As Paula Deen and just about anyone with taste buds can tell you, everything is better with butter, but how much better depends on things like fat content, cultures, what the cows eat and even the time of year the butter’s made. Here in the Bay Area’s butter belt, there’s pretty much no excuse not to sample some of the richest, creamiest and freshest butters around from area cows. And goats.
Armed with knife and baguette, we’ve tasted through the best of the region. To our surprise, they varied greatly not only in color and texture, but in flavor and smell. Some were tangier, others tame, and one even smelled like grass and hay (a good thing). Here are seven you’ll want to try, along with how to make your own butter…
Clover Farms: The most readily available locally-made butter, Clover is a solid go-to butter for cooking and spreading. A small group of taste-testers picked this as a favorite, with its approachable taste and sunny yellow color. Organic and conventional options are available. A bit harder to find, but a cult favorite is the organic European Farmstead butter in cozy ceramic crocks. Flavored with sea salt from Brittany, it’s a must-have when you can find it. Cloverorganicfarms.com
Straus Family Creamery: Made in a 1950’s era butter churn, this local family creamery is a chef’s favorite for its high butterfat (85%) European style butter. Small-batch crafted in Tomales Bay, it’s one of the richest-tasting butters with a buttery aroma and flavor that can be a bit overpowering spread on bread, but is a rock-solid choice for cooking and baking. Available in both sweet and salted and named the Best Butter in America by House and Garden Magazine. Tomales Bay. Available at most grocers in the North Bay. strausfamilycreamery.com
– Butter contains at least 80 percent milkfat, but European style butters may contain 85% or more
– Sweet cream butter: In the United states, we primarily eat sweet cream butter, which can be unsalted or salted.
– Salted versus unsalted: Unsalted butter is primarily used for baking and cooking.
– What makes butter yellow? The color comes from what the cows eat. In summer, when the cows are eating more green grass, it tends to be yellower.
Spring Hill Cheese Co: With a slight cheese-nose, this Petaluma dairy mostly sells their cultured butters at farm markets around the North Bay. But there’s a reason you’ll usually find a line at the stands. Using a cheddar culture, their dense butters ripen for three days and make for a spreadable best. springhillcheese.com, 762-3446. Available at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Hall Farm Market on Saturdays.
Sierra Nevada Cheese Company: My new favorite butter is Sierra-Nevada’s vat-cultured butter. Using live active cultures (like yogurt), the butter ferments slightly, giving it a creamy, rich flavor. With a higher European-style butterfat content, this Willows-based dairy is a natural for spreading on sourdough. Look for a gold foil wrapper. Available
530-934-8660 or sierranevadacheese.com, available at Oliver’s Market.
McClellands Dairy: A longtime dairy family in the North Bay, McClelland’s branched out into artisan butter production in 2009. Using grass-fed cattle, the small batch European-style butter has serious terroir. In both smell and taste, there’s an essence of grass and hay with an intense, rich butteriness. Made in the coastal hills of Sonoma County, the milk is separated, pasteurized and churned in small batches. The only addition is sea salt from Brittany. Harvest Fair and American Cheese Society winner. Available in plastic tubs and refillable ceramic crocks. Want to meet the cows? McClelland’s offers frequent tours, with the next scheduled for June 5. The tour includes a home-cooked bacon and eggs breakfast and a tour with owner and second-generation farmer George McClelland. 707.664.0452, mcclellandsdairy.com.
Meyenberg Goat Butter: As you might expect, goat butter has tangier, earthier flavor than cow’s milk butter, though not substantially so. If you like the flavor of chevre, you’ll pick it up right away. Paler than cow’s milk butter, goat’s milk has the added benefit of being tolerable to those who are lactose intolerable. Produced just south of Modesto, Meyenberg goat butter is a lighter, less waxy option than many cow’s milk butters. Available at Oliver’s and at meyenberg.com.
Ancient Organics Ghee: Channeling 5,000 years of Indian wisdom, Peter Malakoff calls ghee “the very essence of grass distilled from cow’s milk into liquid gold”. In less flowery terms, it’s fresh butter boiled for hours to within an inch of its life. It’s used for everything from flavoring food to salving burns and improving complexions. Not quite butter, but not quite oil, its the Swiss-Army knife of Indian condiments. During the process of ghee-making, milk solids evaporate and what’s left is a paste-like spread that can sit on your shelf – un-refrigerated – for six months. Unlike butter, however, Malakoff says ghee is actually healthful, awakening the digestive fire of the body. Ancient Organics starts with Straus creamery butter, boiling it only on the waxing moon while playing an Indian mantra called ‘Mahamrtunjaya’. Whether you buy into the spiritual aspect or not, it’s great for cooking and adding to rice. Available at Whole Foods, Olivers and online at ancientorganics.com.
Make Your Own: Our family is addicted to the spanking-fresh flavor of do-it-yourself butter made with heavy whipping cream, an old mayonnaise jar and 10 minutes of cardio-shaking. Just pour a pint of high quality organic whipping cream (we’re fans of Straus, but any kind will work as long as it’s heavy whipping cream and not half-and-half) into a clean glass jar and screw the top on tight. Shake vigorously for about 10 minutes. The cream will turn into whipped cream, then start to separate, finally pulling away from the sides. Here’s where you’ll want to add a pinch or two of salt. Within a few shakes, you’ll have a clump of butter and watery buttermilk. Pour off or reserve the liquid and keep shaking until you get most of the water out. Scoop the butter into a tightly-lidded container.