Why Butter Is Brilliant

Butter is one of the best things ever. We caught up with the world’s butter experts to find out what makes butter so special, and how you can make your own.
Image from i OS 9

When I was a boy, I didn’t like butter. In fact, I loathed the stuff. I would refuse to have butter in my ham sandwiches; I’d prefer my toast to be dry and unlubricated; and I’d get distressed at the very sight of butter being left out to sweat on the counter. Weird kid, I know.

It’s funny looking back on my butter-phobia today because, nowadays, I can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. Take me out for a nice dinner and place a barrel of high-quality salted butter in front of me alongside a few hefty slices of warm bread, and I won’t even care if the rest of my meal is an absolute disaster. Okay, I’d still care a bit. But at least I’d be so full of bread and butter that I wouldn’t be at risk of leaving the restaurant hungry.

Butter is a wondrous food product. It’s perfect for frying, baking, eating and – along with its cousins cheese and yoghurt – a prime example of why I could happily be a vegetarian but could never envision myself living a life free from dairy. I’m not alone in my advocacy for the stuff.

The likes of high-end chefs such as Mark Birchall at the two-Michelin starred Moor Hall in Lancashire; Paul Ainsworth at the Michelin-starred No6 in Padstow; and Tommy Banks of The Black Swan are just a few of the talents out who all make their own butter in-house.

Even daytime telly magnate James Martin released a cookbook this year simply called: Butter. The cover is absolutely chaotic yet, filled with over 130 buttery recipes that range from bougie butter-poached lobster to a Mob-friendly chicken with ‘nduja butter, I’ve got to respect him for his commitment to the bit. Going through that list of chefs I’ve just mentioned, you might assume that a passion for butter is exclusive to the Horse & Hound crowd. But butter isn’t just for middle-aged white men.

Chet Sharma (of BiBi) swears by butter and ghee – a clarified butter that’s prevalent in Indian cooking, used to do everything from lacquer up rotis and naan to temper curries. “We grew up eating homemade makhan (white butter) and ghee in India, so I always understood the difference between good and bad butter,” says Chet, “however, it wasn't until I ate at Blue Hill at Stone Barns where it really clicked – that butter really is just the product of what the cow has eaten. At Blue Hill they serve two butters side-by-side, one from a cow that loved eating wild flowers, the other from a cow who preferred to eat more silage and dried grass. The difference between the two was so clear that it really drove home how important the cow's diet is to the taste of the butter.”

The BAO restaurant group also lives and breathes butter. BAO Borough’s signature 40-day aged beef dish gets its richness from a bespoke creation of theirs known as Taipei butter (a mixture of spiced beef fat, butter, and plenty of aromatic spices and herbs like star anise and basil that’s strewn through freshly cooked rice) while the Shoreditch joint’s slow cooked beef and short rib noodle bowl comes with a fat lobe of beef butter bobbing in its broth. Butter is integral to the essence of both dishes.

Buying good butter is essential to good cooking. But making your own butter at home doesn’t have to be complicated. Tristan Welch is chef patron at Parker’s Tavern in Cambridge and a man who believes in the restorative power of butter. “Making butter is an absolute art form”, says Tristan, who makes his butter using raw Jersey cow milk he gets down the road from his home in Cambridge. “First up, it's about the quality of the milk and I'm talking about extra rich, extra creamy milk. The kind of milk where, when you let it settle, the cream and the milk is about 50/50. Next, it’s about managing the level of lactic acid within the butter. that's where you get that slight hint of acidity at the back of the butter which cuts through the richness and balances it perfectly.”

Tristan suggests that one of the best ways to get that lactic acid level right is by leaving your milk out overnight. Health and safety anoraks might be shocked at such an action but it’s a perfectly safe thing to do. “Once you have managed the level of lactic acid within the creamy milk, put it in a mixer and let it mix until it splits out,” continues Tristan, “what you get is butter and then the start of a buttermilk. Don't throw that buttermilk away though. Add a touch of yoghurt to it once it's separated from the butter and that will start to create its own culture within itself and you have free buttermilk.” Who doesn't like free buttermilk?

If that sounds a bit much (or if you’re a bit wary of leaving your milk on the counter for the night) then you can always have a go at adding some excitement to shop-bought butter. “Tarting up shop-bought butter is really simple,” says Tristan, “take a really good quality unsalted butter, slice it and sprinkle some sea salt flakes over the top – that's the first simple step that anyone can do – and make sure you serve it at room temperature. Alternatively, serve it freezing cold with hot toast. That’s delicious, too. However, for those who want to take it to the next level, the best spruced up butter I've ever had is when a sous chef of mine created a recipe using one whole head of garlic to one pack of butter and one bunch of parsley. It was so rich and so delicious.”

