Under a veil of secrecy over the past several weeks, I have been amassing a collection of unsalted butter in the bottom drawer of my refrigerator. At some point, the vegetables and limes could no longer mask that something was happening.
"What's with all the butter?," they asked.
Last year, for the first time, I made cheese. Actually, I took a class on how to make cheese one afternoon under the tutelage of Master Cheryl Perry from Red Barn Studio in the warm, welcoming dining room of Henning's Local in Cochecton, NY. In that one afternoon, I was captivated and also well taught enough that I could replicate the results over and over on my own. I beat a path between my kitchen and Dirie's Dairy Farm in Shandelee where I would pick up a jug of raw cow's milk, scurry home and make two delectable balls of mozzarella -- one to hoard and one to share.
Feeling cocky from my cheese success, I decided butter was next. I shared my dream with a few friends. Coincidentally, my friend Paul was making his way through a book on the topic: Butter - A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova. Paul deserves a gold star for reading every word, cover to cover. I aspire to that level of commitment, but to date I have only bounced around the book following one thread or another, starting at the back.
As this is a yearlong pursuit, I decided I needed to understand butter personally. I love butter. Especially salted butter and menus from here to Denmark have been impressing me with their special flavored butter offerings. So, I decided a butter tasting was in order. Cue the refrigerator drawer full.
While my collection of butters was not scientific, I did follow a few rules. In every store I went in -- from the city to the country -- I would pick up a new unsalted butter that I did not have. I decided on unsalted because 1) I wanted to experience the uniqueness of the cow and what she ate in as pure a form as I could, and 2) salt is a powerful variable in and of itself (it may be next on the tasting party circuit) as to be able to sway my tastebuds.
Last Thursday, without planning or much warning, I began to hear from friends. What are you doing Friday night? We should do something, right? As the numbers grew from three guests to seven to 11 to a final group of 13, I decided to grab my butters and make a go of it.
When my guests arrived, the butter was carefully laid out down the center of the dining table amidst all the place settings for dinner, but the lure of a glass of wine and some appetizers drew them to the always popular kitchen island instead. About a half hour in, I clinked my wine glass with a knife (wedding style) and made a short announcement: "On the dining table you will find 19 different unsalted butters marked with the letters A through S. Here is a piece of paper with your name on it and a pen. Please taste and rate each butter!" You might have expected my guests to yawn, but they cheered loudly and got right to work!
One detail is very important here: No one, except me and my helper (who wrote down all the names and dished out a portion of each butter onto plain white paper plates where the only marking was an identifying letter) knew which butters were included, what the wrapper looked like, where it was from ... not one detail. A blind butter tasting ... very scientific!
Amidst the melee, which lasted about 45 minutes, you could hear groans of delight and disgust in equal measure. Mmmmm. Look at the color of this one! Oh, I need to taste that one again. That is NOT cow!! Some used bread. Some discarded the bread and tried the butter on their fingertips. Everyone got busy writing their thoughts down. They tested and compared and revisited ones to make sure they got it right.
No one methodology was enforced upon the guests, but definite categories emerged, as follows:
good or distinctive in some positive way
bad, gross or yucky
neutral, but closer to bad than good
Descriptions were flowery and personal: tastes like candles (who eats candles?), smooth orgasm (I wonder if the butter company wants to use that for marketing), tastes like margarine, weird, peppery, meh, waxy but good, an explosion of flavor, if the state of Iowa was a type of butter, sunscreen, very very tasteless, buffalo?, rancid!
At the end of the tasting everyone had their own favorites and a few glitches revealed themselves. One of the butters was lightly salted, but that fact was only announced in the list of ingredients, not on the label in any other way ... so it snuck itself in. It was also made from goat's milk. It would have been interesting to see how it fared if it didn't have any salt. Alas, my theory proved right. Salt is a powerful drug and this butter's salt content catapulted it to the top of the list. Unofficially, I disqualify this butter from the pure taste test and while it is on the list, I suggest you focus your attention on the remaining 18 unsalted butters.
The morning after the butter party was overcast and my overnight guests and I spent the better part of the day, coffees in hand, analyzing and categorizing the rankings. Finally, we added all the details into a spreadsheet and invite you to join our butter nerd fest!
The data includes the butter's name, country of origin, the votes it got, its final score and some notes about the cows being grass fed, the butter being cultured, etc. The scores are weighted with "best" receiving a little more than good and "neutral" receiving a little less than bad.
Here are a few key things I learned during the butter process:
People are really passionate about butter.
A butter party is a much more popular activity than you might think.
This is completely unscientific, but before the butter party, if I mentioned my plans an overwhelming number of people told me Kerry Gold was their hands down favorite. No other butter was mentioned by name. Take a look to see how it fared.
Here is what surprised me the most. I cannot discern one butter from the next. At all. Zilch. It all tasted like, well, butter to me. I really wanted to be able to taste the grass and the blue sky and the milk and the wind that swirls around the cows and the barn. Nada. I seemed to be alone in this though. It has not thwarted my desire to make butter ... and now I think I have some friends who want to come along for the ride.
Take a look at the data, butter nerds. I challenge you to host your own butter tasting party. If you do, invite me! Or just report back!
XOXO Farm Girl