From Season 13: Company’s Coming
Since the rise of factory-produced butter in the early 20th century, the vast majority of butter sold in this country has been the sweet-cream kind. This style is quickly and cheaply mass-produced by churning cream that has undergone little or no storage. At the same time, old-fashioned cultured butter—made more slowly, with cream that’s allowed to ripen for a few days to develop flavor and then inoculated with bacterial cultures before churning—has typically been an imported, hard-to-find luxury. But these days, the tables seem to be turning: Not only is cultured (also known as European-style) butter increasingly available, but many supermarket shelves now hold more brands of this pricier condiment than brands of the sweet-cream stuff. Fans of cultured butter rave about its fuller, more complex taste.
Given that we go through upwards of 25 pounds of butter per week in the test kitchen, we wondered if we should stick with our longtime favorite supermarket butter—or fork out as much as $12 per pound for a premium butter? With that question in mind, we bought out the butter aisle and returned to the test kitchen with 10 unsalted butters: seven cultured and three sweet cream. Our main criterion was simple: We wanted the best-tasting butter we could find for eating straight up on things like toast, pancakes, and corn on the cob. But since many of the cultured butters also contain more fat than the sweet-cream varieties do, we wanted to see how that extra richness affected flavor and texture in baking; for that test, we baked French butter cookies. The results, we decided, would have to be pretty spectacular for us to shell out nearly double or triple what we pay for regular butter.
We let the samples soften and then spread them on plain crackers—a blank canvas that could expose their nuanced flavors. When we tallied up the results of this plain tasting, we found that there was something to all the cultured-butter hype: These European-style products took three of the four top spots. Several of the cultured samples inspired high praise for dairy flavor that was “deep,” “rich,” and even “grassy” and “mineral-y,” with a “long and complex finish” that stood apart from the cleaner, more straightforward flavor of the sweet-cream butters. We also found that the higher fat of cultured butters (about 83 to 86 percent butterfat compared with around 81 to 82 percent in the sweet-cream style) lent them a luscious, mouth-coating richness.
That said, the cultured butters weren’t preferred across the board in the plain tasting. Though none were unacceptable, a few did suffer distinct off-flavors that made them less pleasant as spreads. These flavors ranged from strong hints of fake-butter popcorn to suggestions of cheap Chardonnay. But that was only part of the story. Coming in second to one of the richest, most assertively cultured butters was our longtime favorite, which outshone the other two sweet-cream butters—and several of the cultured samples—by a considerable margin. (The two other sweet-cream butters landed at or near the bottom of the heap.) So why doesn’t culturing always result in better flavor?
For an answer, we contacted Robert Bradley, a professor emeritus of food science and an expert on butter flavor and texture analysis at the University of Wisconsin. He suggested that the artificial movie-popcorn flavor we detected in some cultured brands was most likely linked to the type and amount of starter cultures added to the cream—in particular, a naturally occurring volatile compound called diacetyl that’s responsible for buttery, slightly tangy flavor and yellow color. (Diacetyl is used in margarine to imitate the flavor of butter, and a few California Chardonnays, known as “butter bombs,” actually encourage its growth in fermentation.) Ideally, Bradley explained, manufacturers will hit on just the right mix of cultures to develop some acidity, some diacetyl flavor, and a good, well-rounded background. The manufacturer of our longtime favorite butter nailed the formula, nicely balancing sweet, fresh-cream flavor with complex tang. Other brands proved that getting the bacteria cocktail just right is tricky—and imperfections can be glaringly clear, particularly when you’re eating butter straight up on crackers or bread.
And then there were the cookies. While we found that most of the cultured butters’ artificial, margarine-like flavors burned off in the oven, so did some of their appealing nuances. Furthermore, some of the cookies made with the highest-fat cultured butter failed to spread as much as they should, baking up firm and dense. We did a little research and discovered that butters with more fat soften at higher temperatures than those with less fat. In cookie dough, this can mean that the starch and protein set before the butter has time to fully soften and spread, so the cookies bake up higher and more dense.
That said, a few of the cultured butters distinguished themselves in cookies that were both supercrisp and wonderfully buttery. But here again, most couldn’t top our favorite sweet-cream butter, which produced cookies that boasted “fresh-cream,” “clean dairy flavor” and nice sandy texture. So what was it about this supermarket butter that allowed it to repeatedly perform so well?
It’s a Wrap
According to Bradley, the answer may be as simple as the brand’s wrapping. Butter’s high proportion of fat makes its flavor fragile and highly susceptible to picking up odors from anything that’s stored near it. And the longer it’s exposed to other odors, the more its own flavor will be affected. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains strict sanitation and cream-quality standards for butter production, but no such standards exist for how long and under what conditions butter may be kept in frozen storage or at the market.)
Bradley explained that the waxed parchment that some manufacturers use to cover their product does nothing to block out foreign flavors. Sure enough, in our tasting, three out of the four parchment-wrapped samples elicited complaints about off- or stale-tasting refrigerator flavors. Only the fourth butter, our previous favorite, did not. Bradley was not surprised. This brand, he explained, treats its parchment wrapper with a patented coating called FlavorProtect that helps lock in the butter’s clean flavor and keep intruding odors out. In fact, its wrapper was just as effective as the foil wrappers that covered six other butters we tasted—and more protective than one block’s foil wrapper, which, to the detriment of that butter’s flavor, arrived slightly gapped in a few spots. (We sealed all of our samples in zipper-lock bags as soon as they arrived, but that couldn’t reverse the damage done to any butter whose flavor was already spoiled.)
Cream of the Crop
When we circled back to our original question—whether or not the cultured stuff measured up to the hype—we realized that we had two answers. Our top choice, a cultured product, offered everything we look for in good butter: flavor that’s at once sweet and creamy and overlaid with a complex, slightly sour tang, plus enough butterfat (almost 83 percent) to make it decadent and glossy but not so rich that it renders baked goods dense and greasy. The only part that’s hard to swallow is the butter’s price tag. At $10 per pound, it’s a splurge and a condiment-only purchase for most of us—especially considering the fact that our second-place finisher is less than half the price ($4.79 per pound).
When it comes to butter, whether or not a brand is a fancy, high-fat European style may not matter as much as how it’s wrapped.Watch the Video
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|