More Expert Butter Advice:

Richard Corrigan – Corrigan Collection

"We serve two types of butter at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill - a simple homemade seaweed butter and a cultured butter from the good folks at Lincolnshire Poacher which, in my view, is the best butter in the world. It’s made using whey cream from the cow’s milk on their farm and it has a flavour and texture like no other – we’ve been serving it for over 25 years.

To give some basic, shop-bought butter some added zing, I finely chop some anchovy fillets, capers and maybe a black olive or two, grate some lemon zest and give it all a good mix with the butter. You’ve suddenly gone from boring to brilliant."

James Knappett – Kitchen Table

"I would advise investing in good quality butter from an independent dairy like Fen Farm Dairy and Estate Dairy. The quality of the butter is dependent on the quality of the cows and the milk they are producing; you want a butter that’s really golden in colour. One of my favourite ways to serve butter is with a caramelised onion butter; you caramelise onions in beef fat and whip them into your butter when they are really soft. It’s delicious on a crumpet or over a roasted sirloin steak. Herb butters are also great and I’ll always create a wild garlic one when it’s in season."

Asimakis Chaniotis – Pied à Terre

"When making the butter myself in the restaurant I make sure we only buy the best unhomogenised cream we can find from the UK’s best farms. I whisk this up in a KitchenAid on a high speed and separate the butter from the buttermilk. I reserve the milk to use for cooking things like buttermilk chicken and roll the butter out on a muslin cloth so that any remaining buttermilk is absorbed. I then season it with salt and sometimes mix it with Marmite or with a tarragon purée. I love mixing citrus flavours with shop-bought butter as it cuts through the fattiness. Try using bergamot – which is highly seasonal now – or yuzu juice is good too."

Will Bowlby – Kricket restaurants (and SOMA)

"Ghee is a form of butter – a highly-clarified one that is traditionally used in Asian cooking and we love using it in our food at Kricket. Ghee is made by melting regular butter which then separates into liquid fats and milk solids. Once separated, the solids are removed and you’re left with the glorious, nutty ghee. We fry wild mushrooms in ghee for our khichidi dish at Kricket, which we serve with cured egg yolk and pickled shimeji. Delicious!"

Sami Harvey – The Laundry

"When comparing butters for me it is all about the salt content - I like to be able to taste the salt in a butter and even better if there are lovely large salt crystals present. The temperature when serving is also vital as there is nothing worse than hard butter. One of my current favourite things to do is to slightly whip the butter so it becomes lovely and aerated and it's just glorious swiped across the top of hot toast. Compound butters are an easy way to add great flavour to your dishes and cooking in general and our banana bread with honeycomb butter has become super popular at The Laundry. Honeycomb butter is the heavenly combination of sweet and savoury."

Mark Birchall – Moor Hall

"I particularly love a salted, cultured butter made with raw cream from really well looked after herds - Estate Dairy and Ampersand make the best ones on the market. One of the most memorable butters I have had was at Alain Ducasse’s three-star restaurant at The Dorchester. It was served tableside from a huge block so the theatre of it was amazing. If you want to do something special with your butter at home, you can add smoked salt or dried seaweed to it. You can also roll out your butter, layer it with seasonal herbs and flowers so that you can slice it like a terrine; it looks really impressive but it’s actually very simple."

James Cochran – 12:51

"Good quality butter stems from the quality of cream you use to make it. Better quality cream equals better butter. It’s a great fat to add that extra level of flavour to a dish. I love to dabble in different flavours when making my own and you can add most flavours to shop-bought butter too. Seaweed, chicken gravy, beef fat, pork fat are just a few I've been using recently. Make sure butter is room temperature so you can whip the flavouring in to give it a good even consistency or use a hand blender to evenly incorporate it."

Tommy Banks – Roots and The Black Swan at Oldstead

"The butter we serve in our restaurants is cultured - we allow it to ferment slightly so that it develops a lovely tangy acidity to it and works brilliantly with our sourdough, cheese custard and seed crackers. We serve it in thick, room temperature slabs and we use unpasteurised cream from local farm Cow Corner which adds to its creaminess. Dressing up a shop-bought butter can be easy too. We mix our homemade butter with a chive puree using the chives we grow in our garden. Why not buy some chives in your next supermarket shop, mix them up with some warmed butter and pop it back in the fridge to set."

Selin Kiazim – Oklava

"The best butter will always be made from the highest quality unhomogenised milk, for the creamiest and richest texture and flavour. Of course, really good butter on its own or slathered on toast is a magical thing, but it’s also an ingredient that lends itself so incredibly well to all kinds of flavours from around the world.

My Medjool date nutter was in fact a happy accident – I wasn’t out to create a butter with its own cult following - when I had some sticky, rich dates sitting in a black rice vinegar syrup and thought to myself, what will happen if I blitz this through some butter? It resulted in a sweet and unctuous butter that, when sprinkled with Maldon salt, hit decadence levels with hints of acidity, spiciness and saltiness. Pure contrast perfection."

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