Friday, 22 April 2016

Side-by-Side Baking, Butter Quality

A side-by-Side Baking experiment looking at how three different butters can affect the flavour and colour of a basic sponge. 

A side by side baking experiment

I'm sure that you've read in many recipe books and food magazines the phrase 'buy the best you can afford'.  It's a phrase used to refer to all manner of ingredients; flour, chocolate, butter, and other general food stuff.  But does more expensive actually mean better quality and flavour?  Or are those extra pennies simply paying for fancy packaging and marketing?  It therefore occurred to me to undertake a little side-by-side baking experiment to look at a commonly used baking ingredient, butter, to try to determine if the extra money spent on a more expensive brand is actually worth it.

Now to be honest, I usually purchase the supermarket's own mid-range unsalted butter for my baking.  Not only is there quite a difference in price compared to branded butters but as my mum said, when she assisted in my taste test, "surely butter is butter", meaning aren't they all the same anyway?  This particular Side-by-Side Baking experiment is designed to, hopefully, help me decide if there is any appreciable difference in a baked product when using a more expensive butter.    

A side by side baking experiment

The supermarket shelves are packed full of different butters; there are expensive butters wrapped in quality papers printed with detailed bios of the product through to the cheaper supermarket own range where the dairy fat is wrapped in a relatively plain paper which shares minimal information.  Now clearly my little blog, and Mr E's and my waistlines, would be unable to handle a comparison post of each and every butter commonly available here in the UK,  so we restricted this comparison bake to 3 different butters.  We chose products which aimed to give a broad idea of the wide varieties available and therefore selected: a supermarket own brand butter, a French butter and a butter from a local creamery.  Clearly, though, there is a huge range of butter available and other products not tested here may be as good if not better.  The three butters selected were then put to use by incorporating them in a common household bake; the cupcake.  

Which three butters did I use? 

As I mentioned above I tried to select a broad range of butters commonly available here in the UK.

Comparing three different butters in baked goods

  • Firstly. I bought a supermarket own butter.  This was from Asda.  The packaging states that the butter is from British dairy farms and contains a minimum of 80% milk fat.  It is an unsalted butter and cost just 79p.
  • Secondly, I chose a butter from a well known creamery here in the UK, Wensleydale Creamery. It is made in the Yorkshire Dales where is it traditionally churned.  It is described as 'rich and creamy'.  The fat content is shown as 82.2% and the 250g block cost £1.60.  As this is a salted butter I added a pinch of salt to the other two batters to make the experiment a fairer comparison .    
  • Lastly, I purchased a French butter called President.  I have read in a few places of the quality of French butters and the flavours they bring to baked goods.  The wrapper informs us that this butter was made in the heart of Normandy with the 'finest milk and cream'.  It states that it is 'delicious in sponge cakes or buttercream and perfect for savoury pastries and sauces'.  The fat content is shown as 82% and it cost £1.55.   This is an unsalted butter.

How I went about the 'Butter Quality Side-by-Side Baking Experiment':

I decided to compare the three butters in a straightforward and commonly made sponge, the Victoria.  The sponge was unflavoured and undecorated to allow  my volunteers to taste the sponge more clearly.  I made three different batches of the batter, incorporating a different butter in each.  All three batches of the sponge was made using the creaming in method.  A small pinch of salt was added to the two batters whose butter didn't include any salt.  I aimed to ensure the eggs used in the three batches carried the same richness of colour.  One batch was made and baked before starting the next batch so as not to affect the sponges waiting for oven space.  The muffin tray was positioned in the same part of the oven for all three bakes and as each cupcake weighed the same they all were baked at the same temperature and the for the same period of time.  Different patterned paper cases were used for the three batches, thus preventing them from being muddled up.

The Tasting:

Five 'volunteer' taste testers were assembled, including myself.    I explained to each of my tasters the principal behind this side-by-side bake and asked them to simply identify which cake they preferred.  The identity of the specific cakes hadn't been divulged to them.  Only I knew which cupcake was which, so my tasters sampled them blind, so to speak.

Is there much difference in flavour between expensive butters and their cheaper counterparts?

