Last October I had the opportunity to attend a unique event called the “Undeniably Dairy Culinary Immersion Experience,” hosted by Midwest Dairy, along with ten other food writers, bloggers and nutritionists from around our region.
Our experience included visits to two dairy farms, both independently owned, located just about an hour south of Minneapolis: Zweber Family Farm, a organic dairy farm in Elko, MN,
and Wolf Creek Dairy Farm, a conventional farm located in Dundas, MN.
I’d never visited a dairy farm of any kind before, and welcomed this chance to see how the milk that produces one of my all-time favorite ingredients – BUTTER – is made. While the practices at each farm vary greatly, both the organic and conventional farmers shared the same commitment to the health and safety of their animals, and their milk.
At the end of the two days, we were given a challenge to find a creative way to share our experience with others, and of course I naturally fixed on butter as my inspiration.
Baking is one of my passions, and I go through a lot of butter – so much that I simply can’t afford to be too picky about it and usually opt for my local dairy or grocer’s unsalted butter, or whatever brand is currently on sale.
While I may be flexible about brands, I’m pretty devoted to unsalted butter when it comes to cooking and baking. Salt content can vary greatly from one butter to another, and this can impact the overall flavor of the dish being made. In the rare event that I only have salted butter on hand, I always skip adding any included in the recipe.
However, for St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago, I ended up buying a brick of Kerrygold salted butter to serve with Irish soda bread, and could not believe how delicious it was. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to play more with butter and test different kinds to see if there really is a difference when it comes to grades and prices.
This past December, I invited several family and friends from around North Dakota and Minnesota to join me in tasting a variety of different butters, with an emphasis on either regional and/or high end butters. The tastings were conducted blind, and the butters were served on slices of French baguette, with water to drink between each tasting.
In Minnesota, my group focused on using butter solely as a spread, sampling five different salted butters with the use of a blindfold to ensure an impartial verdict:
- Crystal Farms Salted Sweet Butter, Wisconsin – $4.99/pound
- Hope Creamery Grade A Salted Minnesota Butter – $8.49/pound
- Land O’Lakes Extra Creamy, European Style Salted Butter, Minnesota – $6.99/pound
- Wayauwega Hand-Rolled Salted Butter, Wisconsin – $5.99/pound
- Plugra European Style Premium Salted Butter, Missouri – $3.99/half-pound
The overwhelming favorite was the butter from Hope Creamery, made in Hope, Minnesota. This regional favorite, while the most expensive, was everything you want in a good butter: rich, creamy, delicious and supremely buttery.
One participant even laughed about how excited she was to have toast for breakfast, knowing that the butter from Hope Creamery would be on it.This butter is worth every penny.
Reactions after that were torn, but the general consensus had the butters from Crystal Farms as their second or third choice, with Land O’ Lakes and Plugra vying for 4th and 5th.
In Fargo, we had several accomplished cooks in our tasting so we included a sampling of four unsalted and four salted butters. Our tasters first sampled the unsalted butters, then the salted butters, and then all eight butters mixed up, just to see how they fared overall.
- Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter, unsalted, Ireland
- Schroeder Gourmet Unsalted Butter, grade AA, Minnesota
- Essential Everyday (local store brand) unsalted butter, Minnesota
- Organic Valley unsalted butter, grade AA, Minnesota
Among these, I was surprised to find our tasters split between the luxurious Kerrygold and the store-brand Essential Everyday (which happens to be my house brand) butters competing for the top spot, and a rather neutral faring between the more gourmet-style Schroeder and Organic Valley butters.
- Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter, unsalted, Ireland
- Farmhouse Kitchens Hand Rolled Butter, salted, Wisconsin
- Organic Valley Salted Butter, grade AA, Wisconsin
- Schroeder Gourmet Butter, unsalted, grade AA, Minnesota
Of this selection, there was one clear winner: the Kerrygold salted butter, by unanimous choice. Second place was nearly as decisive, going to Schroeder Gourmet butter, and third and fourth were a toss-up between the Organic Valley and Farmhouse Kitchens.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with folks, all about butter, and it turns out there are as many opinions about butter as there are butters. Salted versus unsalted, which brands are best for baking crisp cookies (consensus: Land O’ Lakes unsalted, as it has a lower water content).
I also visited with my good friend, Andrea Baumgardner, co-owner of BernBaum’s in Fargo (also known as The World’s Best Bagel Shop). Andrea first introduced me to Hope Creamery Butter about 10 years ago at her former business, The Green Market.
An accomplished chef, Andrea knows good butter from bad, and I wanted to know what it takes for a butter to make it into her refrigerator. Her answer? Pretty much the same as many of us: whichever unsalted butter happens to be on sale at the local grocery store.
We laughed about this, and mused that our taste for basic butter must come from the following facts:
A. Butter is expensive, and
B. As people who cook often, we use a lot of butter.
I was happy to know that Andrea still ranks Hope Creamery butter at the top of her list, but is open and practical enough to know when to splurge and when to simply get the butter.
Splurge = when you’re using the butter as a spread for bread and special occasions
Simply get the butter = for most cooking and baking recipes, where the butter is simply an ingredient.
These tastings and conversations presented an excellent, and fun, opportunity to introduce a host of people to a variety of new butters and talk about where they come from and what it is that might make them taste the way they do. I’ve listed some great buttery recipes at thge end, and even included a couple polls within this post for you to vote and be heard! And, perhaps even more importantly: What kind of butter is in your fridge? Leave your answer in the Comments section below and butter on!
Many, many thanks to all who participated in the fun, and to Midwest Dairy for inspiring and sponsoring this project.
If you’re looking for some buttery inspiration, check out this list of some of my favorite buttery recipes: