Photo © John Kernick
In their quest for big flavor, chefs are making butter that's tangy and complex. Katherine Wheelock investigates.
What began as a gastronomical hypothesis—what if we treated butter like cheese?—has become a method, albeit an evolving one. Pelaccio first buys butter from the excellent Vermont Creamery; then, before setting it out to age on maple and cedar slabs, he brushes it with local whiskey, wraps it in horseradish or turmeric leaves or rolls it in ash from the wood-burning oven at his Hudson Valley restaurant, Fish & Game. But even he's not sure how much those techniques impact the butter's flavor. What he is certain of is that the butter gains character over time. "You just let it pick up on naturally occurring bacteria and those flavors mingle and sink in," he says. "It takes on a gaminess and nuttiness that's like a certain style of sherry."
Chefs like Pelaccio are leading an American butter revolution. It started slowly, a little over a decade ago, when Thomas Keller began presenting diners at the French Laundry in Napa with butter made by Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm in Vermont. This wasn't the same kind of butter everyone else was producing. It was butter made with fantastically fresh cream from pastured cows. And it was cultured, meaning it was made from cream in which microorganisms were given time to do what they do—convert simple sugars into lactic acid, imbuing the butter with a tang that uncultured (a.k.a. sweet cream) butter lacks.
It took a while for other chefs to catch on. When they started featuring cultured butter on their menus, about five years ago, it came with nice bread and a price tag. There was short-lived outrage on blogs and among diners. But now, bread-and-butter as a menu item is practically a hallmark of a young, critically acclaimed restaurant.
I was never galled by the experience of being charged for bread and butter. I trusted the chefs doing it and I much preferred they offer an extraordinary version of it and ask me to pay than set out an obligatory basket of mediocrity. And having tasted cultured butter like St. Clair's—high-fat (87 percent to the usual 80 percent), creamy, clean-tasting with hints of herbs, grass or whatever else the cows had been eating that season—I'm not one to underestimate its addictive power.
But lately chefs have started tinkering. Excited by natural alchemy, they are toying with butter in the same way that molecular gastronomists experiment with liquid nitrogen. I'm all for innovation in cooking, but I feared that with something as pure and simple as good butter, all these manipulations would be like turning great wine into sangria.
I approached my first taste of butter from New York City's Atera with some trepidation. Matt Lightner, an F&W Best New Chef 2010, starts with cream from the pastured cows at Battenkill Valley Creamery in upstate New York. He adds cheese rinds—the spruce-bark rinds from Jasper Hill Farm's pungent Winnimere cheese, for instance—and lets the mix culture for up to two weeks, until it has the flavor and texture of crème fraîche. Lightner then removes the rind, paddles the cream in a mixer, hand-kneads it and allows the finished butter to age for at least another week. "It gets a really mild sweet-and-sour flavor," he says.
When I tried Lightner's butter, I braced myself for something that tasted like cheese. It didn't. The sharpness in the smell mellowed in my mouth; the depth of flavor was noticeable, but the creaminess won out. In the end, it tasted like really good butter.
But surely Pelaccio's experiment would taste like some kind of misbegotten cheese. Cloaking cultured butter in whiskey and ash was one thing, but aging it like a wheel of Emmental cheese was another. I put my nose close to the butter and inhaled. There was a faint whiff of smokiness from the ash. Still, the butter didn't taste like ash. Or cheese. Whipped with yogurt Pelaccio made from a raw culture, it had a distinct tang that stopped just short of intense. As with Lightner's butter, the bass note was creaminess.
Maybe, having warmed to some doctored butters, I was primed to like Susan Bruss and Lior Lev Sercarz's comparatively complex creations. In 2011, Bruss and her business partner bought a farm in upstate New York, and she set about perfecting cultured butter. The butter she finally arrived at was soon championed by artisanal scouts like Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers. About three years in, Bruss wanted to try something new. She reached out to Sercarz, a French-trained chef and the proprietor of the custom spice shop La Boîte in New York City. "The quality of the butter was phenomenal," Sercarz says. "You could see what an incredible vehicle it could be for spices."
What Bruss and Sercarz undertook wasn't just making compound butter. They experimented with infusing cream, leaving seeds and peppercorns intact for crunch, and letting the butters age. It turned out that time concentrated and improved the flavors, the way it does for soup. Their Cancale No. 11 butter is hand-mixed with orange zest, fennel and sea salt before it's aged for two weeks. The flavors are strong and distinct but somehow not overpowering; the quality of Bruss's butter remains at the forefront. It's amazingly good.
Inevitably, not everybody thinks manipulating great butter is a good idea. Since his earliest cooking days, chef David Kinch has pursued the holy grail of perfect roast chicken and pristine butter, modeled after the kind he'd tasted in the Brittany region of France. At Manresa in Los Gatos, California, he has been making butter for almost a decade. And having long ago achieved his platonic ideal, he hasn't messed with it. Made from local cream broken in a Mennonite churn, Manresa's butter isn't soured with yogurt or otherwise adulterated. It isn't even cultured. "For us, it was about mastering the process," he says. "Speaking for myself, butter shouldn't be a challenge. It should just be really good."
After my tasting of purist and experimental butters, I'm in the comfortable position of not having to choose a side. (Or maybe I've just been lulled into a peaceful state by all that butterfat.) Chefs live and die on being opinionated. They're not supposed to like lots of different versions of one thing; their job is to pick the best version. But that's not the job of people like me who eat out. We go to good restaurants hoping for a new experience. Whether funkified under a layer of whiskey and leaves or left alone, the new butters are a lot more eye-opening than the usual stick. So if all these chefs are working toward the same goal—reprogramming taste buds raised on the mass-market variety—I say, bring on the butter.
Katherine Wheelock is a freelance writer and the co-author of the Roberta's Cookbook.