The Results:

Three of the five tasters, including myself, agreed with the preferred cupcake.  We also ranked each of the three bakes the same.  The winning butter, according to the three tasters, was from the Wensleydale creamery.  Second was President leaving the cheaper supermarket butter in last place.  That's a 60% agreement.  The other two tasters didn't notice any appreciable difference.  Clearly this is quite a subjective baking experiment and not everybody will agree with the outcome, but I feel that a 60% complete agreement is a result worth sharing.  The enhanced flavour may be more evident in pasties, particularly puff pastry, where the fat content is higher.     

Comparing butter flavour in cupcakes

The results of the side by side baking experiment

Although this side-by-side (by side) bake only looked at three contrasting butters, it is now clear from my perspective that a quality butter can bring enhanced flavour to a simple bake.  This said, as the winning Wensleydale Creamery butter is over 100% more expensive than the supermarket own butter I know I shalln't be using it every time I don my pinny, espcially as I usually bake around twice a week.  However, when I'm purchasing products to bake for a special occasion I now know that it is worth pushing the boat out to purchase a quality butter.

What I have learnt:

From the outset of undertaking this particular baking experiment, I have been quite surprised and this has led me to do a little internet surfing regarding the differences in butter. 

Differences in quality of butter

As soon as I peeled away the wrappers from the butter pats I noticed a marked difference between the three butter's colour.  The Wensleydale creamery butter was a beautiful deep creamy yellow colour whereas the French product was  incredibly pale.  The Asda own brand butter  also showed a nice creamy colour, though certainly not as deep as that from the creamery.  Wikipedia explains that butter's unmodified colour is dependent upon the animal's feed however it does go on to say that it is commonly manipulated with food colourings in the commercial manufacturing process, usually with annatto or carotine.   It is perhaps worth considering the fact that the Wensleydale creamery (the 'winner' of this baking comparison) is located in the Yorkshire Dales, where the rolling hills and lush green grass spread for miles.   An article entitled 'The Colour of Butter' written by Chefs Culinar explains this further.  The author explains that grass contains a lot of carotenoids, and as these caratenoids are fat soluble they are transferred to the milk fat and therefore the butter.    If the cows are fed concentrated feed and hay during the winter months and have little access to grass the resultant butter is far whiter in colour.   Although these colour manipulators aren't identified within the ingredients list, I am unsure if the manufacturer has a legal obligation to list them anyway.  It's interesting to see in the cupcake cross-section image that the sponge made from the Wensleydale butter actually shows a slightly deeper enriched colour than the other two bakes.  (I can confirm that the colour of the eggs - specifically the egg yolks - was the same in all three bakes).

Differences in the quality of butter

Moving on from the colour of the butter I then tried to find out why there are flavour differences between different butters.  Clearly what the cows are fed plays a significant role here, consider the flavour of corn fed chickens to that of mass produced birds.  Having come across  Challenge Dairy and Seasoned Advice I learnt that the butter's flavour develops from a number of other factors too:
  • The PH and acid values of the cream used can differ.
  • The butterfat level can differ slightly between different producers.  As the butter's colour is largely held in the fat it seems only logical that most of the flavour is held there too (ours were a minimum of 80% in the Asda butter, 82.2% in that from the  Wensleydale Creamery, and 82% in the President.  I popped into a local Aldi store and noted that the fat content of their butter (priced around 79p) was 83%!)   
  • A natural flavour is often added to unsalted cultured butters.
  • There are differences in how the butter is processed and preserved which is likely to also affect the flavour.

Having done this little side-by-side experiment, I can already see a few more are needed to be carried out regarding butter!

Do you have a preferred butter?

So let's get to it and bake! 

Victoria Sponge Cakes.     Yum

Victoria Spinge Cupcake Recipe
Yield: 3 muffin size cupcakes
Serves: 3
Difficulty: Easy 
Time: hands on time 20 minutes; plus 20 minutes bake time; cooling time.
Freezable: Yes, undecorated  

You will need:

Electric Hand Held Beater or WoodenSpoon
Spatula or large Metal Spoon
Muffin size Paper Cases
Muffin Baking Tray

For the sponge mixture
50g Unsalted Butter
25g Golden Caster Sugar
25g Caster Sugar
1 Egg, lightly beaten
50g SR Gluten Free Flour (or regular SR flour), sieved
1 tbsp milk

How to make them:
1.  Pre-heat the oven to 190c / Fan 170c / Gas 5.  Place the muffin cases into the muffin tray.

