole-wide-world Kerrygold to the test against three other butters, to see if Kerrygold would stay at the top of the butter hierarchy.

Let me lead today with this: any and all of the butters I tested this weekend yielded cakes that are spectacularly better than anything you could buy in a store. That is to say, I did not test a “bad” butter.

I did have a clear favorite though.

Onward!

The Contenders

For this particular taste test, I chose Land O’ Lakes (The Classic), Vermont Creamery (The New-to-Me Kid), Plugra (My Sister’s Choice) and Kerrygold (my favorite). I used all salted butter for this experiment.

You can immediately see that the Kerrygold butter has a richer, deeper yellow color than all of the others. It looks luxe right out of the packaging. I wondered if that gorgeous color would translate to a deeper color in the finished product.

Everyone in the same photo.

Butter chosen and prepped, I got right to work.

Initial Impressions

Initially, I looked at the butter and tested the texture between my fingers. I also checked the smell of the butter, since cultured butter typically has a more prominent smell than sweet cream butter.

The Land O’ Lakes butter was firm to the touch, even after coming to room temperature for a much longer time than any of the other butters. The smell was neutral; it didn’t excite me but it didn’t turn me off either. The color was a pretty, barely-there yellow that reminded me of Gerbera Daisies. (Note: I love yellow flowers, so I’m going to wear this analogy out).

The Vermont Creamery Butter passed this initial test with flying colors. This butter feels velvety even right out of the refrigerator, and it has an amazing tangy smell that tells you right way that it’s a cultured butter. The color had a more golden hue that made me think of daffodils.

The Plugra butter also has a rich texture right out of the refrigerator; the higher butterfat content means that it will melt right in your fingers. The smell is fairly neutral, even though it is a cultured butter, but that could have been because my nose was still recovering from the shock and awe campaign waged by the Vermont Creamery butter. I did notice a slight tang to the butter, but it was still more neutral than tangy. Color-wise, the Plugra butter reminded me of the soft yellow hyacinth.

When I say that my camera had a hard time capturing the color of the Kerrygold…

Y’all. It kept sending my lens out of focus. I finally got a shot but boy is it aggressively golden, almost like one of the pansies in my garden:

The Kerrygold smell fell somewhere between the Plugra’s hint-of-tanginess and Vermont Creamery’s out-of-this-stratosphere tanginess. Which is to say that it was pleasantly tangy, but the smell is very balanced with the other sensory elements. Texture-wise, this butter was about the same as the Plugra and it was soft right out of the refrigerator.

Each of them was impressive in its own way during initial impressions. I tried to be objective but I really, really love Kerrygold. The Vermont Creamery butter made an unbelievable first impression though!

The Method

Most people test butter by baking one loaf of really good bread, slicing it as soon as it’s warm-but-done, and spreading butter over the warm bread.

This is an amazing way to test butter. If I’m being honest, it’s probably the best way to test butter because it’s easier.

I decided to bake four cakes. Because apparently the hard way is in my DNA. But honestly, I wanted to see how each butter performed in baking, so I actually needed to bake something (and why not cake?). Eating butter and baking with butter can be very different experiences.

Each cake used exactly the same techniques and ingredients. The only difference between the four was the butter. That way, I could be sure that any difference in each cake was the result of the butter that I used.

Onto the fun!

In the Mix

I started by creaming each butter with sugar. Creaming is the process of basically whipping butter and sugar together, right at the beginning of baking, in order to create wonderful air pockets that aid in the rising process. During creaming, you’re looking for the butter to become lighter in color and create a creamy mixture with the sugar.

Here’s what I got:

As much as I tried to cream the Land O’ Lakes butter on high speed, it would not come together like the other three butters. I have to admit, this made me kind of skeptical. But I grew up with Land O’ Lakes and it has a very special place in my heart, so I wasn’t ready to discount it.

Texture-wise at this stage, the Vermont Creamery butter won the day. It creamed beautifully and easily in about three minutes on medium-high speed. My second favorite was the Kerrygold butter, though Plugra did a great job as well.

Batter Up!

I wanted to compare texture and color of each batter once it was ready for the oven. Here’s are my findings:

From left to right: Vermont Creamery, Land O’ Lakes, Kerrygold, Plugra.

