Americans!” Jacques Pepin exclaims on the set of his PBS series. “You are terrified of using a tiny bit of butter in a dish but you’ll pour olive oil all over everything.”
Jacques Pepin—former personal chef to Charles DeGaulle, author of 24 books, beloved television personality—loves butter, a passion he shared with longtime pal Julia Child, with whom he received a 2001 Emmy Award for “Julia and Jacques Cook at Home.” When audiences ask him to describe the best meal he’s ever eaten, he will answer, “Certain tastes carry you back to your youth. I love very good bread with great butter. If you add a piece of saucisson, it is even better. But not just any butter will do.” Here are more of his thoughts on this childhood favorite and kitchen essential:
The Best Butter Regions: When I first came here [to the U.S.], all I could find that was any good was Land O’ Lakes unsalted butter. Now we have butter from Vermont, Ireland, France, Italy. Butters from Normandy and Brittany are extraordinary. We are producing better butter, too. Strauss, organic butter from the wine country, is very good. Per Se [in New York] uses butter from a woman in Vermont with a herd of six cows.
How to Make Butter: I put leftover cream in the food processor with two ice cubes—this helps move the process along—and before long the water separates and I have very fresh butter that tastes like milk, like cream.
Better Butter Makes Better Dishes: When finishing a sauce, the highest quality butter is best. When I finish caramel sauce with excellent butter the results are much different than when I use ordinary butter. The same is true with pastry. Butter is harder to work with than, say, lard because the molecules of lard make bigger flakes so it is easier to make uniformly flaky pastry quickly. You can add a bit of butter and make an excellent crust for something savory, for quiche, say, but if you use the same dough for a raspberry tart it will not be good. Butter is more delicate.
Salted or Unsalted? Butter should be unsalted. For pastry I don’t want salt. And salt is a preservative so unsalted butter is fresher. But if you’re not going to use butter quickly, keep it in the freezer and remove a cube or half cube at a time. If butter does begin to go rancid, you can scrape off the yellow part and use the interior.
On Butter Substitutes: I never ever use margarine. I do not like the taste. A better substitute is to take a cup of mild tasting oil, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in it and keep it in the refrigerator.
On Organic Butter: Anything organic is good. Yet the problem is that butter, for example, cannot be called organic unless the cows it comes from eat only certified organic food. The free-range chickens I get at my market cannot be called organic because all of their food is not certified organic. But this is a process. We are moving in the direction of organic and that is a good thing. I just turned 71 and my mother and father were organic farmers. Chemical fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, they did not exist. People farmed organically without knowing it.