This may sound heretical coming from a health coach, but I honestly can’t imagine my life without butter. Maybe it’s because I am ancestrally descended from family farmers or maybe it’s just that it tastes incredibly good…but regardless of the reason, butter is one of my can’t-live-without-it-absolutely-worth-it foods. (Incidentally, I encourage all of my clients to know what theirs are…those foods that make life worth living. Any meal plan that doesn’t include them isn’t going to last long!)
It’s hard to argue a nutritional case for butter vs. healthier fats and oils. It is one of the most calorically dense foods on the planet and is extremely high in saturated fat so this is simply not health food. But in terms of its contribution to food ENJOYMENT? Off the charts. And to me, that matters.
To be fair, I do most of my cooking in super-healthy olive or canola oil and often use an excellent, fruity, extra virgin olive oil as a dipping condiment for a really good crusty bread or on popcorn. So when I do choose to use butter, it’s in a place where flavor really matters and where no other cooking fat will do the same job. For certain things…only butter will do. Here are a few examples.
I often have high-fiber wheat toast for breakfast, maybe with cottage cheese or Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. I COULD eat that toast plain and dry…but my morning joy skyrockets if I spread it with a little pure, salted butter (my mainstay for pure butter flavor is Land O Lakes). In any case where the flavor of the butter will really stand out, quality matters. You really do get what you pay for. Store brands or discounted butters have a much higher water content and far less butter flavor than their high quality counterparts. My advice is to buy the best butter you can afford and use it sparingly. And remember that butter stores beautifully in the freezer for months, so stock up when your favorite is on sale and rest assured that the quality won’t suffer when you move it from the freezer to the refrigerator or table.
In the summer, one of our favorite meals is flank steak or salmon served with grilled asparagus, peppers and onions and boiled red-skinned potatoes swirled in browned butter and a little sea salt. Add a salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers and you have summer on a plate as far as I’m concerned. The healthfulness of everything else in the meal makes room for the fat and calories in the butter and if you keep portion sizes reasonable, there’s no reason this dish can’t fit into a healthful diet. Browning butter (the French call it beurre noisette) is so simple…you simply heat butter over medium heat until it foams (swirling the pan or stirring periodically). Once the foam rises and then falls, it’s done! As you swirl the pan a bit you will see browned bits in the butter (these are the milkfat solids and salt that have browned). Remove the pan from the heat immediately as the butter will keep cooking even in the hot pan and you don’t wan to overly brown it or the flavor will become bitter. Browned butter tastes completely different than plain melted butter. It’s a bit sweeter, far more complex, and even a bit nutty. It is AMAZING on boiled potatoes, steamed vegetables, or a simple mild fish (like sole, flounder, or tilapia). Try it and trust me, you’ll be a convert.
I discovered this technique in a cooking class I took in college and am still amazed by the transformative power a compound butter can have on a dish. The technique is pretty simple. You simply soften some butter and then mix in anything you can think of! One of my stand-by combinations is chopped shallots and fresh thyme with sea salt and black pepper but you can experiment with any herb or flavor combination that appeals to you. Once the extras are mixed in thoroughly, you reshape the butter (i.e. press into a ramekin, roll into a log in waxed paper, form into an elaborate rosette – just kidding) and chill. It keeps well in the refrigerator so making it once will set you up for a while. As the butter melts into whatever you put it on, all of those complex flavors do too. Yum. I love to use this on a crusty whole grain bread or melted on a piece of salmon, chicken or steak as it comes off the grill. You can stir it into pasta or rice or top steamed vegetables with a dab for a flavor boost. I also do a sweet variation of this with a honey, vanilla, walnuts, and cinnamon (or toasted pecans, brown sugar, and a splash of rum) that can be used on pancakes, waffles, or even toasted bagels. This makes a brunch or breakfast party that much more special.
I’ll wrap this up with a word about margarine. I know a lot of people have bought into the health marketing claims on margarine packaging and use it in everything from baking to sauteeing to flavoring foods. While there are certain health situations where margarine is likely the only butter-flavored alternative available (dairy sensitivities, lactose intolerance, high cholesterol issues), if I had those conditions, I think I’d convert to to healthful oils like olive or canola before I’d convert to margarine for most uses (except maybe baking). And if you don’t suffer from one of these conditions and have stopped using butter because you think margarine is healthier, I’d encourage you to do a bit of homework on the nutritional value of margarine (Marion Nestle’s Book “What to Eat” is a good source), then try butter again and let your taste buds be your guide.