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Does good butter matter? If so, what to get in San Francisco?

Does good butter make a big difference for everyday cooking? If so, what should I pick up at Trader Joe's, Safeway of Lucky? Or should I really spring for the stuff at the fancy cheese shop?

I sometimes make a simple brown butter and sage sauce and toss it with some pasta and parmesan. I always wonder if I should spring for something more than the Challenge brand. I never see cookbooks mention the quality of butter. But...

In Adam Gopnik's book 'Paris to the Moon,' he mentions an American chef apprentice a Michelin rated restaurant. Probably talking pastries, the aspiring chef gestured to some French butter and said something like, "This ain't no Land O'Lakes." Since then, I've always wondered if I'm really missing out on something special.

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  1. Standard American butter is 80 percent butterfat. Premium butters can be as much as 86 percent. In addition, some premium butters are cultured, which gives them a more complex flavor. The difference in butterfat doesn't sound like much, but the Chronicle did some tests a few years back and the amount of butterfat really did make an appreciable difference in baking.

    I think you should go out and buy some premium butters and taste for yourself. Trader Joe's carries Kerrygold from Ireland, which a lot of people swear by. Whole Foods carries some interesting premium butters, as does Berkeley Bowl. Start with a couple of those, and then if you find that they've piqued your interest, you can work your way up to fancy cheese shop butter.

    Berkeley Bowl
    2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

    5 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      BTW, I bought some Kerrygold at Trader Joe's recently, and I remember why I didn't like it when I bought it before. It's kind of greasy and not very flavorful, IMHO.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        That is so funny, i haven't found a butter I like better than Kerrygold, and we keep on trying. I agree with the greasy, though it doesn't bother me, but to me it is the most flavorful butter I have found. I wonder if it is a case of the summer butter vs the winter butter, though. Probably the wrong thread, but what butters do you think are more flavorful than kerrygold - I would love to add them to my list!

        1. re: Meredith

          I should specify that I bought the Kerrygold unsalted. With this thread in mind, last night I tasted the Kerrygold against some Plugra. My impression was that the initial flavor of the Kerrygold is pure fat; I only tasted dairy notes on the finish. In contrast, the Plugra had a good sweet cream flavor upfront. YMMV.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Thanks, Ruth. Looks like it is time to buy some Plugra again and give it another go. The no-kneed bread recipe has trebled the need for flavorful butter in our house lately.

            1. re: Meredith

              I would try some of the others as well. I love Jana Valley, for example, and it's a lot cheaper then Kerrygold (at Whole Foods). Try some cultured butters, too. As noted throughout this thread, taste in butter varies -- you like what you like!

    2. You can also shop for butters at New World Market on Geary Blvd. for a good selection.

      New World Market
      5641 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94121

      1. The SFChron bake-off Ruth referred to.

        11 Replies
        1. re: wolfe

          thank you! it's an interesting read, especially now with holiday baking just around the corner

          1. re: Cynsa

            You might give a try to Sierra Nevada Cultured Sweet, new and not on that list. Here is a dazzling array of butters.

          2. re: BernalKC

            I find that, much like Cook's Illustrated ratings, these taste rankings trend toward blandness -- they reflect the butter(s) that were disliked by the fewest people. It's really a matter of personal taste: do you prefer a sweet, clean cream flavor, or a more cheesey cultured flavor, or a more distinctive grass-fed flavor.

            The results of the baking test seems much more objective, although it's hard to know just how precise they were in controlling the variables.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I'd be more interested in seeing what Roland Passot thought than the average score.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Bingo. If you don't like personality in your butter, you won't like Celles sur Belle.

                Here's my post on a new, locally-produced butter from McClelland's

              2. re: BernalKC

                Reading through the actual text at that article gives me a different sense from the numerical rankings, but certain aspects matched my personal taste and experience:
                -I've never been let down by the flavor or texture of baked goods I make with Jana Valley, which is my affordable default for all baking projects
                -I find the flavor of Strauss lacking, especially at the price point. $6 a pound gets into celles sur belle or amazing farmer's market butter territory, and I don't feel like the Strauss really competes well when eaten uncooked.

                1. re: SteveG

                  At her reading for The Foodie Handbook at Omnivore, Pim Techamuanvivit talked a bit about the butter she makes for Manresa. She said that just the raw materials alone, presumably the raw cream from the restaurant's dairy cow share, costs $25/lb. They don't have enough for every table. I talked to her a bit afterwards, and the trick is to mature the cream as long as possible to bring out the nutty character.

