If you ask any culinary professional worth their salt: “What is the key to success in the kitchen?” they will almost always respond with “start with the best ingredients available.” If one can perceive the unspoken, yet inherent, addition of “and don’t screw them up,” one would be 75% of the way toward making a great meal. Not unlike everything else in life, when it comes to food, you generally get what you pay for – and it’s usually worth the extra 10-20% to buy premium brand base items (though there are a few exceptions to this rule). You’ll find if you follow the exact recipe for say, veal scallopine, with store brand flour and butter and place it next to a the same breaded in premium flour (say King Arthur’s Flour) and butter (which you have previously clarified) the latter will win in a blind taste test every time.
In terms of baking, the application of that principle is an ingredient known as “beurre sec” in French. It translates directly to “dry butter” in English. This name is a reference to the (relative) amount of fat vs. water. In the US, a product must contain at least 80% butterfat to be sold as “butter.” Some standard store brand butter in the US contains upwards of 19% water. Beurre sec, on the other hand contains 12-14% water. The additional loss of moisture provides not only a “creamier” product but also helps in baking to prevent the inadvertent activation of glutens which are required for instances where one desires a dish to rise by trapping steam as it bakes (like bread dough) but bad where suppleness is desired, i.e. short/pie crusts or biscuits.
About 17% of butter is water. Compare that to shortening which contains no water. And that makes a big difference in a dough. For as I mentioned earlier in the week, water goes hand-in-hand with gluten. The more you have in your dough, the more likely you’ll be to inadvertently create active gluten.
There is an ongoing debate of whether or not shortening, which consequently has zero water, or butter is better for short-crusts, biscuits, laminated dough, etc. Obviously, a butter containing a lower percentage of water would present a texture more-like its 0% moisture counterpart. Our personal belief is that butter provides the best taste, while lard (yeah lard, not store-bought hydrogenated vegetable shortening) yields the best texture. Sometimes we regularly uses a combination of the two for biscuits.
Unfortunately, beurre sec is not necessarily the easiest thing to get one’s hands on. Probably the most widely available brand that would qualify as “European Style” is Plugrá, which is made by Keller’s Creamery and is distributed nationally. Plugrá contains about 82% butterfat and is 20% more expensive on average than standard butter. An even better, though admittedly harder to get alternative, is our favorite, Straus Butter. Straus butter contains 85-86% butterfat and will cost about the same as any other premium butter. Straus butter is also certified organic and made by the farmers who raise the dairy cows. I have been informed by the Straus Creamery that they will not sell direct to consumers (or restaurants for that matter) and the only distributor on the East Coast is Whole Foods, who in their infinite wisdom, have decided to drop the product due to slow sales. Surprisingly, I received this news months ago and can still find it readily at my local shop. There are several places on the West Coast where the product is readily available – the website has a search feature to locate the nearest supplier.
If you can get your hands on some Straus butter you will find a clear departure over the standard. While I have not tasted all of the super premium import butters from Europe, I can say with a clear conscience that it is the best production butter made in the USA. From the box:
Because this butter is lower in moisture, baking results in flakier pastry that rises higher. Baked items brown more evenly. This award-winning butter is favored by many top chefs. National food writers have called it “simply the best butter in America.”