The Fancy Butter Buying Guide
In October, news of a French butter shortage shook the food world to its croissant-shaped core. Prices tripled in France as consumers nervously hoarded caches. In some areas, as much as 46 percent of demand went unmet, according to Nielsen Holding Plc.
Considering how basic the ingredients are—butter is nothing more than milk cream churned into semisolid, spreadable fat—the shortage seemed implausible. But various economic forces around the world converged to shrink supplies: In 2015 the European Union ceased milk quotas, leading to a brief glut of dairy products that ended up with farmers on the Continent decreasing output by 3 percent. The U.S., meanwhile, had to reduce its exports to meet domestic demand. And a drought in New Zealand, the world’s top dairy exporter, hurt that country’s production. By this fall, butter supplies in France were woefully short, and shelves were stripped of even the top-quality stuff.
The problem of finding high-grade products is hardly unique to the French, however. Butter, like meat and even leafy greens, is an increasingly stratified staple. In the U.S., as consumers have become more culinarily savvy, the competition among gourmet retailers has grown intense. Butters of varying quality are available, with chefs paying as much as $50 a pound for the crème de la crème. A certain amount of expertise is needed to expend one’s butter budget wisely.
The market is divided into two tiers: mass retail products made with milk from a variety of reputable dairy farms, and single-origin spreads available almost exclusively by private order. (In France, many are officially classified by their region of origin, or “AOP.”) Butterfat content, or the percentage of pure natural fat by volume, is the simplest way to measure quality, particularly in the mass market.
Supermarket standbys such as Horizon Organics contain 80 percent butterfat, the minimum set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the top end of the range, craft labels such as Straus Family Creamery, a California-based operation supported by Alice Waters, and France’s AOP Echiré make butters with 84 percent to 86 percent butterfat. (They make it richer by adding less salt during processing and removing more of the watery whey.)