                  (disclaimer: Pim is a personal friend.)

                  "Better Butter" by Corby Kummer

                  Manresa Restaurant
                  320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA 95030

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Mature the cream = culture it?

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      raw milk, aged. I don't think any lactic acid bacteria is added
                      here's more to read: http://www.travelerslunchbox.com/jour...

                      1. re: Cynsa

                        Raw cream will sour from ambient bacteria.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I first asked if it was a "cultured" butter, and that seemed to imply inoculating to her so she said "no". But when I asked if the raw cream is aged like creme fraiche, that brought a big "yes" with the trick being to take it to the edge for the natural flora to bloom but not over the edge to the point of spoilage. Her descriptors of tangy and nutty sounded like natural creme fraiche to me. Pim mentioned getting her hands on some French booklets on butter making from the early part of the 20th century that have been her guide.

              3. I've tried most of the fancy butters on this page and didn't find any of them terribly memorable:


                I've had incredible butter in France, but I think it's raw-milk and illegal to import.

                If I pay big bucks for a fancy butter, generally I just serve it plain. For cooking, I use Plugra ($2.99 / lb.).

                3 Replies
                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I use Plugra for cooking too but it's only $2.99 a pound at one store (in Oakland, not in SF, which is where the OP is looking). At most places it's around $4-5 a pound.

                  Kerrygold is the best that I've found around here for buttering bread, etc.

                  1. re: JasmineG

                    Plugra used to be $2.99 at Trader Joe's. Smart & Final reportedly also charges $2.99. I think it's $3.80 at Berkeley Bowl now. Shop around.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Nope, it's $4.19 at Berkeley Bowl, at least it was this weekend.

                      Berkeley Bowl
                      2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                2. Try President's Butter -- available at Berkeley Bowl and at Andronico's. It is French butter, and although it is quite run-of-the-mill in France, it is still pretty good.

                  Berkeley Bowl
                  2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                  1. See, I'd think for a simple brown butter sauce the quality of the butter wouldn't really matter. You're steaming off most of the water and browning the rest.

                    For baking I get the Kerrygold from Trader Joe's that others have mentioned.

                    My opinion: baking and eating fresh on a slab o' bread = oh yeah, the butter matters. For cooking = it shouldn't matter. I'd like to hear back after you've tried some other butters, though. I wouldn't mind being wrong.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: MollyGee

                      I pretty much agree, except that Plugra's better for baking due to its lower moisture content.

                    2. For the recipe you're describing, not so much.

                      Last month, the guest who provided the bread for a wine tasting also brought two french butters. Celles sur Belle Beurre Grand Cru AOC Charentes-Poitou and Pamplie and Beurre de Baratte Extra fin - fleur de sel de I'ile de Re also from the same region. It was very fun (and absolutely delicious) to taste the two side by side. We liked both, but the pick was near unanimous that the Celles sur Belle was superior.

                      1. I use Plugra at home and sometimes spring for Lurpak which is pricier but richer to my tastes.

                        At the Farmers Markets Spring Hill makes an amazing butter.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: dhoffman1421

                          I don't know how to attach the link to the article, but if you Google "The way we eat; curd mentality - New York Times" you can read Daniel Patterson's article & obtain the recipe for the incredibly delicious butter he makes for Coi.

                          1. re: neu

                            Thanks neu, here it is but perhaps not for long.

                            1. re: neu

                              That's a pretty standard technique for churning butter at home.

                              Note that fresh, sweet buttermilk can't be directly substituted for cultured "buttermilk" in baking.

                          2. Eh, like a lot of baking, the higher quality product you use, the better it will taste. But as long as you're using the real thing (actual butter and not substitutes), you'll still have a damn good product.

                            Recently I made the Chocolate Nemesis cake that's served at the River Cafe and Bar Jules. Due to the enormous quantities required, I used Hershey's chocolate, Lucerne eggs and butter, and Safeway sugar. Did it taste as good as the one at Bar Jules? No. Did it still taste f'ing amazing? Of course (what recipe wouldn't with 4 sticks of any butter)

                            That's why we go to restaurants, to take advantage of their ability to buy top-notch products in bulk.

