The Truth About French Butter

When you think of iconic French things to eat, what comes to mind?  Maybe you’d say croissants, baguettes, cheese, wine, pastries, coq au vin …. But did you think “butter” ?

For some people, French butter is a rich, delicious treat. And the more you think about it, butter is a major ingredient in a lot of French food – for example, those croissants I mentioned. But while French butter may be prized by chefs, bakers, and dairy fans in general, there’s something you may not know about its role in France. Let’s take a look at French butter and what French people really think about it.

How do you say “butter” in French?

First thing’s first. If we’re going to talk about butter in France, let’s learn or review how to say “butter” in French. The French word for butter is le beurre.  No, that’s not a typo; despite the double letters and “e” at the end, it’s a masculine word.

The regular -er verb beurrer is the French verb for “to butter”. For example : Sylvie a beurré un morceau de baguette. (Sylvie buttered a piece of baguette.)

To say “with butter” or “cooked or baked with butter”, use the preposition au. Example: un croissant au beurre (a croissant made the traditional way, with butter (as opposed to margarine (croissant ordinaire) or another alternative, or flavored with something).

What is French butter?

I have to admit, although I’ve lived in France for  more than a decade, when I came upon the term “French butter”, I was a bit surprised. The butter here – yellow-colored, made from cows’ milk – is the same as the butter in other countries I’ve been to, including the United States, where I grew up.  The taste also seems the same. So what was I missing?

It turns out that those who are really into butter – chefs, bakers, foodies, and so on – find that French butter is richer and more flavorful than other butters out there. The main reason is that while butter in many other countries usually contains about 80% fat, French butters contain up to 87%.  Fat is generally seen as a bad thing, but let’s face it – not when it comes to flavor!

Additionally, some French butters, like the Échiré brand, which is widely considered France’s best butter, are also made a bit differently from other butters. They have special bacterial cultures added to them, which, again, adds to their flavor.

What kinds of butter are there in France?

Many regions in France produce butter, but the three most famous are Bretagne (Brittany), Poitou-Charentes, and the area around the town of Isigny-sur-Mer.

With its close ties to the sea, it’s not surprising that Bretagne’s butter is typically salted. On the other hand, Poitou-Charentes butter usually isn’t.

Salted butter

Called beurre salé or, if it’s lightly salted, beurre demi-sel.

Unsalted butter

Called beurre doux, but is often referred to as, simply, beurre.

Le beurre d’Isigny

The third famous French butter-producing site is the area around the town of Isigny-sur-Mer, in Normandy. Le beurre d’Isigny has a special production process and an AOC label, which means it follows strictly controlled standards and can only come from that particular region. Beurre d’Isigny has a good reputation for its taste and is often the most high-end butter you’ll find on a small grocery store’s shelf. It can be doux or salé, although the percentage of salt is strictly controlled.

Salted and unsalted butter are the two main ways to categorize butter in France, but as with most kinds of French food, there are additional details that can sometimes make a big difference.

Other types of butter

le beurre gastronomique: gourmet butter

From what I understand, this is one of those terms, like “deluxe”, that means the opposite of what it’s supposed to. You’ll find many industrial, mass-produced (but still perfectly delicious and popular) French butters that have “beurre gastronmique” on the label, but as far as I can tell, the high-end French butters with the best reputations are never labeled this way.

le beurre cru/le beurre baratté

As the term “beurre cru” (literally: “raw butter”) signifies, these kinds of butter are made with unpasteurized cream. 

As with unpasteurized cheese, this means they’re richer in taste, but it also means that if you have health issues, are pregnant, or if you’re a very young (precocious) child reading this, you should probably avoid them.

le beurre extra-finbutter made with pasteurized cream that hasn’t been frozen or refrigerated

le beurre fin – butter that can contain up to 30% of refrigerated or frozen, pasteurized cream

le beurre bio – organic butter

le beurre allégé – This ‘lightened butter’ is only(!) 60-65% fat.

demi beurre –“Half butter” has only 39-41% fat.

Because beurre allégé and demi beurre‘s fat content is lower than average, these light butters won’t have as strong a taste. Among other things, this means that the French will never use them in cooking or baking. These butters are almost always made with pasteurized cream. They’re also usually mass-produced.

You can read about other, less common types of French butter here and here.

And if you love to cook or bake and want to know some specific French butter terms for cooking, this list is really helpful (look under the “Usages gastronomiques” section).

Does French butter really taste better?

Although I eat French butter on the regular, I have to admit I’d never tried – let alone heard of – high-end brands like Bordier and Échiré. Neither had many of my French friends, acquaintances, and family members, for that matter. So, in the interest of proper journalism, I went to my local grande surface (big supermarket) and bought some.

