I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: America’s Test Kitchen has a bug in my oven.
I wanted to make an apple pie, the next day’s episode was all about apples. I wondered how to make my pie crust better, Christopher Kimball took time a week later to give me the step-by-steps. The latest not so subtle usurpation of my genius: a sweet cream/cultured butter test.
A few months ago I penned an article for a writing course in which I was enrolled. Shocked though I was that such a test didn’t exist I thought it an appropriate subject for the assignment at hand. I would have loved a wider reaching test, but limits had to be set.
At any rate, you can find ATK’s findings here, and I’ll repost my article below, for comparison’s sake.
I’ve got your number, Christopher Kimball–and apparently, you’ve got my address…
A Little Butter Now & Then
Pie. It’s currently all the rage. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s delicious, its flavors are myriad and, as the saying goes, there’s nothing quite as easy. A dessert so versatile—fruity, creamy, nutty, even meaty—what truly gives a pie its identity is the crust. A buttery, flaky vehicle for goodness, crust will make or break a perfect pie. And butter will make or break a perfect crust.
While some believe that using only the best ingredients will result in success, my Southern grandmother often used the cheapest. When I’ve tried to improve upon her recipes, employing fancier alternatives, my results have been anything but successful. So, I started to wonder about the butter I use in my pie crust—with European-styles increasingly available, would using this fancier fat improve my pastry? A taste test was in order.
I set up just two ground rules: any butter included in my test must be widely available and of the unsalted variety. I’ve stayed true to Land O’Lakes for years; now, whenever I went into a store, I bee-lined to the dairy case to see what brands were carried. A very informal poll of friends and relatives in remote locations helped to set focus on the top three contenders: Land O’Lakes, Breakstone’s and Kerrygold (one of those aforementioned Euro-styles). To give each a fair chance, I decided to experiment with more than just pie crust. And so it was that the great butter tasting of 2011 began.
A troupe of butter enthusiasts settled in for a blind tasting of three preparations. To begin, unadorned, spread on white toast. Immediately I noticed the golden hue of Kerrygold (KG), more vivid than the pallid Breakstone’s (BR) and Land O’Lakes (LOL)—a feature I thought exuded richness yet made one of my tasters exclaim, “This one definitely looks the scariest…” The winner here was clearly LOL. Its flavor was more pungent than the others and left a lingering aroma in the mouth. BR meanwhile had a pleasant mouth feel but left some thinking its taste synthetic, almost like margarine. As a cultured butter one would expect KG to be the most pungent of the three—not so. Wrapped in foil, the only real comment on flavor was that, “It tastes like a wrapper.” Another comment, likely due to the higher butterfat content of Euro butters: “I feel like it’s waxing my mouth.” Unless you’ve run out of lip balm, not a pleasant sensation.
My second test was from Bon Appétit Sept. 2007: “Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter.” Again, KG was “greasy” and unpleasant on the lips. Seemingly the saltiest, it lacked a complexity and roundness that one expects from butter. BR, while oiler in appearance, fared much better for taste with a sweetness not present in the others. As for my old stand-by, LOL gave one of my tasters, “a delayed butter reaction,” reiterating the lingering aroma from the toast competition. While the LOL sauce was the most homogenous, BR landed on top due to a better marriage of flavors between earthy sage and bright lemon.
My third, and final test: “Best-Ever Pie Crust” (Bon Appétit July 2007). A blind-baked, empty shell would serve focus to the flavor and texture of our star. LOL went first eliciting a strong butter flavor—and a markedly strong salt flavor. The crust however was more crumbly than flaky and overly greasy, leaving fingertips slick and a noticeable smudge on the plate. My beloved had failed me. On to the BR, which provided better flavor: a tangy bite without the overpowering salt of LOL. Greasiness wasn’t a problem either, the pastry felt soft and delicate, still crumbly, but less so. Finally KG. With low hopes due to its previous performances I sliced the crust. It held together! Though crumblage was minimal, reactions were evenly split. Some thought it “cakey” and that it tasted like a croissant. I found it doughy, raw tasting. Each crust prepared the same, the higher butterfat surely slowed the browning process, resulting in a less toasty crust.
In the end, there was no clear champion. My suggestion: keep a stick of each for their varying strengths—or go for the BR as it, at least, was never offensive. As for me, a passion for pure butter goodness continues. Although maybe I’ll put the butter aside and work on a filling for that leftover crust—did someone say coconut cream?