It is a shame to lose its flavor to the process of digestion.

I toyed with the idea of giving this post a sassy heading, but quickly changed my mind when I remembered what butter really is.  There are precious few things that I take really seriously; my daughter and butter are about all that come to mind.  I wouldn’t readily take up arms in battle to protect my supply of chestnuts or snails, but you better believe I’d beat the snot of anybody who tried to deprive me of butter.  If I failed, I would probably put a bullet through my head rather than suffer the indignity and gracelessness of life without it.

Before you start hyperventilating about butter making you fat and consigning you to a death-bed, let me point out that I consist mainly on a diet of butter, heavy cream, bacon, eggs, beer, and mayonnaise, and I weigh exactly what I weighed in high school, which was more than thirty years ago.

I know, everybody’s different.  Some people can’t look at a Ding-Dong without packing on a pound or two.  I’m truly grateful for my metabolism (honest–it occurs to me more often than you might think), but I’m not a nutritionist so I’m not going to attempt to get into matters of whether butter is good for you or bad or whatever.  I leave those personal dietary decisions up to you.

On to the facts, some of which I got from Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion, which should be in everyone’s library.

If you take cream and whap it around, part of it will eventually reach a semi-solid condition, which is butter.  If you don’t believe me, buy some cream, whap it around, and see what happens.

Uncle Sam dictates that butter must be at least 80% milk fat; the remaining 20% is pretty much just milk solids and water.

Did you know that the USDA grades butter?  Yep, based on its flavor, body, texture, color, and salt.  Butter boxes have a little shield emblem thingy stamped on them (sometimes with a numerical grade too), showing you the quality of the butter within.  The finest grade is AA (93), followed by A (92), B (90), and C (89).  Pretty much all of your store-bought butter is going to be either AA or A, so there’s not much to worry about there.  I don’t know what becomes of B and C butter and frankly I’d rather not think about it.

In its natural state, butter can be quite pale, and manufacturers like to keep things consistent so they often tweak the color by adding annatto (achiote to you Spanish speakers), which is perfectly benign and nothing to worry about.

All right, on to the somewhat thorny issue of salted vs. unsalted butter.  Unsalted butter is usually labelled as such and doesn’t contain a lick of salt.  Some people call it “sweet butter,” but that’s kind of a mistake; any butter made from sweet cream (instead of soured cream) is de facto sweet, even though it might have salt added to it.

I know, it’s confusing.  Just remember that the only way to make sure you’re buying unsalted butter is to buy something marked “unsalted butter”–not “sweet butter.”  Anything labelled “sweet butter,” in all likelihood, contains salt.  Makes no sense at all, but unfortunately food terminology often follows that star-crossed route.  I don’t like it any more than you do.

Cookbooks and magazines and recipes often squawk at you about the necessity of using unsalted rather than salted butter, apparently based on the idea that once salt is added to a dish, it can’t be removed.  I don’t have any quarrel with the theory, but honestly–I really don’t think that salted butter is all that different from unsalted.  I buy unsalted out of habit, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use salted if that’s all I could find.

Why’d anybody add salt to butter in the first place?  Well, it’s obviously a flavor enhancer, but butter’s relatively perishable (more about that later), and salt is a preservative, so . . . .  It doesn’t take much salt to do preservation duty, so as I said, I can hardly tell the difference.  Maybe I just have an unsophisticated palate.  You should probably do a blind taste test, see for yourself, and make up your own mind.

I don’t have anything nice to say about whipped, light, or reduced-calorie butter.

As far as storing the stuff:  You often find unsalted butter for sale in the freezer section, which might lead you to think that you need to freeze it at home.  I’m personally in the habit of freezing whatever butter I’m not yet using, but that’s mostly because butter soaks up other flavors like a frickin’ sponge and I don’t like leaving it in the fridge, where things tend to get more funky and frickin’  sponge-like.  Whatever butter I am using (generally a stick at a time), I keep out on the counter–covered–and I’ve never once had a bad experience with it, even in the summer.  It doesn’t come anywhere close to melting, but it stays beautifully soft and spreadable.

So here are my personal guidelines in a nutshell:  Buy either salted or unsalted butter and keep a stick (covered!) out on the counter and the rest of it in the freezer.  Easy, eh?

Fussier people will tell you that you can refrigerate salted butter for up to a month or unsalted up to two weeks.  You can freeze either one for up to half a year.

I’ve always stuck to my guidelines and I’ve never had a lick of trouble; you can get all fussy if you want.

Butyric acid, by the way, is the easily spoiled stuff that gives butter its beautiful flavor when it’s right and its Gawd-awful stench when it’s wrong.  Some people call it “butanoic acid,” which could not possibly concern me any less than it does.  It resembles Richard Gere’s fated gerbil in that it turns up in the occasional fruit (kidding!), and is sometimes used as a flavor enhancer, but that’s about all that you can say for it.

We’re within spitting distance of winding up the “B” section of the Food Lover’s Companion, so I might as well tell you:

Byrrh [BIHR]:  A dy, slightly bitter French apéritif with a light orange flavor.

byssus [BIHS-suhs]:  See “beard.”