Words and Photos by Marissa Wu
I typed "French butter" into the search engines of two of my favorite, reputable food websites. I researched "types of French butter" in Google and Google.fr. There wasn’t much to find, and my mind raced anxiously as I stood in the tram, left arm weighed down by two jars of compote de pommes, one kilo of sucre en poudre, one liter of glace de la vanille, an expensive flask of maple syrup from Cananda, and of course, the source of my anxiety: two packets of beurre doux à teneur réduite en M.G. (60%). Thoughts were running through my mind a mile a minute. What did I just buy? Was it going to mess with my first attempt at tarte aux pommes fines? It was a lot of butter -- 500 grams -- what if it was the wrong stuff? I don’t want to have to stumble around in France telling the lady at the caisse that I don’t want this butter.
Shopping for butter in France is an anxiety-inducing experience. There is a plethora of brands with the options of salted (sale), unsalted (doux), lightly salted (demi-salé); and if your French cooking vocabulary isn’t strong, you’ll also have to wade through notes like beurre à teneur réduite en M.G. (60%) and bio. You’ll also need to decide if you want butter fabriqué en Normandie or if butter from Bretagne will suffice. On top of that, you may or may not be searching for the cheapest packet, because Europe is expensive. Most of my runs to Géant Casino (a store kind of like Costco, but no bulk) involve me standing in the butter aisle looking a bit dazed.
Back at the appartment, Michèle, my host mother, was in the kitchen. Est-ce que tu sais, ce que ça veut dire ? (“Do you know what this means?”) I asked her, indicating to the worrysome words, beurre à teneur réduite en M.G. She proceeded to explain, somewhat quickly, that M.G. stood for matière grasse, and I somehow grasped that she was talking about the fat content of the butter. Apparently, I had purchased a lesser-fat (not reduced fat) version, at 62% fat versus 82%. Zut! (Rats!) But she said, c’est pas grave -- it doesn’t matter. I should have splurged for my trusted brand, Président, which at 82% had been about one or two euros more than the butter I had purchased, Montfleuri brand, apparently made in Normandy.
With the butter sitting next to my laptop, I did some poking around on the internet and have created a guide to navigating the butter aisle.
American vs. “European” style butters:
Simply put, it’s all about the FAT! European butters usually have at least 82% butterfat while the American style is around 80%. You may be thinking: “That’s not a huge difference!” And, if you’re not a gourmand, your right. It’s not. But, let’s consider the role that butter plays in baking. It plays a huge role in determining the texture of our treats. Do you love fluffy, beautiful cakes? Crumbly, ephemeral shortbread? If you answered yes to either (or both!), then you should care about your butter. According to Tessa Huff of The Kitchn, butter with a higher butterfat content will stay solid for just a bit longer in the oven. And, it means that there’s less liquid in the form of milk solids and water. Having more butterfat will keep flakey pastries like croissants crisp and feathery light, as opposed to being weighed down by liquid and thus taking on a “heavy” or tough texture. Where cakes, muffins, and the like are concerned, butter coats proteins in flour and also holds a fair amount of air when creamed.
Then we should consider the percentage of butter that isn’t fat. As previously mentioned, it’s liquid in the form of water or milk solids. While we’re singing the praises of butterfat, milk solids also have a crucial role to play, despite making up just around 4% of the entire product. Composed of protein, sugar, and minerals, they provide the distinct butter flavor. The difference between American- and European-style butters is the way in which each is produced. European styles are usually fermented, giving it a deeper, more intense flavor than their American counterpart. Then we have the water component, which also has a role to play in our baking exploits. Put your batter in the oven, and all the liquid turns to…STEAM! That plays an important role in the structure of baked goods, giving them a nice lift. The water also adds moisture. What is the difference between moisture and moistness? Huff explains it like this: Moisture is the liquid content while moistness talks about fat.
So what’s the conclusion? First, I bought the “wrong” butter -- I prefer maximum fat, so my next run to Géant Casino will have me in the butter aisle looking for 82% butterfat butter. But, it also depends on your next baking project. (I say baking because I’ve been cooking with my lesser-fat butter and I cannot tell a difference.) If butter’s the star or a crucial main ingredient, go for the fattiest butter you can find. If it’s not, buy whatever you please -- for me, that means the cheapest butter! (Ha!) Out of curiosity (and for your convenience), I also tested out a couple recipes using both high- and low-fat butter.
Chocolate Chip Cookies:
This was the accidental experiment. I had originally planned to make two batches of pâte feuilletée because butter quality is crucial to that recipe. However, I inadvertently conducted an experiment with chocolate chip cookies. A few weeks ago, I had made a batch with normal, 82%-fat butter. Then, a few days ago, I whipped up a second batch with the butter I had on hand -- 62% fat. The difference was striking. I used the same recipe, and the only real change was the type of butter I used. Granted, I did have to convert American measurements to French ones, but the only huge difference was the butter. Sixty-two versus 82 percent? That’s a 20 percent difference.
In terms of taste and texture, the cookies were strikingly different. The shape, not so much, as both batches were thin, chewy cookies. I called the second batch “diet” cookies because I could really taste the difference. Batch No. 2 was not as rich in flavor, nor was it as chewy in texture. Instead, they were incredibly soft…almost feathery, a cross between cake and cookie. A super-thin cake. The batch made with 82%-fat butter was, in my opinion, better. The flavor was richer and there was more depth; the texture was super-chewy and buttery.
I was pleasantly surprised by my first attempt, made with the 62%-fat butter. It still yielded an incredibly flakey (as in, it shattered beautifully when I cut it) dough, but it wasn’t buttery like you’d expect your puff pastry to be. Granted, it was also probably missing a bit of salt, but the butter factor was also definitely not there.
Regarding the 82%-fat butter…on the presentation front, a complete disaster. During the process of making the dough, my butter leaked…a lot. It did not puff up beautifully in the oven. Instead, I was met with utter defeat. However, in terms of taste, the higher-fat butter won, hands down. And, I’m sure that someone experienced in the technique of making puff pastry could have also presented it beautifully. However, note that I am a neophyte where puff pastry is concerned, and I am providing that as my explanation for the less-than-photogenic result. The taste, however, can’t be beat. There’s no competition. The higher-fat butter delivers on the butter-y factor and, in short, does not taste like diet crust. It’s rich, it has depth, there’s flavor…It’s safe to conclude two things: Go for the fattier butter and always buy your puff pastry from the store.