by Paula Forbes
For the flakiest, most decadent baked goods, there’s just no substitute for real butter.
“It’s like buttah!”
On Saturday Night Live, Mike Myers’ oft-verklempt Coffee Talk host, Linda Richman, used that phrase to describe literally everything good in the world. It’s not every ingredient that inspires such passion. “Like cabbage” or “like peanut butter” just doesn’t have the same ring.
When I was growing up, butter definitely signified good times: The low-fat, low-cal 90s were heavy on margarine in my parents’ house, but special occasions and holidays called for the real deal. Thanksgiving was a riot of full-fat sweet cream butter—in the mashed potatoes, under the turkey skin, and best of all, in the piecrusts.
When it comes to baking, butter can play many roles. It’s a fat, obviously, that along with flour forms the texture of doughs and batters. In piecrusts, butter is responsible for the flakiness. In chocolate chip cookies, butter teams up with brown sugar to add chew. Once you get into more advanced pastries, butter is used in laminated doughs—that is, dough that’s layered with butter and rolled thin before baking. Lamination is what gives croissants their signature layers and puts the “Cro” in Cronut.
Butter can add flavor as well—particularly browned butter—and when melted and brushed on dough before baking, it turns the surface of pastries and breads golden brown. It makes lemon curd luscious and caramel glisten. Butter forms the body of buttercream frosting, giving it that luxurious texture.
There is a great fat debate when it comes to piecrusts. Lard receives accolades, sure, and a lard crust can be a bit easier to work with. Shortening is even easier to work with. But, as cookbook author Dorie Greenspan asserts in her beloved book Baking, “There is no substitute for butter.” Those who have the patience for an all-butter pie dough will be rewarded with a tender, flaky crust. Luckily for those who don’t, though, many cookbooks recommend a combination of butter and either lard or shortening to combine flavor, flakiness, and ease of use.
One drawback? Doughs and batters that use butter can turn out somewhat wooden if overworked. To help ensure flaky, tender pastries, I like to use a high-end European-style butter. These have a lower water content and, more importantly, a higher percentage of butterfat. That extra bit of richness can help create better flakiness and more layers, especially when working with laminated doughs. Fair warning: European butters use cultured milk, which can often result in a slight tang in the finished product. Some people enjoy the added flavor, but if you’re not one of them, a good-quality American butter works great, too.