Buttering Upscale

The French always complicate things.

From brandy to sparkling white wine to butter, everything they produce succumbs to regional designations. While Land O' Lakes tastes the same whether dolloped on bread at the French Room or melted over Eggo waffles in the Burning Question crew test kitchen, France labels butters according to regional character. Beurre d'Echire, for example, is known as a Deux-Sevres product. Its milk comes from cows feeding no more than 19 miles from a small village near Poitiers and La Rochelle.

Land O' Lakes, as far as we know, comes from tanker trucks.

And while the French distinguish between milk from barn-fed and pasture-fed cows (certain fats are higher in milk from pasture-fed cows), it took decades of legal wrangling before American companies would list the ingredients--food coloring, vegetable oil, etc.--on tubs of margarine.

"If you really want to taste butter, cruise around the countryside of France," says Kent Rathbun, executive chef of Abacus. "Butter comes from the nearest farmer, and every one is different. It has to do with the cream, the feed, how the animal was kept and other factors." American butters must contain a minimum of 80 percent butterfat. The French stuff, however, starts at 82 percent. It's also cultured, adding a slight tang, and often manufactured in the same manner--and with the same equipment--as it was more than a century ago. "The cream over there is 100 percent natural," adds William Koval, the French Room's executive chef. "When you make a sauce with the cream there it will never break. Our heavy cream is like water compared to theirs." He blames the difference on the manufacturing process, including irradiation and hormones.

Fortunately, many high-end restaurants and grocers offer the expensive stuff. Whole Foods Market in Plano stocks eight butters, including Celles sur Belle at $3.79 for a half-pound stick. Central Market in Fort Worth sells 20 different types--such as Isigny Ste. Mere for a mere $6.69 per pound. Even American dairies now churn up European-style butters. Plugra, from Keller's near Philadelphia ($3.99 per pound), is the most highly regarded, but dozens of others exist on the market. David McMillan, executive chef at Nana, is currently testing a Canadian goat butter. "It's very good, very rich, and it's $11 a pound," he says.

But is that stuff really worth it?

"I don't use it," says Marc Cassel, executive chef at the Green Room. "It is better, but is it that much better? I don't think so." Cassel uses Schepp's Dairy butter in his kitchen, as do Gilbert Garza at Suze and Andres Bautista at Al Biernat's. "Although I can bring in the best butter," Bautista explains, "if you don't know anything about butter, you might say it tastes the same."

"It takes a well-trained palate to pick up the difference," agrees Jeff Moschetti, executive chef at Crescent Court.

Yet many chefs use Plugra or some other high-end butter in their restaurants. Abacus and Nana put Plugra out as their table butter, but cook with Land O' Lakes. The French Room does the opposite. Crescent Court slaps Land O' Lakes on the table and bakes with Plugra.

"Plugra is better for baking," Koval says. "There is less water and more fat. Land O' Lakes leaves less butter flavor because it has more water content." Indeed, most American butters contain about 19 percent water, compared with 15 percent in European and European-style brands. When the Burning Question crew subjected three butters--Land O' Lakes, Cabot (a Vermont butter) and Celles sur Belle--to a melting test, their difference became obvious. Water and fat separate as Land O' Lakes melts. The fancy stuff, however, maintains its consistency.

Our taste test, a wild Saturday night munching on sticks of butter, left many of the Burning Question crew incapacitated the next day.

"We use Land O' Lakes in cooking," Rathbun says. "When you melt it down, it's not worth the cost, especially if you're going to disguise the flavor. For example, we make a charred tomato butter sauce. We want to emphasize the charred tomato, not the butter." All the chefs, however, rave about French butters. Even Plugra stands apart from common American brands. "It's completely superior to regular butter," Rathbun claims. "And you can really taste the difference." But at $3.99 a pound and up, many chefs--including Cassel and Koval--stick with Land O' Lakes unsalted at home, though it also costs around $4 a pound.

So, in answer to this week's Burning Question, we must agree with Garza's definite maybe: "It might be worth it, but it depends on what you're going to do with the butter." In other words, for baking use Plugra. For re-enacting scenes from Marlon Brando movies or slathering on frozen waffles, stick to Land O' Lakes.

Anyway, the Burning Question crew prefers Land O' Lakes. It's good, cheap, and if you fold the box just right, the wholesome Indian woman on the front becomes a bare-breasted trollop.

Let us know if you need instructions.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries