Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed that the butter was really special? That was cultured butter.
At the time you probably chalked it up to the restaurant’s supply chain that also gets it access to ingredients like prime beef and perfect baby turnips. But cultured butter isn’t just a superior version of supermarket butter, it’s its own animal.
What you’re buying now is known as sweet cream butter.
It’s made from fresh pasteurized cream, unmediated by the butter maker, resulting in a clean milky flavor. Cultured butter is made from fermented cream. More of the buttermilk separates giving it a dense, velvety texture, and the culturing converts more milk sugars into acid adding a seductive tang to the taste of sweet cream. It’s a deeper, more dimensional flavor that ends up tasting more ‘buttery.’
Before widespread industrialization, butter was almost always cultured.
Traditional dairy farmers briefly stored their milk without refrigeration to allow the cream to rise, often holding it through several milkings to accumulate enough cream for the churn. During those unrefrigerated hours, naturally occurring bacteria and micro-organisms would cause the cream to ripen and slightly sour producing fuller, nuttier flavors in the butter.
Today’s commercial dairy whisks the milk straight into chilling tanks.
The colder temperatures prevent fermentation, and the subsequent pasteurization kills off any remaining natural cultures. Some modern dairies will recreate the culturing process by adding bacterial cultures back into the pasteurized cream, similar to the way commercial yogurt is made. Another method is to produce butter and then add in flavor compounds and lactic acid; this simulates the taste of cultured butter but is really just flavored sweet cream butter.
It’s a slower, more expensive process and you’ll pay a premium price for true cultured butter, but try it; you’ll be hooked. Look for small-batch local producers, or your supermarket probably stocks a few brands usually from European producers or American organics.
Here are some widely distributed cultured butters to look for: