Remember when butter came in two varieties — salted and not?
Food writer and blogger Leitha Matz can, which makes it all the more surprising when she contemplates the herd of butter choices now crowding grocery shelves.
"There's cultured butter, there are artisanal butters. You can get butter that is more yellow in the spring and summer than it is in the autumn and winter because you can actually see the transition of what the animal is eating. "
In fact, Matz, who taste-tested a raft of butters for her blog, Miss Ginsu.com, found herself "astounded at the sheer breadth and variety of butter that was available."
Spread the news: Butter is getting better in the United States.
"There's definitely been a kind of whirlwind with butter," says Andrew Knowlton, restaurant and drinks editor at Bon Appetit magazine.
Like bacon, butter has traveled an interesting path. A hand-crafted product 50 or so years ago, it descended into a mass-produced, taste-shackled commodity only to be resurrected in recent years as interest in good, hand-crafted food has grown.
First the bread at restaurants improved, then chefs, who were listing the names of farm suppliers on their menus, got serious about butter. These days, there are wildly popular butters produced by outfits like Straus Family Creamery on the West Coast and the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery on the East.
There are even "cult" butters, like the handmade product from a small dairy called Animal Farm in Orwell, (naturally) Vermont, which is a supplier to celebrated chef Thomas Keller's Per Se and The French Laundry restaurants.
And for those with a taste for the exotic, there's the butter made in Brittany that is flecked with algae.
"When you go to the grocery store now, it's not just the local dairy and the big brand. You've got seven or eight to choose from, including imported butters. We kind of caught up to the Europeans," says Knowlton.
How does butter fit in with that other big food trend — eating healthy?
Quite well, says Knowlton.
"It goes within my definition of eating healthy, which is you eat less when there's flavorful food on the plate and you don't if you're using fake cheese or low-cal whatever," he says. "I think anything where people are thinking and talking about what they're putting in their mouths is part of a healthy diet."
Allison Hooper, cofounder of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, agrees.
"If you eat butter that has tons of flavor, you really don't need to eat a lot," she says.
Her creamery started making cultured butter about 13 years ago, patterning it on French butters. In a cultured butter, raw cream is pasteurized (a requirement in the United States), then selected strains of bacteria are added to create the required flavor profile. Butter made from pasteurized fresh cream is called sweet cream butter.
The butter is available salted or unsalted, or, a very popular product, seeded with sea salt crystals.
Mixing things into butter, or making what are known as compound butters, is another development that has become more common. In the October issue, Bon Appetit features a classic herb-lemon zest butter that can double as an instant sauce.
The nice thing about butter is you can indulge in a little luxury without incurring the kind of financial outlay that will cut through your budget like, well, you know.
"It's not truffles or foie gras or some crazy Himalayan salt," says Knowlton. "It's a cheap luxury."
Matz's taste test: http://www.missginsu.com/2008/04/on-bread-and-butter-alone.html