Honestly, aside from the Vermont Creamery, color-wise they all landed in about the same place. This was surprise number one for me during this process.

The Vermont Creamery butter performed amazingly well in this part of the challenge. The color and texture of the batter were simply spectacular. While the tanginess of the butter was tamed by the other ingredients, the batter had a decidedly sharp taste to it.

Look at me, out here risking salmonella poisoning for science.

(please don’t try this at home. I trained for this moment by licking many beaters as a child.)

Kerrygold and Plugra tied, because they both created the expected, silky texture that I’m used to working with in my kitchen. The Kerrygold had decidedly more butter-forward flavor, but the Plugra delivered an expected, pleasant flavor as well.

The Land O’ Lakes batter was noticeably thicker than the other three, and was the most grainy of the four cake batters. It was not aggressively buttery when I tasted it.

I’m happy to report that I’m writing this blog 48 hours after this test, and that no Butter Ambassadors (me) were harmed during this experiment.

Onto the bake!

Out of the Oven

There are three smells that get me every time.

My favorite food smell of all time is diced onions going into hot oil.

A very close second is lemon pound cake coming out of the oven.

Third (not that it matters but I wanted to do a gold/silver/bronze kinda thing here) is fresh bread baking. I mean holy…

I say all that to say that this entire experiment almost went down the tubes when these cakes finished because my willpower was S T R U G G L I N G.

Here they are!

Vermont Creamery won this by a landslide. I mean come on! That color is poetic! I did take a huge chunk out of the Kerrygold cake while trying to get it out of the pan, but it otherwise carmelized very nicely. It achieved a very nice golden brown color, and as an added bonus, you can see the golden inside of the cake because I removed it from the pan too quickly and…that happened.

You’re welcome.

Between the Land O’ Lakes and Plugra cakes, I liked the Land O’ Lakes color better. That was surprise number two!

The Taste Test

For my “very scientific experiment,” I enlisted the help of my darling neighbors, one of my best friends, and my TTT’s (Tiny Taste Testers…aka my kids). Here’s what the “tasting portions” looked like:

I wanted to be generous. Also, I had four cakes to dispose of.

Results time!

A was Vermont Creamery.

B was Plugra.

C was Land O’ Lakes.

D was Kerrygold.

I let everyone vote for their top two and tabulated the votes (I did not vote). The winner, with three first place votes, was VERMONT CREAMERY! Some of the comments were that the cake “had the best lemon flavor”, that there was “a really special taste that I couldn’t quite place” in this cake, and that “the buttermilk and lemon were really balanced”.

I clearly have some advanced testers for friends and neighbors.

I also have a new butter for lemon pound cake because I could not agree more with their assessment. And that was the biggest surprise of the day for me!

Kerrygold was a very strong second with two first place votes.

Land O’ Lakes and Plugra tied for third with one first place vote each. My daughter devoured the Land O’ Lakes cake, which triggered a food memory for me as a young girl.

I should note that almost everyone (adults and children alike) in the experiment picked Plugra as their second fave. Plugra did deliver a truly delicious cake. It’s a smooth, creamy butter with a note of tanginess that definitely earned its place at the top of the butter hierarchy. Of the four butters, I would say that the Plugra butter was the most universally liked.

Let me be very clear, Saints: any and all of the butters in this fun experiment delivered exceptional lemon pound cakes. I believe in home bakers and while I have my favorites, I will absolutely use Plugra and Land O’ Lakes again.

Final Takeways

If you’ve read this entire post, THANK YOU. I’ll be brief at this point.

For baked goods using citrus, or other sweet/sour ingredients that I truly want to showcase, I’m choosing Vermont Creamery from this point forward. But since I don’t always want that big of a buttermilk-y tang from my butter, I’ll continue with my boo thang Kerrygold for day-to-day operations.

Also, I’m slathering Vermont Creamery butter on all the bread. ALL OF IT. For research of course.

Thanks so much for going on this journey with me! I hope you’re inspired to go forth and bake!

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The Basics of Butter

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Friends. I am the bona fide owner of a site called Begin with Butter, and I haven’t discussed butter. At all.

Let’s go ahead and chalk that up to being a rookie mistake. But it’s a rookie mistake that’s going to get fixed tuh-day.

