Finding Gourmet Butter in New York City
>> Over the years, I've made batches of butter cookies, butter-drenched brioche, and butter frosting without regard for my dress size. Just a hint of a new recipe makes me start stockpiling ingredients.
It wasn't until this past January, however, that I learned there were differences in butter. And such differences! "Butter with a Pedigree. Ah, the French" by Dorie Greenspan detailed them all. (NEW YORK TIMES, 1/17/01)
Ms. Greenspan writes that high butterfat butter is what makes French pastries so tender. The significant difference between French (European) style butter and American is a few percentage points of butterfat. American butter contains around 80%, while the minimum butterfat for French butter is 82%, with 83% or more being better.
The way butter is made creates richness. Old fashion, low volume churning produces enhanced taste. The French call this value the "taste of the soil." They actually certify products with the "Appellation d'Origine Controlee," indicating that quality reflects the location. Beurre d'Echire, for example, falls under the appellation awarded to Deux-Sevres butter (recommended in the list below). The certification means that the butter is made from milk produced from within 19 miles of the village of Echire.
Top quality butter is ripened, a time consuming process. Most industrially-made American butters are not cultured and are thus labeled as "sweet cream." The result of ripening is that this butter contributes to the plasticity (a quality along with its higher melting point) that is needed to make croissants and puff pastry.
What to Buy and Where to Buy It
Here's a selection of high-quality butters that are available in Manhattan:
Keller's Plugra - 82%
Keller's European Style Butter - 82%
Land O'Lakes Ultra Creamy Butter - 83%
Egg Farm Dairy, Peekskil, NY - 86%
Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, Websterville, VT - 86%
Beurre d'Echire - 84% (highly regarded)
Celes-sur-Belle, Charentes-Poitou region
Lurpak Danish Butter - 12g (18%) fat in a 8 oz package
To buy, canvas gourmet grocery stores such as Dean & DeLuca, Grace's Marketplace, Fairway Market on Broadway, and Zabar's. I went on my own butter quest at Zabar's.
Across the nation, the name "Zabar's" has become the generic term for "gourmet grocery store." I started my quest at Zabar's because of its reputation and because they ran several ads promising free cheese tasting opportunities.
Zabar's is not a gourmet Disneyland. It is a "serious" block-long store that exists to sell product, albeit fragrant, tender, unusual product. It doesn't have fancy displays. Signage is minimal. Shelves are packed. Clerks are standard. Food, however, is top quality, matched by surprisingly reasonable prices.
Zabar's might seem small to people used to shopping at suburban grocery stores, but it is large for Manhattan. Because a wide variety of items are closely packed, however, Zabar's is not easy to navigate. When I walked into its cheese department, with 600+ varieties stuffed into a small room, I felt somewhat overwhelmed.
Now then, I, like 50% of the population, wear reading glasses. This means that when I'm confronted with a lot of unique, small merchandise with even smaller labels, I have trouble making distinctions. Consequently, my first impression of their cheese display was that their room was filled with mountains of yellow lumps.
For better or worse, there were no big signs providing clues as how these 600 varieties of cheese were arranged. But heck, the place smelled great and I quickly located a plate of cheese samples. Who's to complain?
Zabar's Dairy Department
For all the cheese, Zabar's "dairy" department is difficult to locate. It's somewhat hidden behind an upright refrigerated cheese counter. In order to access the butter shelf, you have to slide into an extremely narrow space along with delivery people, the clerks who cut cheese and other shoppers.
Identifying gourmet butter is not easy. Either you have expert information or you refer to a list. Why? There is nothing on butter labels to indicate butter fat, high or low. I asked a cheese clerk to advise me, but she wasn't familiar with butter, so consequently, I bought two "best guess" brands, plus two from my list:
- Kellers European Style Butter
- Lurpak Danish Butter
I also purchased a wedge of cheese that I sampled earlier. It's European, made from unpasteurized milk. Unfortunately, the clerks did not write its name on my package, so I don't know what it is. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime purchase!
My grocery bag of two huge rounds of bread, a box of cookies, Caraibe (a Venezuelan chocolate bar with a 66% cocoa base), four types of butter and a wedge cheese weighed in at under $35. As Zabar's is close to Central Park, I could have substituted smoked salmon (their specialty) for the extra butter and had a picnic, but as it was mid-March, I caught the next train home.
Once home, I immediately whacked cold chips off of Keller's European Style Butter and scattered them on a hunk of fresh, multi-grain bread. Yum! The butter had a light, zesty, cultured odor and tasted far more creamy than standard butter. Best, no greasy aftertaste!
If you can't get to New York to purchase better butter, or if there are no gourmet grocery stores in your city, contact www.Zabars.com. They do a tremendous mail order business.
Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 3/11/2003. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.