If Butter Could Talk, Here’s What It Would Tell You

Butter is silky smooth and ready for any stage.

Some foods were never meant to be liked. The lima beans of the world, the licorices, the powdered coffee creamers, those black-bean-­lentil cakes that call themselves burgers, all born into sad-sackery. Me, though, I am a superstar, a talented actor with celebrity charisma. I’m the one people gravitate to at the dinner party. The smooth one who inspires superlative idioms—like butter, baby!—and gets featured in dramatically lit portraits on Time magazine. These are the 6 things you should only make with butter (4 things you shouldn’t).

So how come I’m slogging it out with those other fats just to stay relevant?

This just isn’t right! When you’ve needed something silky and spreadable to moisten your bread, I’ve been there. When you’ve hankered for satiny sauces, I’ve melted myself right into them. As my old friend Julia Child put it: With enough of me, anything is good! And yet you’ve forsaken me. In my heyday, nearly a century ago, each of you Americans ate 20 pounds of me per year. Now you’re down to six!

Take that Time cover from a few years back. That was actually a good moment for me. It was captioned “Eat Butter,” which I obviously loved. (Great photo, too; did I mention the photo?) I had survived the low-fat craze of the ’80s and ’90s, had endured falsey-face margarine’s half-century in the sun, celebrating when she finally got locked away in health jail. Butter was back, the article said. But as soon as it hit newsstands, Harvard University nutritionists and other wonks were so eager to tear me down again. They recommended “moderation” and reasserted that that sanctimonious chump extra virgin olive oil was healthier than me. These are the 12 ways you didn’t know you could use butter.

I’m telling you, you gotta audition me again. I’m from the cream skimmed off milk. Does it get any better than that? Cream contains tiny fat globules that float around ignoring one another. Yet when you shake, beat, or churn them enough, amazing things start to happen. First you incorporate air, whisking up whipped cream; churn longer and the fat globules start colliding and sticking together until blobs of golden dairy fat are floating in watery milk—buttermilk. Drain it, wash the milk fat with water, give it a knead or two, add some salt (or don’t), and bada bing, bada boom: me!

Among cooking fats, my genius dominates for a reason—I alone am an emulsion of fat, water, and milk solids. Being so emulsified (80 percent fat in the United States and 82 percent in Europe) might sound like meaningless hokum to you, but this is wildly important in the kitchen. Every other fat you cook with (my “friends” olive oil, canola oil, chicken fat, yada yada) is pretty much just fat. But if you’ve dipped lobster in melted butter, you know I contain multitudes: I’m the white foam on top (sugar and proteins), the cloudy liquid at the bottom (water), and the clear yellow stuff in between (clarified butterfat, or ghee).

It’s the way I shape-shift among these parts that makes me so good. I’m solid and firm when cold, so you can layer me into puff pastry or piecrust dough without making a squishy mess; when baked, I melt, leaving behind countless tender and flaky layers. I can be softened at room temperature just enough to be creamed with sugar, trapping air that forms bubbles for the lightest cookie dough. By the way, here are 12 baking mistakes you didn’t know you were making.

By melting me very carefully to maintain my emulsified state, chefs made me the foundation of sunny hollandaise and herbal béarnaise and just about every other classic sauce with body but no greasiness. I’ve always known when to act subtly. My ghee, unlike my easy-to-scorch milk solids, has a high smoke point and is very frying-friendly, so I’m the cooking fat in India and much of Southeast Asia, where I also play a significant role in religious rituals, including funerals.

In Europe, I first was peasant fare, as the rich were well-larded with poultry and pork fat. But then medieval Catholics OK’d me for meatless Lent, so I got a toehold in the upper-class diet and took France by storm. I even co-starred in the Protestant Reformation—one of Martin Luther’s many gripes was a butter fee levied by the Pope.

But then came the sad bits. Emperor Napoléon III ran low on butter for his troops and put out a call for someone to approximate my sublime flavor and texture. Some dingus flavored milk with beef tallow (ew), and a long line of poor imitations followed. Later, scientists altered vegetable oils to hydrogenate them, making them spreadable like I (naturally) am. Yes, margarine pushed itself onstage. Butter rationing during World War II helped, too, especially when the government allowed producers to add yellow coloring to its unappetizing pale gray shades.

Read the headlines today about how I again outsell margarine and you’d think I’d made a comeback, but my saturated fat continues to be a controversial indulgence in the face of healthier options like the monounsaturated fats in ho-hum olive oil. But live a little, would ya? I’m butter, baby!

Perfect Beurre Blanc

asparagus with buerre blanc on turquoise dishJoleen Zubek for Reader's DigestFor an essential topping to fish, blanched vegetables such as asparagus or carrots, or roast chicken or duck, combine 6 table­spoons dry white wine, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, and 1 very finely minced large shallot in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Lower heat to a gentle simmer and cook until liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Cut 1 stick cold unsalted butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. Reduce heat to the lowest setting and add 1 tablespoon butter. Whisk constantly until almost melted, then add another piece of butter. Make sure heat remains low, briefly removing the saucepan from the heat if necessary, so that butter pieces just barely melt. Continue whisking in butter one piece at a time until all of it is incorporated and a silky, creamy sauce has formed. Season with salt and white pepper and serve immediately.

Kate Lowenstein is a health editor currently at Vice; Daniel Gritzer is the culinary director of the cooking site Serious Eats.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest