Clarifying the Butter Fat From the Facts

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In case you haven’t heard: Butter is amazing.

In this hyper-conscious, borderline spiritual time of eating local foods with buzzwords like “artisan” and “hand-crafted” on every label, it makes sense we’d return to eating the kind of butter our great-grandmothers churned in buckets. It’s thick, pale yellow, has the texture of … well, butter. It is nothing short of spectacular.

“Butter is the best,” says Jessica Sullivan, chef instructor at San Francisco Cooking School. “It piques all of your senses when you eat it. But like all good stuff, it’s about moderation.”

In the ‘70s, people associated a link to foods high in saturated fat as the cause of high cholesterol and heart disease, and experts touted a low-fat diet as the only way to stay lean and healthy. Over the next four decades, the opposite proved true as the rates of obesity and diabetes surged. In 2016, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said definitively that the low-fat/high-carb diet that Americans had been advised to eat for the last 40 years was wrong. Even harder to swallow, the things we had been substituting for butter were actually worse for us.  

“People thought margarine was ‘better’ because it had trans fats—liquid oils that are processed to make them solid—and no cholesterol,” said Wanda Siu-Chan, RD. “We now know trans fats are even worse than saturated fats, and the amount of cholesterol we eat has little effect on the cholesterol level in our blood.”

This means that butter is back in style. A diet with a moderate amount of fat — and we’re talking real fat, the yummy, creamy, incredibly delicious kind — is actually the healthier choice.


READ MORE > 19 SOURCES OF HEALTHY FATS


Butter has no mysterious ingredients. Unlike margarine, there’s no processing or funky additives involved in its production. Let’s be clear, butter won’t ever be considered a “health food,” but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unhealthy. Butter naturally contains small amounts of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, as well as a touch of iodine, potassium and calcium. But it’s still a fat and therefore highly caloric.

“I don’t believe we should eat foods only because of their nutrition,” says Siu-Chan. “Food should also taste good and satisfy the soul. That doesn’t mean that you should have three scoops of butter on your baked potato or pancakes, but a small amount of butter for flavor goes a long way.”

This means that a thin pat of butter on your morning oatmeal or a modest amount dotted onto steamed vegetables is totally OK. Better than OK, it’s an easy way to turn a simple meal into something plate-scraping delicious. Of course, this rule only applies if you’re being thoughtful with your food choices the rest of the day.

If you haven’t had butter in a while, let’s revisit why it’s so friggin’ delicious: Fat has a creamy and luscious texture that melts and then coats the tongue like silk. In its freshest, purest form, it also has a naturally sweet flavor but takes on a nutty element when cooked as the milk solids start to toast. Sure, there are plenty of butter substitutes out there these days like coconut oil or avocado oil, but those still have lots of calories and a flavor profile you may not want on your popcorn.

“I cook with olive oil and coconut oil and love those flavors,” says Sullivan, “but they really do stand out in the food. Butter enhances and adds to the flavors you are already cooking with without completely taking over.”


READ MORE > 7 HEALTHY RECIPES FEATURING AVOCADO OIL


For an even more subtle flavor, turn to clarified butter, also known as ghee. It’s butter from which the milk solids have been removed, resulting in an almost pure, silky fat with a smooth, clean flavor. The trend of stirring ghee into everything (including coffee) means it’s available in stores, but it’s also easy to make yourself: in a medium saucepan melt at least 1 stick of butter over medium heat, skim off and discard any white foam that forms on top, remove from the heat and let it settle for a few minutes, then pour the golden liquid into a clean container, discarding any white sediment that settled on the bottom. Cover, chill and use just like butter. Without the milk solids, it has a higher smoking point and can be cooked at higher temperatures without burning.

So go ahead. Spread some of that local, artisan, fresh-from-the-cow-out-back-eating-grass butter on your toast. It’s never been more hip or better for you. And it’s always been delicious.

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