2.  Make the sponge.  Place the soft butter and sugars into a good sized bowl and beat together with a wooden spoon or electric beaters until very pale and fluffy.   Gradually add the beaten egg a little at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in the milk.  Sieve the flour into the mixture.  Use a spatula or large metal spoon fold this in gently.

3.  Fill the muffin cases.  Using a teaspoon, fill the cases with the batter mixture.  You're aiming for them to be half to two-thirds full.  You may decide to weigh each muffin to ensure equal sizes.  Each cupcake will weigh about 64g.

4.  Bake.  Place the muffin tray in the centre of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes.  You may need to rotate the tray after 15 minutes of baking.   Once baked, remove from the oven and place on a cooling tray.

5.  Decorate as desired.  Once the cupcake sponges are cold decorate your bake as desired, perhaps with a water icing, butter cream or a chocolate glaze.


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  1. This is really interesting! I've definitely heard that if you're going to splash out on one ingredient, it should be your butter - and that being said I plan to make banana bread tonight and have upgraded from Sainsbury's own to Lurpak for the occasion!

    Hannah :)

    1. Ooh that sounds like it'll be a tasty bake Hannah :-) I'm definitely going to be using slightly more expensive butters when I bake items for more special occasions.
      Thanks for your lovely comments Hannah,
      Angela x

  2. What an interesting experiment. I never realised there was so much difference between butters

    1. Nor I Alison, I honestly expected there to be very little difference in terms of flavour in the baked cakes. I was also amazed that there was a subtle colour difference in the sponge too.
      Thanks for popping by and commenting Alison,
      Angela x

  3. Loved this one Angela. I have to say I really notice the difference in things like this...a hangover from wine tasting days where I was tasting wines daily and sometimes focusing on minute differences. It has made me acutely aware of the quality of ingredients...which is not always a good thing for my bank balance!! I was really pleased that the local butter was the winner :-) Always nice to know that when you pay for quality you get quality and it's nice to support local businesses...I also worry about the prices we pay for the bottom of the range products - I wonder how much the farmer gets and when you hear of farmers going out of business because it's just not possible to produce the products at the prices they are expected to, it makes me sad. Obviously I understand that some people are struggling to make ends meet - but those of us who can I think should pay more. OK - I'll get off my soapbox now :-) Lovely cakes anyway - and once again a fabulous experiment! Can't wait for the next one!! :-) Eb x

    1. Thank you Eb :-)
      It really is sad isn't it Eb when farmers / producers are expected to produce good quality foods for a pittance. And if the item doesn't meet up to a supermarket's expectations they are thrown onto the compost pile because the supermarket seems to think (wrongly in most cases) that we want straight veg. I don't mind wonky veg in the slightest, it puts a smile on my face :-) At one of the big supermarkets the other day I came across 1KG bags of carrots for about 25p (and they were no where near their best before date either.) So, it is nice when it shows that the extra we pay does reflect in the product, and I too was happy when a relatively local dairy 'won' (are you not able to buy Wensleydale butter down where you are Eb?)
      I'll jump off the soap box too for the next person who may want it ;-)
      Thanks for popping by and leaving your lovely comment Eb,
      Angela x
      PS, I had to chuckle when you used the words 'hangover' and 'wine tasting' in the same sentence ;-)
      Angela x

    2. Haha - that pun was definitely not made consciously ;-) Do you know I have no idea whether I can get Wensleydale butter here - I live in Sussex. I will look out for it in the shops and if I find some I will give it my very own taste test! Eb x

    3. Hahaha, you tell me anything :-) It'd be such a shame if you can't get it down on Sussex especially with Wensleydale being such a 'big' name anyway....I'll get a larger jiffy bag and send you a block with a slice of the bundt cake ;-)
      Angela x

  4. Love this side by side experiment! I've always used 'cheap for cooking, quality for eating' as a mantra, but I'll take a step back and rethink this now! Especially in things like cakes and pastry like you said, where butter is an important flavour factor. I also smoke butter on wood for cooking - I'll need to spend a bit more on quality there as well I think! Thanks!

    1. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the flavour came through on the quality butters. I guess it's like cooking with wine, it is often said that we should cook with a wine that we would be happy to drink as the flavour comes through into the finished dish. I've never smoked butter on wood before for cooking - I'd love to hear about that Martin,
      Thanks for popping by and commenting,
      Angela x


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