Got Butter?

Churning out creamy goodness in Hope, Minnesota

Many, many years ago (back when you could smoke in restaurants), my grandmother gave us "sugar-butter bread" (white bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with sugar) for after-school treats. Those days, butter ran in rivulets down our mashed-potato volcanoes, dripped off our chins as we ate corn on the cob. It was delivered to the back door in wax-paper-wrapped pound blocks along with squat, wide-mouthed bottles of milk capped with an inch of cream. Melted butter was our dip for blanched asparagus and steamed lobster. As Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen says, butter is a sauce in itself, needing no embellishments.

The saucy workhorse essentially comes in two varieties: salted and unsalted. In the days before refrigeration, salt was added to keep the butter from going bad; today it's added for flavor. Unsalted, or European-style, butter derives its classic tangy taste from the addition of a culture, which is much like the starter used to make sourdough bread.

And, if you've been buying butter only from grocery stores, you might think that's all there is. Sure, there are expensive imports (Kerrygold from Ireland, for example, and European-style Plugra) and artisan butters from small American companies (such as Vermont Butter and Cheese Company)for about $5 to $6 a pound. Delicious, but not what I scramble eggs in. More pedestrian domestic brands (Land O'Lakes, Crystal Farms) are priced between $2.50 and $4.50 a pound; butter from large organic producers (Organic Valley and Horizon) costs a little more. All are consistent but unremarkable.

Then there's Hope butter. Made with fresh cream in relatively small batches in Hope, Minnesota (an hour or so south of the Twin Cities), it's "about the best in the country, certainly on a par with the imports," raves Julie Bloor, chef and forager at Uptown Minneapolis's Lucia's Restaurant. It's also moderately priced, close to the commercial brands.

Bloor discovered Hope butter last year when she decided to sharpen her focus on local products. She combed the surrounding area by making calls and following leads, and finally connected with Victor Mrotz, who had purchased Hope Creamery in December 2000. At a tasting of 32 different domestic and imported butters done by Lucia's chefs and invited tasters, Hope Creamery butter won, hands down. Bloor spread the word, and chefs at Restaurant Alma, Birchwood Café, W.A. Frost, and the Wedge deli, to name a few, began using it in their kitchens and serving it in breadbaskets. Before long, retailers were stocking it on their shelves.

Hope's operation is tiny compared with that of corporate giants. It processes about 5,000 pounds of butter per day, two days a month, using local cream from Bongard's Dairy (about 45 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities). Large operations such as Land O'Lakes or CROPP (which manufactures Organic Valley butter) can make 400,000 to a million pounds of butter a day with cream trucked in from thousands of miles away. Hope vat-pasteurizes the cream slowly and gently; large operations flash-pasteurize using high temperatures, which can often burn off nuances in the cream's flavor.

Gene Kruckeberg, who started working at the Hope Creamery in 1964, makes the butter, checking its quality throughout the entire process. The cream is piped into a huge stainless-steel vat and pasteurized over rotating steam-heated coils. Cold well water is then pumped through these coils to cool the cream before it's piped into a 900-gallon cylinder tank. This churn revolves quickly at first, then gradually slows as small kernels of butter begin to separate out and clump together into marble-size wads floating in buttermilk, which is nothing like the yogurt-thick stuff in the dairy case. (I filled a glass with it as it gushed from the churn into a large steel trough. Thin as skim milk, it was frigid and fresh.) Sadly, it's too much of a hassle to market, because of strict USDA guidelines governing equipment and bottling, so it is dried and sold to animal-feed manufacturers.

A small window in the big churn allows Kruckeberg to monitor the process; he watches for visual cues and listens to how the gathering mass hits the sides of the churn. The white sloshing foam becomes a thick, pale-yellow silt and coats the glass. Before the butter becomes solid, cold water is piped in to wash out the milk solids. Attention to this step is critical, because the fewer milk solids (those white particles that float to the top of melted butter), the better it will taste, and the less likely it will burn in a sauté. Hope butter is known for being especially "clean."

Kruckeberg then tests the butter's milk-fat content. To begin, he removes a small tin cupful of butter and weighs it on an antique scale. He then melts the butter in the same cup with a blowtorch to boil off the water, weighs the cup of clarified butter, and calculates the result, aiming for a little over the standard 80 percent. If it's too low (and the butter is too moist), he'll keep it churning. (Hope also makes a super-rich, 85 percent milk-fat butter for commercial bakers to use in croissants, scones, and pound cakes.) Once satisfied with the results, Kruckeberg adds the culture or salt or chives, depending on what type of butter is being made.

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