Food Fight: Butter & Its Baker's Cousin

Today's Times takes on the Nectar of the Gods, aka Butter, and its evil nemesis, Margarine.

Remember those old ads where a woman tastes a cookie and then says, "Were these made with real butter?" And, when the baker shame-facedly hangs her head, suggests, "Let's start again." I was reminded of this by a quote from the Times piece by one home baker: “I can tell a margarine cookie as soon as I bite into it...And then I put it right down.”

The butter/margarine divide has a long history in Missouri, where, since 1895, yellow margarine has been illegal. (The legislation was likely put in place to protect the state's dairy industry) A state legislator wants to overturn the archaic law, which still exacts a hefty penalty from those who disobey it. However, if the Times is to be believed, this is not an option any serious baker would ever entertain - no matter what commercially-minded professionals might do.

Truth to tell, their butter breakdown is super-helpful, even to the casual baker. As we all know, sometimes baked stuff just doesn't turn out. According to this piece, the culprit is probably the delicious butter, which is very likely at the wrong temperature. These were the facts we found most pertinent and revelatory:

  • "For mixing and creaming, butter should be about 65 degrees: cold to the touch but warm enough to spread. Just three degrees warmer, at 68 degrees, it begins to melt."
  • "Warm butter can be rechilled and refrozen, but once the butterfat gets warm, the emulsion breaks, never to return."
  • "For clean edges on cookies and for even baking, doughs and batters should stay cold — place them in the freezer when the mixing bowl seems to be warming up. And just before baking, cookies should be very well chilled, or even frozen hard."
  • "Butter should be creamed — beaten to soften it and to incorporate air — for at least three minutes."
  • "The best way to get frozen or refrigerated butter ready for creaming is to cut it into chunks. (Never use a microwave: it will melt it, even though it will look solid.) When the butter is still cold, but takes the imprint of a finger when gently pressed, it is ready to be creamed."
  • "When using a stand mixer, attach the paddle blade, and never go above medium speed, or the butter will heat up."
  • The best butters are "salted Kerrygold from Ireland, unsalted Kate’s Homemade Butter from Old Orchard Beach, Me., and a 'limited edition' cultured butter from Organic Valley, made from May to September, when cows are outside at least part of the time, eating grass rather than feed. Butter from grass-fed cows, rich in beta carotene, is more yellow (not higher in butterfat, as many believe)."
  • "Most important is that butter be well preserved. Mr. Bradley recommends wrapping butter that’s not going to be used immediately in foil, then sealing the edges with tape. Or using it quickly."


Butter Holds the Secret to Cookies That Sing
[NY Times]
Yellow Margarine: I Can't Believe It's Not Legal! [USA Today]