Time for a deep dive into butter.

That actually sounds fun and delicious.

Isn’t it Just Butter? Why is This Important?

Excuse me while I curl into a fetal position and sob.

Butter is one of the most important elements in all of baking! It is one of the primary ingredients in almost all conventional pastry baking (and also in a huge number of savory baking recipes). It has an enormous ability to impact flavor, texture, and color in almost anything you bake.

If flavor, texture and color don’t matter to you, then I guess this isn’t for you (but I…have questions). If you want to improve those three elements of your baking, think of this post as your entrée into the rare air of exceptional home bakers and professionals the world over.

But no big deal. Totally your choice.

What, Exactly, is Butter?

Well, to start, butter is a fat. But it is SO. MUCH. MORE.

It’s commonly known that butter is a fat that adds a whole lot of flavor to whatever dish you’re making. But, in the baking world, butter is actually dissected all the way to its bare elements in order to decide which kind of butter is best for a specific recipe.

I can hear you now. “Sorry Shani, what?!”

Here’s the thing. Not all butter is created equal for baking use. Whether you’re making a flaky pie crust or a luscious lemon pound cake, the components of your butter make an enormous difference in your final product. Sometimes the butter itself is as important as any technique.

Let me say that again: there are times when an ingredient (in this case, the butter) is as important as any technique that you’re using in a recipe. In other words, you really want to have both of them in order to help a recipe reach its maximum potential.

So, what is butter? It’s a semi-solid emulsion, made from milk or cream, that contains butterfat, water, and some milk solids.

Saints. Saying that butter is an “semi-solid emulsion” is just a fancy way of saying that butter is not quite liquid and not quite solid. It’s somewhere in between and it’s composed of fat and liquid that can be separated from one another.

The fat content is key in butter. In the U.S., in order to even qualify as “butter”, a product has to have at least 80% butterfat.

TL;DR version: Butter is a fat. So it contains a lot of fat.

American Butter and European/ “European-Style” Butter.

American butter is most commonly known as “sweet cream butter” or “unsalted butter”, and most American butters weigh in right at that 80% butterfat mark. Land O’ Lakes, a name that is synonymous with butter in the United States, sits exactly at 80%. Land O’ Lakes is the standard bearer of American butters; it’s actually the one that my mother used when I was growing up.

European or “European-style” butters typically range from 82-83% butterfat, which leads to a much more distinct buttery flavor.

**note: when I say “European-style”, that just means that these are butters with at least 82% butterfat content that are not actually produced in Europe. A couple of examples of “European-style” butters are Plugra (American) or Vermont Creamery (American).**

Some European/European-style butters can get as high as 86% butterfat. This next-level butterfat content leads to the glorious, gluttonous holy grail of butters that’s meant to be slathered on warm, fresh artisan bread. This butter can be extremely hard to come by, but it’s worth the exorbitant price tag for a special occasion.

The true distinction between American and European/European-style butter, though, is that European/European-style butter is usually “cultured”. This does not mean that European/European-style butter has better manners and observes afternoon tea. This does mean that the milk or cream is infused with active cultures (bacteria) and left to ferment before churning, leading to a distinctly tangy flavor in the finished product.

Chile. That tang is IT.

Butterfat?

Yes! Butterfat!

When milk or cream are churned, they separate into two main parts. Butterfat is the semi-solid element that separates from the liquid and is the main component in any butter.

The total difference between 80% butterfat Land O’ Lakes and 82% butterfat Kerrygold Irish butter is actually much more than you’d think. Yes, baked goods with an 82% butterfat butter will be noticeably more buttery.

In addition, butter with a 2% higher butterfat content creates a softer texture for your cakes and adds a very noticeable golden color to your cookies (this is especially true for my boo thang Kerrygold, which is an Irish butter that is known for its gorgeous golden hue).

Butter with a higher butterfat content also comes to room temperature more quickly for baking, since higher butterfat content means less water and that equals faster melt (this is a blessing for cakes and an absolute, soul-crushing, demoralizing curse for pies; you can overcome this with practice though.)

This is some delicious 82% butterfat butter in a blueberry pie crust. This…is an experience.

In short, when baking, less water and 82% butterfat takes your baked goods to the next level.

