A reconstruction of a 19th century Christmas buffet table
A reconstruction, at Skansen, of a 19th century julbord (Christmas buffet)

I learnt a lot about butter from an interesting guide at Skansen, Stockholm's impressive large open-air museum. Butter has long been popular in Sweden, but at one time it was an expensive treat reserved for special occasions, such as for the julbord (Christmas buffet). It was often the centre-piece of the table, as shown in the photo above, sitting under the candles.

Butter exporters

Making and keeping good quality butter in the days before refridgerators and freezers was a very skilled job. Swedes obtained a good reputation for their butter, partly because their cool climate made keeping the butter much easier, and so they were even exporting butter as far back as the 12th century.

To preserve the butter a large amount of salt was added, so before the butter could be used the salt on the surface had to be washed off. (Selling butter that was unfit for human consumption was a serious criminal offence.)

Butter consumption increasing

Although butter consumption in Sweden declined significantly during the 1990s it has more than doubled in the last 10 years. So far, there have been no reports of any increase in heart disease. Indeed some people claim that Swedes are becoming healthier because they are eating more butter!

Butter is normally salted in Sweden

A pack of Swedish salted butter

These days salt is added to butter to lengthen its shelf-life, from three months to five months, but also because many people prefer the taste of lightly salted butter. Most butter sold in Sweden is therefore lightly salted. Typically it has about 1.2% salt, a level similar to salted butter in the UK.

Unsalted butter in Sweden

A pack of unsalted butter in Sweden

Unsalted(sweet) butter is available in Sweden, but it is less common than in the UK. Indeed, in more remote areas it is not available at all.

Advantages of using unsalted butter

In the UK, professional pastry chefs generally prefer to use unsalted (sweet) butter because:

• they want to have complete control over the amount of salt,
• the salt is said to toughen the gluten in flour,
• salted butter often has a yellow colouring (Annatto) which may not be desired.

Some people say that unsalted is said to have a fresher taste, but the taste is more related to the quality of the butter than whether it has salt in or not.

For home baking there really isn't much difference! I think very few people would be able to tell the difference if you used salted butter instead of unsalted. However, if you substitute salted butter for unsalted (sweeet) you should reduce the amount of salt added to the recipe very slightly.

Temperature of the butter

Far more important than whether the butter is salted or not is the temperature of the butter. If you’re baking cakes or biscuits (cookies) you require butter at room temperature, but it should not be too soft because then the biscuits will spread too much and the cakes won't rise enough.

For shortcrust pastries cold butter is normally necessary because if you use butter that is at room temperature the pastry will become greasy and hard, rather than light and crispy.

John Duxbury



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