I was expecting to be utterly blown away by this next-level butter, but in reality, while the block of Échiré stayed pleasantly soft despite being refrigerated, it tasted similar to most other butters I’ve had; it was just ever so slightly creamier. Échiré butter is definitely enjoyable to eat, but unless you’re a huge butter fan or work in the food industry, you’ll probably enjoy a more popular, cheaper brand like Président, just as much.  In fact, as these culinary bloggers’ taste tests of international butter shows, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Culinary writer Luisa Weiss also claims that there’s not a huge difference between butters, and encourages amateur American cooks and bakers to continue to try French recipes, whether they’re using French butter or have to settle for what they have at home. The only difference that she points out is the texture. American butter, Weiss says, is firmer, while French butters tend to be more “malleable”. Being familiar with butter from both countries, I concur.

French expressions with butter

Now that we’ve learned the French butter basics, here are some common butter-related French expressions.

une tartine de beurre or une tartine beurrée – buttered bread/toast.

un couteau à beurre – a butter knife.

un fil à couper le beurre – butter cutter wire (a thin, stiff wire that easily slices through butter). There are industrial models as well as ones for the average household. Interestingly, the expression ne pas avoir inventé le fil à couper le beurre  means someone’s not very bright. Ex: Je ne comprends pas comment Serge arrive toujours à perdre notre fil à couper le beurre ! – Eh ben, c’est normal ; après tout, il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre.

un œil au beurre noir – a black eye. This literally translates to “a black butter eye”.  Like many of the French people I’ve asked, I always assumed the expression had something to do with trying to soothe a black eye with butter – not so far-fetched when you think that butter was used as a cosmetic in Ancient Rome! But it turns out that the expression refers to a cooking term. Beurre noir is butter that’s been heated until it turns brown.  When you look at photos of beurre noir, you can see that it does sort of look like the color of a healing black eye.

beurré(e) – drunk, plastered.

mettre du beurre dans les épinards – to earn some extra money. This expression translates to “to put some butter in the spinach” – basically, you’re adding something a bit extra to something mundane (and seeing how gross cooked spinach is on its own, that is definitely a good thing!).

compter pour du beurre – to not count for anything. Unlike in the previous example, here, butter seems like a negligible thing. Ex: Elle l’aime de tout son cœur, mais pour lui, elle compte pour du beurre. (She loves him with all her heart, but for him she’s worthless.)

une galette pur beurre – a butter cookie. The use of galette instead of biscuit usually signifies that these cookies come from the Bretagne (Brittany) region.

une motte de beurre – a mound of butter.  French butter isn’t sold in sticks. Most high-end or specialty butters are packaged in roundish, somewhat hard mounds.

une plaquette de beurre – the closest thing to a stick of butter in France, this is a thick or thin, somewhat hard rectangle shape.

une noix de beurre – a small portion or pat of butter.

un Petit Beurre – a famous type of butter cookie. You can read more about them in my article on French cookies.

You can find more French “butter” vocabulary and expressions on this WordReference  list.

Types of non-dairy butter in French

As in English, in French, the word “butter” can also be used as a way to describe the texture of non-dairy items. For example:

le beurre de cacahuète – peanut butter  Note that unlike Americans, most French people find peanut butter a novelty and don’t particularly like it.

le beurre de cacao – cocoa butter

le beurre de karité – shea butter

Do the French eat a lot of butter?

There’s something called “the French paradox”  – that is, the French can eat food that’s high in fat, but their population still has a low obesity rate. This might seem even truer when you realize that France is the country that consumes the most butter in the entire world.

Most recent surveys estimate that the average French person consumes 8.2 kilos (18 pounds) of butter per year! This puts them far ahead of other leading butter-consuming countries; the runner-up, Denmark’s, per capita butter consumption is 6.4 kilos (14 lbs.) per person.

More surprising still: This number is actually down a few decimal points from previous years!  The French press has recently been proclaiming that the French are consuming less butter. The main reasons seem to be health- and weight -related, as well as a price increase on this delectable dairy item.

How do the French eat butter?

So, now we know that the French have what many consider the best-tasting butter in the world. They also consume the most butter out of every country in the world. But here’s another surprising fact: The French probably don’t eat butter the way you think.

Many French meals involve butter, whether you’re talking about it as a cooked or baked-in ingredient in things like pastries and viennoiseries, as an ingredient or base in sauces, or simply as a way to add a little additional flavor or texture.

One traditional French meal that you may or may not associate with butter, but that would be nothing without it, is escargots. If you’ve never had them, you may be surprised to learn that the snail part is actually not the biggest deal in this dish. The snails themselves are small and squishy, a bit like mushrooms, to me. But they’re served in persillade – melted butter with garlic, salt, and parsley added. According to this site, the iconic meal is made up of 50% snails and 50% sauce.

