A partial list of things made better by butter:
Butter elevates. It demands you take your food slightly more seriously, or at least that you give it the attention it deserves. Strange, yes, but butter requires a pause: that window of time after removing it from the fridge, letting it soften into itself, before it is ready for the slow spread.
We’re collectively coming back to butter after an unsettling intermission that began in the 1970s. Growing up, there were whole years in which no butter would cross my family’s threshold. It was the heyday of margarine. Every fridge had a tub, every kitchen table was graced with that greasy plastic container. It was a sad, weird time in North America. Nutritionists had declared saturated fats public enemy number one, and someone decided that warmed-up plant sap congealed into a tenuous whip was better for us than ye olde humble butter.
Turns out we were wrong. A study published just last month analyzed the results of research conducted in the ‘70s on the effects of butter versus corn oil in diets. Contrary to expectations, participants who were fed vegetable oils had a 22% higher risk of death than those on the butter menu. When it comes to fats, we’ve been perilously misled.
That’s because margarine and its associates — veggie oils and spreads made of polyunsaturated and trans fats — contain linoleic acids, which have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. Vurrrry bad. So what should you be eating instead? Olive oil is darling, basically medicinal, great on a salad, but when you want to feel robust and homely, like your favorite aunt, creamy and warm? Nothing but buttah.
Now, nutritionists are not going so far as to say butter is actually good for you (I will, I’ll say that), but most agree that saturated fats are fine in moderation. There is plenty of room in a balanced diet for full-fat dairy products, which can lower your risk of diabetes and help in weight management by keeping your blood sugar level. Butter is also a great source of vitamins A, E, K and D. Also — vegans, avert your eyes! — dairy products qualify as whole foods, with none of the processed flavoring and coloring that can be found in all the weird substitutes. All of this news is contributing to an uptick in global butter sales: a return, in the smallest of ways, to a more wholesome time.
Caveats: Seek out grass-fed, organic, hormone-free dairy whenever possible. Buy from local producers at farmers’ markets. Spend more (if you can) to make sure you’re getting quality products from dairy maids who treat their cows with dignity and respect. You want the kind of butter you could slather on your tits and feel really good about. HIGH-QUALITY BUTTER.
Most supermarkets serve up two kinds of butter: salted or unsalted. Salted keeps longer and can be shiny-happy on toast, but I prefer unsalted, which is better for baking. Commercial American butter, like most things American, is pretty much a sad replica of superior European versions. You can find cultured European butters like President and Lurpak at specialty grocery stores — you’ll pay more, but these butters have a more concentrated taste due to their higher fat content and the culturing process (essentially, adding live cultures back to the pasteurized milk and churning in smaller batches). They’re worth it for your mindful breakfast biscuit, or for certain quality baked goods such as pie crusts or cakes like this queenly, rich chocolate-and-butter delight.
Still getting reacquainted with butter? Cozy up to it by mixing in chopped herbs like sage or rosemary and serve it in a pretty dish. In early summer, when snappy, peppery radishes are at their peak, my favorite evening snack is good, crusty bread spread with butter and topped with sliced radishes and sea salt. Step up your baked goods by making brown butter, a lightly-caramelized butter that gives cookies and blondies a nutty taste. You can even make your own butter (it’s literally just shaken cream), if you are one of those people who also weaves tapestries and has a capsule wardrobe that features many of your own plant-dyed linens.
My favorite use of butter appears in Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce, made with a can of peeled tomatoes, an onion and a generous thwack of butter. It stews up for 45 minutes and melts into a rich, gorgeous sauce, one that clings sensually to noodles and is best with no real adornment other than some parmesan cheese. It’s the kind of dish you want to eat alone, with a glass of red wine — something firm, with a kick, like a Carménère — while face masking and watching YouTube clips of Viola Davis doing stuff.
So give butter a chance, and save your guilt for something else. Butter doesn’t need your apologies.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.