I conducted a blind-butter tasting at Food52 to find out.
Tomato soup, baguette, and butter: These were my go-to lunch items while I studied at University of St. Andrews in Scotland. It wasn’t until my first trip home over Thanksgiving that I realized how spoiled I had become by rich, flavorful British butter, not to mention the French butter I sometimes splurged on.
This realization surprised me. I always thought all butter was equal—equally delicious!—but I was wrong, terribly wrong. At home during that first Thanksgiving back, I found the American butter I always loved was bland and waxy. Using it to bake was fine, but I no longer felt inspired by buttered toast, having had a taste of British buttered toast.
So what did I do about this world-ending conundrum? Research.
I was motivated not only as an avid butter consumer, but also as a Sustainable Development major: Since butter is made from a single ingredient, its taste clearly reflects its origins.
And beyond reading, making homemade butter became the easiest way for me to learn about the effect of different cow-types, farming practices, seasons, geographies, etc. on the quality and flavor of butter.
Jersey cows at Sweet & Salty Farm in Little Compton, RI. Photo by Chelsea Priebe.
While my butter obsession led me to visit farms, eat (way) more butter than one person should be allowed, and talk with as many shopkeepers as I could about butter varieties, I had yet to answer one fundamental question: Can anyone else (who is less obsessed than I) tell the difference—and do they care?
Luckily, I recently joined the Food52 team, where I am surrounded by people eager to participate in my first-ever blind butter tasting. Without any background on the different types, they tasted a flight of three butters:
Butter #1: Homemade from 100% grass-fed cows, made with cream from Trickling Springs Creamery
Butter #2: Homemade from “pasture-raised” cows, which means…cows (they "graze certified organic pasture whenever weather permits and receive supplemental grain rations"), made with cream from Organic Valley cream
- Butter #3: Store-bought butter (Whole Foods 365 brand) that is most likely from grain-fed cows
And the results are as affirming as they are amusing. Tasters were asked to rank the butter on a scale of 1 through 5 (for a maximum of 60 points). Butter #1 was victorious, albeit with butter #2 coming up a close second. Butter #3 trailed far behind.
Here are the Food52 team’s unfiltered reactions to each one:
Butter #1 (homemade from 100% grass-fed cows) with 46 points.
- “Cheesier in texture. Harder to spread. More flavorful. Sharper and brighter. This is my favorite!”
- “So salty and fatty.”
- “Killing it! Butter tastes like it is from the world. Unprocessed, strong, has character, a little sweet, but in a fatty way.”
Butter #2 (Homemade from “pasture-raised” cows) with 44 points.
- “Creamy, mild, smooth, nice texture.”
- “Not incredible, but cow-ish.”
- “Good but mellow. Needs salt. #normcore, but on the high-end side. This butter would wear neutrals.”
Butter #3 (store-bought butter) with 30 points.
- “Palest ☹ Least flavorful. Wouldn’t want more.”
- “I mean, it’s butter. How bad can it be?”
So what did I learn?
First, that I’m not the only crazy who appreciates quality butter over average American store-bought butter.
And second, that butter really does warrant the study of its terroir. While some may ask, “How bad can it be?” (fair question!), common threads emerged from the team’s tasting notes: cheesiness, texture, color, fattiness. These observations tie directly back to the cows: cheesiness and color from what the cows are fed, texture and fattiness from the type of cow, etc. And this is just the beginning: Butter tastes different when depending on the breed of the cow, the region, the season, and, obviously, the animal (or plant) from which it comes (goats! sheep! soy beans! yaks?).
Now the question is: What do you think? You'll have to make your own butter to find out.