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.