                            Bar Jules
                            609 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                            1. How about recommendations for butter to put slather on plain ole bread, toast, crumpets, scones, etc.?

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: badbatzmaru

                                Try the Challenge European, Sierra Nevada Cultured Sweet or the Celles sur Belle. It's up to your taste, report back.

                                1. re: wolfe

                                  I just bought some Sierra Nevada Vat-Cultured butter -- both salted and unsalted -- at Berkeley Bowl (I think they were $3.69 for 8 oz.). They're really delicious -- at or near the top of my personal list. I thought in particular that the salt brought out the tang of the culture.

                                  Berkeley Bowl
                                  2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                                2. re: badbatzmaru

                                  Both Clover and Straus butters at Falletti's Foods
                                  308 Broderick at Fell Street
                                  San Francisco

                                  1. re: badbatzmaru

                                    I can walk a few blocks to Falletti's Foods... Rainbow Market probably has the Sierra Nevada Cultured Sweet butter... One World Market is an easy MUNI ride... where is the Celles sur Belle in San Francisco? Ferry Bldg? Spring Hill butter is at our Farmers' Markets...

                                    1. re: Cynsa

                                      From the linked 2006 tasting above, Celles sur Belle ($4.99 for 8.82 ounces, Draeger's)

                                      1. re: Cynsa

                                        I'm pretty sure I've seen fancy butters at Rainbow, Bi-Rite, and Cowgirl Creamery.

                                        Cowgirl Creamery
                                        80 4th St, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I'm sure I've seen several fancy butters at Hopkins Ave. Country Cheese.

                                        2. re: Cynsa

                                          Rainbow carries Strauss, Clover normal, Clover Organic, Celles sur Belle, Jana Valley, 1 or 2 Parma butters, a Goat butter, and a couple other "premium" butters. Maybe not the very best prices anywhere, but their dairy is typically quite a bit cheaper than it is at Falletti.

                                        3. re: badbatzmaru

                                          I haven't been the least bit scientific about it - have no idea about butterfat content etc. But the Clover (organic?) butter in the ceramic tub is delicious on toast. Refills come in rounds wrapped in foil. It's expensive though, about $7-8 a container/refill. Not sure if it's even a whole pound. Also a fan of Plugra for baking and I have a real soft spot for Anchor NZ butter.

                                          1. re: bgbc

                                            Clover's Artisan Farmstead in the crocks is produced by McClellands's Dairy in Petaluma. They sell butter under their own label to restaurants and at select farmer's markets in the north bay as well as Marin (Sun.), Oakland Grand Lake (Sat.) and Stonestown (Sunday) in the City. McClelland's is a very dense butter and my favorite.


                                        4. from Tablehopper: Butterfest '09 at ~18 REASONS~ blind butter-tasting and demo of how to make cultured butter by Vanessa Barrington - and a butter-centric potluck
                                          Saturday Dec 12, 2009
                                          $10 members, potluck contributors, or butter storytellers; $15 general

                                          1. For making brown butter we noticed there was a huge difference between the Clover butter and the Challenge European style butter. It seems the Clover has less fat and more milk solids than the Challenge European style butter. The later definitely makes a better brown butter.

                                            1. I think it makes a huge difference, particularly for baking. Also, when it's cold on bread (i.e., not melted) good butter tastes like something. For what's commonly available here, I like Plugra, but I normally buy Challenge European butter because it's cheaper. They both have a nice flavor in my opinion. I've also tried Kerrygold and Lurpak, but they don't taste like much to me.

                                              1. Our Sunday Farmers Market on Grove at Divisadero Street has a new vendor for butter - McCelland's Dairy in Sonoma County http://www.mcclellandsdairy.com/

                                                1. Andante cheese makes a small amount of hand-churned butter which they sell at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. But get there early, it is often gone by 9 to 9:30.

                                                  Andante Dairy
                                                  Petaluma, CA, USA, Petaluma, CA

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: Paul H

                                                    I just had dinner at French Laundry last week and they serve the Andante butter and it is delicious unlike any butter I have ever had. You can actually taste the grassiness of the cow's all grass diet. It was almost like spreading a mild triple cream cheese on the bread. I immediately went to Ferry Farmer's market on Saturday to get some. The lady at the Andante booth said it is very good for baking as well. Too expensive for everyday but what a treat!

                                                    The French Laundry
                                                    6640 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599