Another typical French meal uses butter in a different but extremely typical way. Le jambon-beurre (literally, ham-butter) is an iconic French sandwich, and is especially associated with Paris. The sandwich’s essential ingredients are simple: a few slices of ham on a buttered baguette.  From there, you can add whatever garnishes you like. But if you don’t like butter with your ham sandwich, you’re going to have a tough time in France; butter is always a part of a ham sandwich here, and if you ask the person making it not to butter the bread, they look at you like they think you’re crazy!

To me, le jambon-beurre is key to understanding the French relationship to butter. Some countries and cultures enjoy butter in its own right. For example, as an American, it’s perfectly normal to me to eat bread or toast with butter on it and nothing else. But this is a strange sight for most French people I know. 

Statistics show that a majority of French people eat bread and butter as part of their breakfast . But “bread and butter” doesn’t mean the same thing to most French people. As with a jambon-beurre, the butter usually serves as a way to enhance or compliment the taste of something else – for example, jam, which is spread on top of the butter.

When I shared this observation with my French brother-in-law, he laughed and said, “That’s not true – of course I eat bread and butter!” He continued to spread butter on the piece of baguette in his hand…and then salted it and added some raw radishes to it.

In French restaurants, it’s very, very unusual to be served butter with a bread  basket. If you are given butter, it’s either because you’re in an area where there are a lot of tourists who ask for it, or because you’re about to be served an appetizer or meal that typically involves butter – for example, a charcuterie plate (again, think of the jambon-beurre; French people usually like to have some butter on the bread they eat cold cuts with).

If you have a meal at a French person’s house, the same rule will probably hold true. There’s likely to be a baguette involved, but you’ll normally eat it alongside the rest of your food, not separately with butter.

What it comes down to is this, as cook and writer David Lebovitz so perfectly puts it: “Bread is meant to accompany a meal and sop up sauce, it’s not a separate course.”

When you’re in France, think of bread as a base, the way pasta or rice are for other cultures. It’s used to add substance to a meal, to absorb or compliment other ingredients. There’s no need for butter in that case.

So, here’s the truth about French butter: Even though it’s supposed to be the most flavorful in the world, most French people don’t eat it on its own!

This also means that, despite its stellar international reputation, while most French people appreciate good butter, it’s hardly as revered as another famous French dairy product, cheese. Most French people eat butter – and a lot of it – but it’s just an accompaniment for other things, although with maybe slightly more prestige than most.

Should you eat bread and butter when you’re in France?

If you come to France and want to try some of this famous, delicious butter on a baguette, with nothing else, go for it!  I certainly do – all the time. Often, while my French husband has his cookies and coffee and my Franco-American son eats his pastry or cereal at breakfast, I indulge in a little bit of toasted baguette with butter on it. My son shrugs, my husband looks at me like he’ll just never understand – and he won’t, the same way I’ll never like the slimy texture of butter and sliced ham together. But I’m certainly allowed to have my bread and French butter on its own.

On the other hand, if I’m at a restaurant in France, I would never expect or ask for butter to be served with the bread; I know that in most cases, it’s simply not done. And honestly, with all of the sauces and flavorful food here, I don’t really find myself wanting butter when I eat lunch or dinner in France.

So all of that to say, do what you want when it comes to French butter, but don’t expect French people to get it, or to serve you butter with your bread!

Where can you buy French butter?

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find several varieties of French butter at a supermarket or specialty shop. You can also do an online search for a particular brand of French butter — for example, “Where can I buy Échiré butter in [your country of residence]?”. 

You may also be able to buy French butter online, whether through a brand’s official website, or through vendors. and, for instance, sell at least one type of Président brand butter.

If you’re the ambitious sort, you may even be able to make your own French-style butter!  Just do an online search for “French butter recipe”.

I wish I could end this article by handing out sample pats of French butter. Since I can’t do that, I’ll suggest a feast for the eyes: Antoine Vollon’s glorious late-19th century painting Motte de beurre(“Mound of Butter”). Look at that rich yellow color and creamy texture, and you can almost taste real French butter!

Have you ever eaten French butter before? Do you think it’s as good as everyone says? What’s your favorite way to eat French butter?  Feel free to share your butter-based thoughts in the comments!

Photo 1 by bit245 via Depositphotos; Photo 2 by dmyrto_Z via Depositphotos; Photo 3 by akinshin via Depositphotos; Photo 4 by DimitryPoch via Depositphotos; Photo 5 by Jez Timms on Unsplash; Photo 6 by Mario Mesaglio on Unsplash

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.