What is Cultured Butter?

Two major types of butter are sweet cream butter and cultured butter. Sweet cream butter is butter made from milk or cream and churned shortly after milking. Cultured butter is still butter from milk or cream, but with one distinctive difference: active cultures and time.

Active cultures are live bacteria that are added to milk and allowed to sit, or ferment, for a period of time (typically 12-36 hours or so). After that fermentation is done, then the milk is churned into butter. Since cultured butter is usually European/European-style butter, it’s typically churned longer than American butter in order to separate more fat from the water and achieve that higher butterfat content, in addition to that tangy je ne sais quois from the fermentation process.

My mouth is watering.

Salted vs. Unsalted?

To salt or not to salt…THAT, friends, is the question.

Salted butter is butter that has salt added during the churning process. The salt adds a bit of flavor and also serves as a preservative for the butter.

“Preservative” just means that natural salt helps butter last longer in the refrigerator case of your local grocer and in your refrigerator, y’all. I’m not talking about those preservatives that none of us can spell or say.

Unsalted butter is…butter without salt. Because it lacks salt, it doesn’t last as long on store shelves or in your refrigerator. Butter can be frozen in its original packaging, though, so if you find yourself doing bulk butter shopping, you won’t have to worry about this as much.

I cannot be the only person who does bulk butter shopping.

Which One Should I Use for Baking?

Like many things with baking, which butter you use is a personal preference. It’s my opinion that baked goods made with cultured, higher-butterfat butter taste noticeably better than baked goods made with sweet cream butter.

These are some examples.

BUT

If the only thing available is sweet cream butter, by all means use it! I would never encourage someone to avoid the experience of baking because they didn’t have the right butter. That’s neither the purpose of this post nor is it the purpose of this blog. There are so many beautiful experiences that you can have during the baking process; I would never discourage anyone from baking because they didn’t have cultured European butter at their disposal.

We don’t do elitism here.

Plus, anything you make at home is going to taste much, much better than just about anything you can buy. I believe in you.

My Favorite Things.

This is the point where I get to wax poetic about my journey to my favorite butter.

I’ve tried a bunch of them since I really got started in 2013. Of course I began with what I knew (Land O’ Lakes), and then bounced around with some other brands before I discovered cultured European-style butter.

I have never looked back. I tried Plugra first, since my sister recommended it.

BUT THEN…

I stumbled onto Trader Joe’s “Trader Jacques” brand and Saints I was changed. Trader Jacques doesn’t get the credit it deserves but that’s only because of the fact that it’s not widely available at other stores. If you are in Trader Joe’s and you have the opportunity to stock up on their butter, BUY IT ALL.

Unless, you know, they tell you that you can’t. Otherwise this is a strong buy. The looks from other patrons at checkout would totally be them appreciating your knowledge of fine French butter.

Trader Joe’s is pretty far from me, and I wanted something more accessible for my Cupcakes and Cocktails birthday party a few years ago (or at least something that could be delivered so I could avoid looking like a butter creep in the store). So, I went on a search to find another perfect butter.

After lots of internet research and a couple of trials, I found Kerrygold and folks I CANNOT. I am at a total loss for words about how much I love this butter. It delivers a perfect crumb every single time. The color is so vibrant that it can actually look filtered in pictures. When I cut into a lemon pound cake, I get the most luscious and perfect aroma of butter.

I can actually smell butter right now.

Currently, I prefer salted Kerrygold butter. In my experience, cultured and salted butter adds an unidentifiable umami to baking when it’s done correctly. It’s what my kids and I used in our first Sunday Session, and it performed unbelievably well on the cookies that we made. This does take trial and error, though, so if you’re new to baking, I would recommend using an unsalted, cultured butter until you have developed your baking taste.

Baking with salted butter can be very rewarding, but it can quickly go wrong if you don’t remember to adjust the amount of salt in your recipe to accommodate for the salt in your butter. For beginners, this can be a lot to remember and a very frustrating experience.

Whatever butter you choose, may you have incredible baking experiences and may you form many memories of laughing, hugging, and baking with your loved ones.

I hope you’ve found this post interesting! Don’t forget to subscribe while you’re here so that you can get notified with more helpful baking science tips!

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