Butter is butter, right? Not anymore. Today there's cultured butter, premium butter, pasture butter. There's hand-rolled, farmhouse seasonal butter. Like beer, cheese and chocolate, America's preeminent bread-topper has gone all descriptive and artisanal on us. So how to navigate the maze of adjectives?
First things first. There are two major categories of butter: uncultured (better known as sweet cream) and cultured (sometimes called ripened). "Regular" butter - the type you're likely to be used to - is uncultured; it's made from simple pasteurized cream and has a sweet, neutral flavor. Salt is typically added as a taste enhancer and/or preservative. Too much salt, though, can overcome delicate dairy flavor or mask the off-putting taste of old butter.
When diners use butter on bread or vegetables, they tend to prefer it salted; cooks and bakers, though, go for unsalted for its classic neutrality and so they can control the amount of salt in their recipes.
Cultured butter has beneficial microorganisms - yes, bacteria - added to it; these ferment and ripen the cream, converting its sugars to lactic acid and giving the butter some tanginess. Put a cultured butter head-to-head against an uncultured one and you might say it has more dimension and depth. Aficionados also laud the fact that it's easier to digest. Like "regular" butter, cultured butter may come salted or unsalted.
Confused yet? Just wait. Both basic butter types may also be premium (sometimes called European-style), meaning the butterfat content is higher than 80%. This is the darling of sauce- and pastry-makers, for the lower moisture of premium butters yields silkier sauce and flakier crusts.
Butter may be organic, and it may also be pasture butter, the kind made from the milk of cows that have fed on grass, not grain (as bovines are physiologically meant to do). This stuff is rich in antioxidants like beta-carotene, and has high levels of CLA and a beneficial balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. Its more complex flavor expresses terroir: the breed of cow, the type of soil and forage, the weather that produced its feed, etc.
Then there are local or regional specialty butters, sometimes made in small batches at family-owned creameries and cooperatives. Among the types in Wisconsin are Alcam Creamery's hand-rolled butter; Nordic Creamery's seasonal butters; Mt. Sterling Cooperative's goat's milk butter; Organic Valley's pasture butter; and Grassland Butter's premium Wüthrich brand.
In all, there's a lot of righteous butter out there these days. Which is the very best? That's easy: homemade butter, an easy-to-do-it-yourself thrill with incomparably fresh flavor and lush, creamy mouth-feel. The web is slathered with sites that detail how to do this, but there's really no need for a guide. In fact, if you can overwhip cream, you can make butter, because that's what it is: cream that has been agitated enough to separate the liquid (buttermilk) from the solids (butterfat).
Start with pure heavy cream (don't get ultrapasteurized; it doesn't taste as good or whip as well, and the nutrients have been compromised). Bring it to room temperature. Whip it with handheld electric beaters or in a standup mixer, thrash it in a food processor, or shake it in a jar (naturally, this will take longest). Work the cream well past the stiff-peak stage until bits of butter form and are throwing off liquid. Keep going until larger blobs of butter appear, coalesce and are no longer throwing off milk. Drain off the liquid - drink this or use it in a recipe - and behold! You have butter. Try not to eat it all in one sitting.
To help it keep longer, rinse your butter with cold water, drain it and squeeze out more liquid. Pat it dry with paper towels and store it airtight.