Manufacturers are listening to you, Mr. and Ms. Butter Consumer, though some bakers wish it weren't so.
About two months ago, Land O Lakes stopped wrapping its four-pack sticks of grade AA sweet unsalted butter, as it has for years, in paper-backed foil. The quarters are now bound, like most others, in heavy waxed paper, because you let the company know that the old way was not convenient. Some people like to soften their butter by microwaving it.
"We did market research for months to test product packaging," says Land O Lakes spokesman Lydia Botham. "Consumers wanted to be able to microwave [the butter], and we wanted consistency across all our products in wrapping material." (Softening butter in the microwave is not recommended for butter you're going to bake with, however.) Botham says the taste testing revealed no discernible difference in quality or flavor-saving properties between foil-wrapped and wax paper-wrapped butter, "as long as it was stored properly."
"Stored properly" is a condition that called for further inquiry. It created a bit of a stir, in fact, when we consulted those who do great things with unsalted butter.
"You mean people are too lazy to unwrap a stick?" was "Baking in America" author, cooking teacher and radio host Greg Patent's reaction when reached by phone. He has been baking since he was 11, and is among those who believe that foil helps preserve butter's flavor better. Patent's not worried about Land O Lakes' change in packaging, since the butter he buys doesn't hang around long; he goes through three to four pounds a week when he's testing recipes.
Salted butter does have a bit more staying power than unsalted butter. But kitchen scientist and "Cake Bible" baking authority Rose Levy Beranbaum affirms that unsalted butter is the baker's choice, because it's difficult to adjust for the amount of salt found in a pound of salted four-ounce sticks -- a whole teaspoon or more.
Beranbaum had no qualms about her own butter storage. "I have loads of butter in my freezer," Beranbaum said last week, calculating about 12 pounds on hand between her city place and weekend home.
"In general, we do tell consumers not to keep [butter] in the dairy section of their refrigerators," says Botham. Land O Lakes recommends that butter be kept in its original packaging -- no butter dish or door compartment -- in the coldest part of the refrigerator. And although the company does not spell it out on its familiar blue one-pound package, Botham says that consumers should wrap their unsalted butter in another layer of plastic if it's headed straight for the freezer. The American Butter Institute also suggests extra layers of plastic wrap for the freezer to reduce butter's tendency to absorb other food smells.
Extra wrapping? Who's doing that?
"Not me," says Gale Gand, executive pastry chef at Tru restaurant in Chicago and host of Food Network's "Sweet Dreams." Gand is accustomed to using wax-paper-wrapped butter (Oberweis) at home. She freely admits to rotating single sticks from her freezer to the butter dish in her refrigerator.
For the record, butter is essentially the fat separated from milk -- saturated, cholesterol-laden and caloric. But for those who can have it, real butter makes baked foods taste great. Its butterfat content must be at a minimum of 80 percent (the remaining percent is mostly water) according to regulations for butter made in the United States.
Some European-style butters that contain higher amounts of butterfat do still come wrapped in foil. But serious bakers who buy retail say that the richer product can alter the outcomes of baked goods like cake and puff pastry, and therefore prefer the 80-percent minimum, unsalted kinds. Examples of higher butterfat content products are Straus Family Creamery (85 to 86 percent butterfat), Organic Valley (84 percent) and Plugra (82+ percent); they have a correspondingly lower water content, which can affect baking outcomes as well.
In the Washington area, people have lots of other branded unsalted stick butters in the 80-percent-butterfat range to choose from, such as Breakstone's, Cabot, Horizon Organic, Kate's and Keller's (known as Hotel Bar in New York). What those brands have in common, besides their wax wrapping, is a USDA rating of AA, which means the butter was produced in an approved plant and checked for product wholesomeness.
Beranbaum provided a tip that you, Mr. and Ms. Butter Consumer, will be grateful for, no matter what the wrapping may be on your baking-designated sticks of butter: Even though the quarters are marked as four ounces each, weigh them. Every once in a while, a stick might only measure 3.7 ounces. She says the difference can create an unwanted variable in recipes. In our own random sampling of at least four dozen unsalted butter quarters from various manufacturers, only one stick weighed less than four ounces.
In the search for better butter, quantity, then, is as important as quality. And both may be trumped by the way it is stored.
The editors of Gourmet's new cookbook included this note about our favorite fat: "The way butter is wrapped may be more important than how it is made or shipped. Our favorites were all wrapped in foil. Paper, we found, does not protect butter -- and the flavor of paper-wrapped butter doesn't compare."
Staff writer Candy Sagon contributed to this article.